Sunday, January 9, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With It? (OR - Delving further into my own heresy)

Not long ago, I posted this blog about what is traditionally considered the major miracle of Chanukah, and I offered a possible, non-traditional explanation regarding both the miracle and the holiday.

I had also posted the same piece a few years ago (not as a blog) and apparently angered many people with it. At the time, it led to me being called everything from ignorant to heretic and many other things that I won’t repeat here. While angering and/or offending people was not my purpose or intention, I also didn’t shy away from the possibility of it when I recently re-posted the piece as a blog.

A big part of the problem, it seems to me, is that there are essentially two primary schools of thought within the traditional religiously observant Jewish world.

The first approach is to see CHaZaL (the rabbinical sages of the Talmud) as above any reproach, incapable of any imperfection, and essentially teaching the direct word of God Himself. There are many religious Jews, for whom if CHaZaL said (i.e. wrote) something, then our only responsibility is to learn, accept and revere their words as the Ultimate Truth, even today, 1500-2000 years after they said it.

The second approach is that CHaZaL were great scholars – even the greatest that ever were, yet they were also human, fallible, and influenced/limited by the knowledge and resources of the period in which they lived.

The difference in these approaches is significant, particularly when someone does as I did with the Chanukah blog – and offer ideas that are either not in line with those of CHaZaL, or, God Forbid, even contradictory.

All this is offered as an introduction, because I would like to share another article which I had posted a while back (also not as a blog), which inspired even more anger and more vitriolic hatred than the Chanukah piece did.

The Biblical book of Shir HaShirim ("Song of Songs") is a fascinating dialogue between a man and woman. It is generally understood in Jewish tradition to be an allegory of the relationship between God and the People of Israel. The Man in the book represents God, the woman represents Israel, and the message of the book is all about God's undying love for Israel.

I would like to offer an alternative (and therefore, for many people, a heretical and threatening) interpretation of the allegory.

I make no claims at being a Biblical expert, and I certainly do not purport to having a better or deeper understanding of the text than CHaZaL, but I nevertheless believe that this reading of the book can be seen as true to the text and hopefully presents a message of value for us even today.

If you take a close look at what each of the characters in Shir HaShirim is saying, there is a striking difference in their tones. The woman speaks of her heart, love and emotions for the man. It is all about her unconditional love. The man, on the other hand focuses solely on the woman's physical beauty, and what he hopes to get from her.

In a nutshell, the gist of the dialogue is:

WOMAN: "I love him with my heart my soul and my everything, I want to spend my life doing nothing but loving him"
MAN: "She's a babe. I'd do her…"

At one point the man even compares the woman’s breasts to a vine and says that he hopes to “partake” of that vine (7:7-10).

Her love is a pure and unconditional love, while his is based on what she can and will do for him.

At the end of Chapter 2, the man runs off – the narrator compares him to a gazelle. The woman goes looking for him in Chapter 3 but does not find him, and she wanders the streets helplessly looking for him. At the very end of the book, again he leaves her, but this time she does not go after him. Rather, she says (in the final verse of the book) "run away – be like a gazelle, like a fawn" – the exact same words used to describe him when he ran away in Chapter 2. And she lets him go.

What strikes me the most about the allegory is that there are 3 times in the book that the woman says (not to the man, but to the reader), “I have made you swear, daughters of Jerusalem….not to awaken or to stir up love until it comes looking for you" (2:7, 3:5, 8:4).

Essentially she is warning other women not to make the same mistake that she made – putting her love "out there" when it was not returned to her.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on women's emotions, or on how they express being in love, but this verse does not strike me as something a woman head over heels in love would say.

So – what might it all mean?

What if Shir HaShirim is an allegory, but not of love, rather of unrequited love, and of emotional disappointment, even failure? It's possible to see the man in the book as representing Israel and the woman representing God.

The woman (God) is expressing an undying and unconditional love for the man – which God has certainly done with Israel for millenia through His covenants with us. We, the Jewish people, on the other hand, have shown a love for God when it has suited our needs – when we have something to gain from it. When we've grown tired of it, we have run off searching for the fruits elsewhere (i.e. the man running away at the end of Chapter 2) and in the past there were times when God came looking for us trying to bring us back to Him (the woman searching through the town in Chapter 3).

Finally, we did it too much – and if the woman really does represent God in the allegory, then God is essentially telling us that He is not going to chase after us anymore. He's "been there and done that" and now He's letting us go. When we are ready to come back to Him, He is there waiting for us – with the unconditional love and acceptance that He has always offered us, but He will only put His love "on the line" for us when our love comes searching for Him.

I find this message (if in fact it is a correct reading of the text) to be especially appropriate as traditionally, Shir HaShirim is read in the synagogue every year on the Shabbat of Pesach (Passover). Pesach is the epitome of God's undying and unlimited love for His people. He reached out to a nation that had been disconnected from Him for 200+ years and therefore didn't really know Him, and He delivered us from Egypt, from slavery, and put us on the road to being an autonomous people in our own land. And all He asked in return was our loyalty to Him and to return His love – unconditionally.

And somehow, we keep managing to blow it.

So every year – when we are remembering the depth of God's love for us we read Shir HaShirim to remind us that God's love is still waiting for us, is still burning strong for us, and is simply waiting for us to find our way clear to return it to Him.

I truly believe that it is possible that this was the message that the author of Shir HaShirim had in mind, and what the great rabbis who included the book as part of the TaNaCH understood to be the true lesson of Shir HaShirim.


  1. Nice interpretation. I'll have to read the book sometime...

  2. Anonymous28 July, 2011

    interesting take...I don't think I would go as far as to say heresy, different; yes...I once heard a shiur (sermon) about shir ha'shirim where the rabbi said he spoke to an animal expert about gazelle, who pointed out that the relationship described between Hashem and the Jewish people is very similar to the gazelle's process of finding a mate. He described that apparently the relationship before mating is a back and forth where one comes close and then backs off and vice versa, hence the constant reference to the gazelle...