Song of Songs, April 19, 2014
To many people, the Song of Songs may seem like a comfortable old friend. Its metaphors are familiar– “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” –and its beloved wedding invocation is known to all—“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
But this Passover I want to challenge our assumptions and examine three aspects of the Song through new eyes, through the lens of gender, metaphor and anthropomorphism.
The traditional interpretation of this poem is an allegorical account of the love between God and Israel. God is described as “clear-skinned and ruddy” with locks “black as a raven.” Israel is the comely bride whose love is “more delightful than wine.”
However, there are many passages in the text that are ambiguous, where descriptions contain both masculine and feminine imagery. In Chapter 4, verse 4, the female’s neck is likened to a tower; in chapter 7 the tower imagery is repeated and also applied to her nose. Towers are architectural and military images usually associated with males. Also, many of the wide variety of animal images depict both males and females; the eyes of both lovers are compared to doves; the gazelle is paired with both genders.
The usual interpretation of the Song of Songs is to look at it from this male/female perspective. However, as our modern sensibility now includes a wider perspective on gender identity, we can consider two additional approaches to the text.
The first approach is that this ancient text describes both “male” and “female” characteristics that each of us possesses. Our task as maturing adults is to bring these complementary opposites into harmony and balance. This is the same message we find in Kabbalah, that it is our life’s work to balance the male and female attributes of God within us. In the Song of Songs, for example, the maiden is described as having both male and female attributes. “Chesed,” a male aspect, is found in the lovingkindness of the maiden. “Din,” the female trait of judgment, describes the maiden when she is compared with
Tirzah, one of the daughters of Zelophehad. “Tiferet,” beauty or compassion of the heart, which pervades this poem, is the balance between the two.
The second approach regarding gender is that sexual identity and orientation are viewed through a wider lens today than in the past. The ambiguous imagery of the Song of Songs opens this poem up to more universal appreciation. Great love poetry is written and enjoyed by people of all sexual orientations. Just as assigning gender to God limits the possibility of all God is, assigning gender roles to the lovers in Song of Songs limits our appreciation of it. The love affair between God and Israel is big enough to encompass beloveds of all persuasions.
The richness of the language of Song of Songs derives from the repeated use of comparisons throughout the poem. Almost every line is filled with figurative language: “Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes climbing up from the washing pool. Your lips are like a crimson thread, Your mouth is lovely. Your brow behind your veil gleams like a pomegranate split open.”
This is the language of poetry, and it softens our hearts. How much more affecting are these lines than simply saying, “My love is beautiful.” And while we’re not all poets and we don’t usually think of our beloveds in florid terms, perhaps this poem can teach us to open our eyes and speak from our hearts.
When we say our child is “smart” or “handsome”, we label them and, in a sense, limit them. We’ve defined them, put them in a box, taken a snapshot in time and reduced them to a label. How much more alive our children become if we describe them as having an inquisitive mind, a good heart, a keen eye. Try this: take a moment to picture a loved one in your mind’s eye. Now describe him or her with one adjective; then, flesh that description out: his hair is like……; her eyes shine like….; his spirit is like……
Notice how your heart opens with each expanded description, how much more connected you feel to the person you’re envisioning. The lesson in this is to catch ourselves seeing other people as “is” or dismissing them as known quantities with a one-word descriptor. If we think about their attributes the way the poet does, describing rather than defining, we also change the way we relate to them. And, if we share our perceptions with them, they may respond to us differently as well—heart to heart.
Susanna Heschel, speaking at B’nai Torah Congregation, defined anthropomorphism in the Bible as our attempt to describe God from our perspective—assigning God a body like ours. She then suggested we flip the roles and imagine God defining us from God’s perspective, according us the same Divine attributes we ascribe to God.
What would the Song of Songs be like from God’s perspective? If this is truly a love song between God and Israel, would we be reading a sensual description of the physical attributes of the lovers? Would God dwell on the sexual attraction of the two lovers? Perhaps. But can we instead envision a poem extolling the ethical and holy characteristics we attribute to God applied to man?
On festivals we sing, “Adonai, Adonai, El rahum v’hanun… God gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, granting pardon.” What if we imagined God writing a love poem to Israel that extolled the spiritual virtues of God’s lover rather than the physical form. Might our graciousness be “more delightful than wine,” our compassion as sweet as “an apple tree among trees of the forest?” Can you put yourself into the poem as the object of God’s love, showered with God’s blessings for the holy attributes you possess and the holy work you do in the world?
As you read this evocative love poem, dwell in the poem’s universal statement about love; open your heart to its metaphors; and imagine the possibility of another love poem replete with images not of the body but of the soul.