Rabbi Akiva taught that all the Bible’s songs are holy, and Song of Songs is the holy of holies. I have always understood this to mean that Song of Songs corresponds to the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, where only the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement. Holiness is synonymous with intimacy; that is what Song of Songs tells us, in a way unique among the books of Jewish Scripture.
If poetry can be defined as that which eludes the net of prose paraphrase, Song of Songs is perhaps the most poetic book of the Bible. And if exegesis always risks losing the poetry in explication, Song of Songs is where the exegesis is most liable to fall short. For Jews, Song of Songs is not only an object of study, like any other book of the Bible. It is read in public during Passover, the season of Israel’s birth. Open a standard prayer book, and there it appears—Shir haShirim, Song of Songs—just before the Friday evening liturgy. Prior to assembling at the synagogue for the prayers that usher in the Sabbath, Jews are invited to prepare by reciting it quietly, in their inner sanctum.
The great medieval Jewish commentaries bequeathed to us two models for interpreting Song of Songs. The first is more familiar, partly because it is found in the easily accessible commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. This model reads the poem as a rendering of Jewish sacred history, from Exodus through Exile. The male Lover is thus God, and the female beloved is Israel.
The second model, championed by medieval and early modern philosophical and mystical writers, perceives in Song of Songs an allegory not for the people so much as for the individual on a spiritual journey. This approach is less popular, and its most influential exponent, Maimonides, presented his approach only in passing. His time-bound mix of Aristotelian philosophy and medieval mysticism, moreover, tends to obscure the existential dimensions of the interpretation and distance it from the common reader.
So how, on the Sabbath’s eve, is Shir haShirim read by a Jew who has, for the moment, set aside his worldly preoccupations and even his intellectual pursuits? For the most part, we are taciturn about our private worlds, our personal reflections not recorded for scholarly examination. For that matter, the persistent elitism of our theological academies ensures that this inner experience receives little notice. If the common reader turns to a commentary, it is likely to be Rashi’s. Yet our thoughts are unlikely to follow any commentator’s exegesis of the biblical verse. It is as if the religious sensibility that accompanies the unselfconscious Friday-afternoon reader is incompatible, at that moment, with the elaborate intellectual constructions of the commentaries.
A truly adequate exegesis of Song of Songs cannot ignore that religious reader—the one whose engagement is compatible with, but not determined by, such intellectual sophistication as he possesses. An adequate exegesis would have to engage the gap between the tacit experience of the Friday reading and the philological and theological attempts to paraphrase the text. It would have to comprehend both the ordinary reader’s experience and the erudite theologian’s knowledge.
In such situations the deeper understanding often requires a deeper naivete.
One reason for the gap between the Sabbath-eve Jew and the learned commentators is that allegorical reading, as we typically conceive it, contains a profoundly alienating element. To allegorize is to replace the manifest content with another content. And if the former is a detour on the way to the latter, then why make the detour at all?
An anonymous late medieval writer makes this argument against Ibn Ezra. Assume, he suggests, that Song of Songs is indeed an esoteric work, expressing ideas too intimate for straightforward discourse. Assume further, adopting Ibn Ezra’s model, that these ideas are bound up with the trajectory of Jewish sacred history, which means that a particular passage in Song of Songs really refers to the giving of the Torah or to the incident of the golden calf.
The consequence is that Song of Songs is essentially a repackaging, a poetic paraphrase, of the Exodus prose. And what have we gained by it? If the ideas in Exodus are accessible, why are we told that they are so mysterious as to require the trappings of poetic allegory? If they are so esoteric that only the veiled language of Shir haShirim can communicate them, why is it that the most sophisticated reading turns them back into straightforward prose?
The classic medieval approaches identified the figurative religious reading of Song of Songs with some form of allegory, providing a one-to-one correspondence between the poetry and what it signifies. Given the prevalence of this orientation, one tends to assume that the earlier rabbinic understanding of Song of Songs was essentially an anticipation of the medieval schools. Such backward projection of the familiar medieval model, however, has fallen out of favor in academic circles today. If the earlier rabbis did not fulfill the allegorical project, perhaps that is because they never attempted it. Associating events of sacred history with biblical verses is exactly what those rabbis did everywhere in their readings—whether Song of Songs or Psalms, Proverbs, or Job. This is the ordinary way of midrash, not some extraordinary method reserved for allegorical texts.
If this modern scholarly insight is correct, it brings the earliest traditions of rabbinic interpretation of Shir haShirim closer to the mind of the unsystematic Friday-afternoon Jew. To be sure, the Bible contains quite a few parables, some of them, such as Ezekiel 17 and 19, detailed in their allusions. Figurative language is a vital feature of the biblical message. The relationship of God and Israel is often presented as that of father and child, and even more frequently and dramatically as that of man and wife. Hosea 1–3 is probably the best-known presentation of Israel as an unfaithful woman. Jeremiah 3 compares her to a woman worthy of divorce. Several chapters in Ezekiel (16 and 23, for example) develop this theme furiously.
At the beginning of Jeremiah 2, by contrast, God recalls “the graciousness of your youth,” when the people followed Him to the desert, the unsown land. In the later chapters of Isaiah, Zion is an abandoned woman who is restored. These images are unmistakably figurative, while the extended passages in Hosea and Ezekiel could be classified as allegorical. The poetry of Song of Songs fits perfectly within this literary convention of intensely figurative religious discourse, but that does not require us to interpret it as allegory in the strict sense.
There is an even deeper objection: Is the whole idea of allegory, in its classical sense, alien to biblical discourse? The Hellenistic world contained a glaring disparity between the stories of the gods in Homer and the other poets and the rationalism of Plato and the other philosophers. Allegorical interpretation, for the Greeks, is born when the popular religious tales, undignified and unenlightening, are rescued from their vulgarity by reinterpreting them as something completely different. If poetry contains truth, the poets—the philosophers claimed—must be referring to the same truths as the philosophers, and the poetic texts thus require a one-to-one correspondence between the manifest content and its esoteric referent.
If the Hebrew Bible does not suffer the same rationalizing pressure, it does not require the allegorical machinery needed by Greek culture in late antiquity. Rashi’s commentary leans heavily on rabbinic midrash and sustains much of its flavor. The result, however, is a consecutive allegorical reading that departs significantly from the approach of his predecessors. The poetry is refracted through the prism of sacred history in one systematic account; the earlier midrash reveals not a continuous allegorical story but kaleidoscopic glimmers of allusion.
If the medieval exegete following Rashi or Ibn Ezra is vulnerable to the paradox of allegory—the duplication in obscure imagery of themes available in everyday paraphrase—the Sabbath-eve celebrant is not. To that extent, the ordinary observant Jew is closer in spirit to the philosophical approach of Maimonides and his followers.
Two crucial differences remain, however. First, the unsophisticated worshipper is even less captive to Maimonides’ mystical terminology than he is to the historical contours of Rashi or Ibn Ezra’s interpretations. And, second, the unsophisticated worshipper preserves a communal framework absent from the philosopher’s perspective. The book he is reading is not merely about the religious experience of the individual in general. It speaks of the life of a particular people summoned by God—a community marked by its unique collective commitment and, on Friday afternoon, anticipating an equally unique day devoted to her Beloved. Where allegorizing alienates, spirit becomes tangible in the flesh-and-blood people of Israel.
One obviously significant element in the poetry of Song of Songs goes far beyond the prose interpretations that traditional allegories construct. Consider that in biblical law, narrative, and prophecy, the dominant voice is God’s. The divine voice commands, creates, and judges. Occasionally the prophet, speaking for God, quotes Israel’s response. Such evocations, however, do not predominate or set the tone.
Contrast that with Song of Songs. Exodus and Deuteronomy report that Israel at Sinai was overwhelmed by the divine revelation: The people feared God, and they retreated from His presence. These are strong descriptions from the outside. Song of Songs declares, “My soul left me when He spoke” (5:6). Yes, the sentiment is compatible with fear and the physical gesture of withdrawal—and it should not be surprising that one Talmudic interpretation employs this verse to gloss the experience of Sinai. The sense of faintness, or of the heart skipping a beat, adds poignant shading to the notion of fear.
What makes Shir haShirim unique within the canon, however, is not just that its figurative language gives nuance to what is stated prosaically elsewhere. It is, rather, that the experience is articulated primarily through the agency of the human partner. Because the book begins and ends with her voice, even the voice of the Beloved is heard as she quotes it. This presentation of the human side in the encounter ensures that Song of Songs is more than a restatement, in obscure poetic language, of ideas expressed just as adequately in other biblical genres.
The history of God’s relationship with Israel and, by the same token, His relationship with the individual human soul, is a love story. Inevitably, such a story is not free of suffering, failure, misunderstanding, and unhappiness. Any external perspective on the story of a great love combines happiness and unhappiness, frustration and satisfaction. The external perspective will always have difficulty showing how these contradictions are overcome or even mitigated.
The biblical texts dealing with the story of God and Israel likewise display, to the outsider, a mass of contradictory judgments: Was Israel faithful in the desert (Jeremiah 2), or disloyal from the start (Ezekiel 20)? Close reading can uncover fine and cogent distinctions, but it cannot dispel the plain impression that diametrically opposed evaluations of the relationship are being asserted, both true to the reality. Within short passages, God’s attitude toward Israel careens from one extreme to the other. In Hosea 1–3, for example, angry rejection gives way to unbreakable commitment. The overall impact of such pericopes is paradoxical and phenomenologically incomplete.
The prophetic literature, partly because it concentrates on God’s action and partly because it is a literature of commands and demands, tends to speak in terms of binary oppositions—obedience and disobedience, faithfulness and betrayal. The Jew who recites Shir haShirim late on Friday afternoon knows that such an account leaves out something essential about Israel’s relationship to God, just as it fails to comprehend fully the individual’s struggle before God. Without Song of Songs in the Bible, without Song of Songs in life, this gap would remain unfilled.
There has recently appeared in English a translation of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s masterwork And from There You Shall Seek (first published in 1978), the theme of which is the relationship between man and God. The overture, a meditation on Song of Songs, fascinated many of its readers thirty years ago, and it has attracted new admiration in English. In a long footnote to this section, “the Rav” (as Rabbi Soloveitchik was known to his disciples) sketched the two medieval approaches—the historical one of Rashi and Ibn Ezra and the individual-philosophical one of Maimonides.
Soloveitchik regards both as legitimately religious readings of Song of Songs, and he argues that these schools of interpretation are not mutually exclusive. He neither claims nor desires to invent a new interpretation to replace these hallowed traditions. Yet his remarks in And from There You Shall Seek yield a fresh perspective, even to readers familiar with the prevalent views.
Song of Songs introduces Soloveitchik’s major theme: the human quest for God and God’s revelation to man. Without prelude he retells the story of an enigmatic Lover and his beloved revealing and concealing themselves from each other in the Friday twilight and arousing the astonishment of the “daughters of Jerusalem” who serve as a kind of chorus. Only at the end of the overture does he stand back from the story and frame it as an enactment of the Sabbath-eve recitation of the story of Creator and creation. Will they indeed come together?
From here the essay moves on to its philosophical core. It examines the variegated forms the human quest for God has taken—the realms of experience where human beings think they can discern Him and from which they distill all the familiar arguments and ways. He then turns to God’s encounter with man—those elements of religious reality that do not arise from the human quest but confront us with realities unsought and often unwelcome to us (most notably, revealed Law, the uncompromising imperative of Torah).
Out of these fundamental oppositions emerges a variety of experiences. On the one hand, our conception of God corresponds to our needs and desires, our loves and our fears—that is the God we search for and seek to contain in our experiential and intellectual categories. On the other hand, God is wholly other—when He reveals Himself, we cannot fully assimilate His otherness. Losing touch with this complex reality, we tend to imagine either that God is the image of our own love and fear or that God stands aloof as a remote, inaccessible, hidden being.
Traditional religious philosophy has given the word reason (in the widest sense of the term) to the human quest for God, and the word faith to the experience of the otherness of God. This opposition is commonly an intellectualized one. Reason and faith become epistemological tools: Some truths are seen as accessible to both; some, only to one or the other. Rabbi Soloveitchik transforms this hoary dichotomy by personalizing it. Reason in all its multiple forms is the human being’s seeking; revelation is God’s confronting. The drama of Song of Songs, of the lovers who seek each other passionately and nevertheless elude each other again and again, reminds us that life with God embraces both contradictory impulses. The imagery provides a model or analogy of religious experience rather than an allegory of it.
We should not dismiss Rabbi Soloveitchik’s strategy of introducing Song of Songs via Sabbath-eve prayer as merely a literary frame for his discussion. By rooting the encounter with God in a quasi-liturgical performance, the Rav insinuates into his essay, at the very outset, the idea that the personal encounter with God draws on, and embraces, concrete historical experience appropriated into a social setting. The philosophical quest for God is too often pictured as a solitary affair of logical argumentation or mystical culture. Soloveitchik weans us away from this narrowly cloistered conception. He brings the philosopher closer to the Friday-afternoon Jew.
The ability to come to grips with the flaws and lapses in a personal relationship marks the difference between regarding the relationship from the outside and sharing in its inner quality. The unique intimacy of Song of Songs is bound up with its expression of the human side in the divine-human dialogue. To bring philosophy closer to religious reality entails making room for the moments of failure, sin, and misunderstanding between creature and Creator.
In And from There You Shall Seek, Rabbi Soloveitchik is particularly attentive to the mystery of failure or deferred communication between the two parties to the love affair. His account of Song of Songs begins in medias res. It does not describe the beginning of the relationship but presupposes it. The question is not how the two lovers met but whether they will overcome their separation—which foreshadows the insight, toward the end of Soloveitchik’s book, that the human search for God derives from prior acquaintance with the divine. While traditional allegories give specific explanations for the separation—the national-historical orientation in sin, the philosophical school in human cognitive limitations—these are not self-evident in the biblical text, and Rabbi Soloveitchik does not pursue them. Given the fact of separation and the desire of both parties to overcome it, the drama of Song of Songs and the focus of the Rav’s synopsis lie in the way the separation is experienced and the mystery of why it is not overcome.
Rabbi Soloveitchik is understandably circumspect in his description of the divine figure. He confines himself to descriptions found in the biblical text, and he refrains from supplementing them with psychological terms. When he speaks of the woman’s hesitation to respond to the divine Lover, however, his paraphrase provides an attempt to understand her from within:
I am asleep yet my heart is awake. The voice of my Lover, knocking: “Open for me, my sister, my companion, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is filled with dew, my locks with drops of the night.” I have taken off my cloak, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I sully them? A moment later she rises to open the door but she has missed her chance; he has gone.
These are the verses, Song of Songs 5:2–3, to which the medieval philosopher Yehuda Halevi appealed when he castigated the Babylonian exiles for their failure to return to the land of Israel en masse when Cyrus’ edict allowed it. And The Voice of My Beloved Knocking is the title of a celebrated discourse on Zionism by Rabbi Soloveitchik.
Here, however, the Rav’s task is neither homiletic nor allegorical. And so he rewrites the woman’s unwillingness to stir: “The cold of the moonless, starless night, deep weariness, laziness, and fear combine to paralyze her will and bind her legs. Why should she refuse to undo the latch and open the door to her lover? Hasn’t she been pursuing him, . . . suffering insults, blows, and spiritual torment on his behalf? . . . Does desire no longer permeate her being, is the urgency no longer alive within her?”
The biblical text does not provide compelling evidence for the particular motives suggested by the Rav. The reference to her fear is an especially bold and unpredictable stroke. (Fear of what? That she will disappoint Him? That she will be disappointed? That she is deluding herself in waiting for Him?) In effect, Rabbi Soloveitchik is speculating about the reasons people forgo opportunities to get what they most want.
What is important in principle is not the details of this psychological reconstruction but the manner in which the poetry of Song of Songs enables the Rav to make personal and palpable what otherwise might have been an abstract philosophical disquisition.
For most of the past millennium, Jewish religious philosophers such as Maimonides have begun with the raw material of religious experience as found in the Bible and undertaken to present it in more abstract form—to purify anthropomorphic language and tone down the mythical connotations of religious imagery. Healthy religious thinking, on this view, needed to rise above concessions to the primitive imagination. And the philosophers could do so because they were able to rely on the backdrop of a living experience.
For our own age, overly captivated by abstraction, the task of philosophical reflection is often to reverse the process and recover living experience—living experience of God, who transcends our human conceptions and confronts us as a philosophy-defying Other even as He addresses us and makes Himself available to us.
Because He is both the commanding Other and the intimate Partner, He conceals Himself from us even as He seeks our fellowship. Underlying the Jewish ability to respond to God is the awareness of our own enigmatic destiny as individuals and as members of His people, at once creative and submissive, questing for Him and yet all too frequently failing to respond to His initiative.
All Scripture rehearses that intimate, holy story of revelation. Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.
Shalom Carmy is co-chair of Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.