Saturday, December 05, 2015

The fifth question: Songs of Songs and the Book of Ruth

Written By Yossi Sarid in HaaretzApril 1, 2007

Rejoice, rejoice in the good news: Spring is here and Passover is on the way. And I too rejoice when Nissan, the month that was once the first of the Hebrew calendar, arrives, and with its vernal beauty steals the joy of the still-blustery Adar - though we are all commanded to rejoice during that month. The joy of Nissan is double - both departing for freedom and departing from winter.

I have revised my tastes in Bible a number of times over the years; a kind of weakness of taste, a sort of capriciousness of temperament that is characteristic of transitional seasons. Today I am almost certain that I have formulated my position: The Song of Songs and the Book of Ruth are my favorites, and that is final.

These are two books of a subversive character, and both of them always bring up the question of how they succeeded in the first place in entering the collection of Holy Writ. How were they given canonical status? Were such writings collected and redacted nowadays, it is doubtful they would be awarded this status. Quite possibly, the Song of Songs would be left out because of its eroticism and the Book of Ruth pushed out because of its ethics. But we shall write about Ruth at length at the end of the counting of the Omer, when the holiday of Shavuot arrives.

Ruth and the Song of Songs are the most Land-of-Israel books that I know of, then or now. When the question arises of whether there is such a thing as Israeli literature, and not just Israeli writers, these two books are the decisive answer: Indeed there is such a literature. Reading and delighting in them is possible anywhere, but the writing could have taken place only here, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, among the fields and vineyards of the beloved land of our fathers.

I once suggested to our Interior Ministry that it rely on the Book of Ruth to establish the rules for obtaining citizenship in this country, and now I am suggesting to the Tourism Ministry that it use the Song of Songs to attract tourists in love. And Bar Refaeli, with little marketing effort, can play the role of "For I am lovesick." As everyone knows, the Song of Songs is attributed to King Solomon, but according to modern research, the text was shaped many years after his reign. Not only historically, but also from the literary perspective, it is difficult to accept Solomon as the author, as in his palace harem he had a thousand women, whereas Shulamith's love for her beloved is unique and exclusive. The lord of a thousand women does not qualify for a love experience that is so focused and for longings that are so distilled.

Today the prevailing assumption is that the anthology of love songs was not written by a single hand but rather by various authors in various periods, although a rereading reveals perfect stylistic and thematic unity.

The Song of Songs is a subversive book in biblical, conservative and traditional terms, so much so that the sages had to interpret it as a kind of allegory. Not a beloved and a lover, not a shepherd and a shepherdess, not Shulamith and her beloved, but rather a love affair between the community of Israel and God. Rabbi Akiva, of all people, who held the Song of Songs to be more sacred than the other books of Scripture apart from the five books of Moses and the Prophets, is recorded as having said that "anyone who warbles the Song of Songs in drinking houses and makes it into a kind of ditty has no portion in the world to come."

Those sages always had to spoil our fun. Why do they do this to us? What did we ever do to them? Happily for us, this exegesis, which was aimed at preventing desecration, did not make a deep impression on creative inspiration. Generation after generation had its say and transmitted material, and there isn't a single line that has not been put into the mouths of flesh-and-blood lovers. There isn't a single poem in the Song of Songs that has not been sung by the young in spirit, who, in the breezes of the night and the day, imagine themselves as shepherds and shepherdesses, black and comely, tanned swarthy by the sun; this is their sensual fantasy.

The allegory argument in this case is rather funny and far out. Even God Himself would not be grateful to the great leaders of Israel and their exegetes if a trace of the human remained in His image. What is it they want to tell us, the sages of blessed memory - that their God is not only merciful, but also libidinous, and that the community of Israel, for its part, is particularly interested in the thighs of the Holy One, blessed be He, which are "as pillars of marble." He swoons over her most intimate parts, "the rounding of thy thighs," "thy belly is a heap of wheat" and "thy two breasts are like twin fawns," and he dreams of climbing into the palm tree with the help of the branches thereof and her breasts as the clusters of grapes. As for her, she will nestle him between her breasts, his left hand under her head and his right hand embracing her.

God shows up all of a sudden, and with no prior warning in any other reference, knocks on the door, his head filled with dew, on his locks the drops of night, removes his coat, washes his feet and is ready; and she rises to open the door, her heart moving for him, her hands and her fingers flowing with myrrh on the door handles. She too is ready.

Good God, what is happening here? Has the landlord gone crazy? How is it that we hadn't previously known such a human God, so similar and equal to us? Neither did He know that He was like that, until his emissaries and exegetes told Him. The Song of Songs is customarily read on the Sabbath of the Intermediate Days of Passover, between the first and the seventh day. There are those who also read it on the closing holiday, and even a few who end the seder night by reading it. I very much recommend this custom, and I think it should spread. The Song of Songs is a much better read than the Passover Haggadah, which is an eclectic text that stops at every station in time, like a slow train that takes on more and more freight.

Because the Haggadah is a wide-open text that has not been zealously guarded in every generation, it has been infiltrated by a mix of biblical verses and bits of legend, prayers and hymns and just plain songs. With its educational mission ("thou shall tell thy son on that day"), the Haggadah is ostensibly also aimed at children, and perhaps first and foremost at them, so as to instill in all four kinds of sons the story of the Exodus from Egypt, to make them like it and to educate each according to his needs. But while the Song of Songs only charms, the Haggadah is also scary, like Grimms' fairy tales. When the Haggadah pours out its wrath, it does so on young and old alike. Alongside fine and interesting sections, there are a number of baffling and boring parts. No wonder many families postpone the worst and have the meal first so that slumber will not fall on the eyelids of the tender Jewish infants.

Therefore, I recommend that another question be added to the traditional four: How is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we read only the Haggadah; on this night we also read the Song of Songs, wherein the songs are better than wine and verily, even the fleshpots.

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