Introduction to the Song of Songs, 2012

The Song of Songs raises many questions:

Is it a unitary composition or, as many commentators believe, a collection of love poems and wedding songs?

Why is it read on Passover?  One popular explanation is that young love blooms in the spring and Passover is the Spring holiday.

Is it a literal love song between a shepherd and a woman of Jerusalem, or an allegory of the love between God and Israel?  Either view can be supported.

Why was it included in the Biblical canon?  No one knows for sure, but Rabbi Akiva called it the Holy of Holies.

I’d like to take a step back and look at the 5 megillot as a whole, before focusing on the Song of Songs.

All 5 books—Song of Songs; Book of Ruth; Lamentations; Ecclesiastes and Book of Esther—are either stories of strong, assertive women or are full of female imagery.  Song of Songs gives voice to young love.   Ruth speaks to the mature love of female companionship.   Esther models women’s power and leadership.   Eicha gives us the image of Jerusalem as a widow, sitting amidst her destruction.  And Kohelet counters the futility of the material world with the female imagery of nature, balance and flow.

Because these books focus on positive feminine attributes, one commentator even suggests that these 5 books were intended as instruction for women in the Women’s Courtyard of the Temple.

Alicia Ostriker, a contemporary Biblical scholar, calls these books “counter-texts.”  They challenge the dominant structures of authority in the Bible as a whole and in traditional interpretation.  The Song of Songs fits the definition of counter-text in many ways:  the conspicuous absence of God ; the lack of national themes; the anti-patriarchal character of the book;  its private, domestic setting;  and the egalitarian relationship between its protagonists.

There are 3 main voices in the Song of Songs—the Shulamite woman, her lover, and the daughters of Jerusalem, who form a type of Greek chorus, or, as scholar Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky calls them, a “sisterhood” whose role is to advance the action.  The woman’s voice is the most prominent, calling out to her lover, searching for him, dreaming about him.  There are numerous references to her “mother’s house” but never to her father’s.  Her brothers are called “her mother’s sons,” not her father’s sons.

One of the anti-patriarchal aspects of the Song of Songs is the equality of the woman and her lover, and the mutual of expression of their love.  The woman and man are equal in their interactions, even sharing similar descriptive phrases, like “your eyes are like doves.”  Each says to the other, “Look at you!  You are beautiful.”  There is no subordination of the female to the male.  In fact, it is the woman who is more assertive, who goes out looking for her lover, who takes control of her own desire.  This book presents us with a model of interdependence and mutuality.  That is the message that their love brings to the world.  On the allegorical level, the Song of Songs also suggests the possibility of a love relationship between God and Israel that is mutually interdependent.

Returning to the question of why the Song of Songs is read on Passover,  the Talmud tells us that the Israelites were delivered from Egypt “on account of the righteous women who lived in that generation.” The story of those “righteous women”— Shiphrah and Puah; Miriam; Yocheved; and Pharoah’s daughter—is also considered a “counter-text”.  In many congregations, women chant the megillot.  If you have occasion to listen to womenchant the lyrical and erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, consider that women chanting ANYTHING from the bimah—no less evocative love songs—is a countertradition for our own time–and one we are proud and grateful to perpetuate.