All of the Bible is holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.
– Rabbi Akiva, Yaddayim (3:5)
For all our material prosperity and our technological marvels, it still seems that something is missing from life. For all our successes, we in the West don’t feel good about ourselves.
We’re insatiable and we don’t savor our achievements. We’re medicated, materialistic and divorced. Some say we’ve become shallow and have dedicated our lives to insubstantial pursuits. Others accuse us of being narcissists, too self-absorbed to rise to the level of sacrifice of previous generations. Still others fault our ambition. We have no time for relationships. We’re all working too hard. We’re driven by insecurity and fear.
All of the above are symptomatic of a more fundamental problem.
Simply put, we are bored. Bored with our jobs, our marriages and our existence. Even our kids bore us. Why else would we sit them in front of TV and video games for hours on end rather than playing ball with them or reading them bedtime stories? If we weren’t bored, would we watch four hours of TV a day? Would men and women date by going to the movies? Would husbands and wives fantasize about other people when they are in bed together? And if life really engaged them, would teenagers experiment with drugs?
The only thing that seems to excite is the absence of life: death and tragedy. A homicide bombing in Tel Aviv will gather a wealth of news coverage, as will gruesome stories of dead American soldiers. Murder and mayhem, rape and pillage – these are the stuff of our novels and movies. Life requires drama to excite our interest, and drama comes in the form of the betrayal of marriage rather than the honoring of its commitment, a cop shot by a drug dealer rather than walking a friendly neighborhood beat. A man whose wife is leaving him told me the other day that what is compounding the pain of his divorce is how the whole community is suddenly talking about them.
It’s almost pornographic. They all want to see the train wreck of our marriage. Their lives are so dull, they need my tragedy for their perverse excitement.
How did life become so ordinary?
Life lost its magic when it lost its eroticism. Eroticism, that elixir of passion, that thirsty desire to uncover the mystery of all life has to teach us, is noticeably absent from our being.
That is the reason, in my opinion, that the Jews have always read the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) on the holiday of Passover, a holiday that celebrates the birth of our nationhood. Being freed of Egyptian slavery made our bodies free, but it did not necessarily make our spirit come alive. God wished to free us not only from the chains of slavery, but from the bane of an unanimated existence. God did not wish for us simply to exist, but to live; to subsist not merely with necessities, but with magic. For this reason He gave us the Song of Songs to teach us the power of discovering an erotic existence.
The Song of Songs might seem like one of the least worthy books of the Bible. Read the verses. You’ll be scandalized. Here is but a sampling:
“O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine.” (1:2)
“Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.” (4:5)
“Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.” (7:1-2)
What is a long erotic love poem doing in the biblical canon? Believe it or not, it is considered the most sacred book of the Bible.
In a famous pronouncement, Rabbi Akiva declares: “The entire universe is unworthy of the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the books of the Bible are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.” (Yaddayim 3:5)
Other sages quoted in Midrash Rabba proclaim that that Song of Songs means “the best of songs, the most of songs, the finest of songs.”
The book’s erotic nature has led many scholars to interpret it in allegorical terms. Some of the ancient rabbis maintain that the song speaks of the Jewish people’s love for the Torah. An even more widespread understanding, adopted by the Midrash Rabba and by the later medieval Torah commentators, is that the song describes the relationship not between two mortal beings, but between God and the Jewish people. The book is an allegory depicting in great detail the experiences of the nation in its relations with God from the Exodus down to the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Third Temple.
Rashi writes that the song depicts the Jewish people as a widow yearning for her husband. Maimonides understands the Song of Songs as an extended metaphor for the love of the individual pious soul for God, not as an erotic description of human love.
The allegorical interpretations are valid, and the Song of Solomon is pregnant with profound spiritual and mystical meaning. But it is still undeniable that the metaphor chosen by the Bible to convey these insights is that of a highly erotically charged relationship between a man and a woman. To dismiss it completely is to miss the central message of the song. A rabbinic tradition teaches that no biblical verse ever loses its literal meaning. The Song of Solomon is an erotic poem and we need to know why.
Here’s the secret of the song and much else in life. God is a burning conflagration, a raging inferno, vibrancy incarnate. Moses encounters God in a burning bush. The Jews are lead through the wilderness of Sinai by God represented as a pillar of fire. And in our relationship with God, indeed in our relationship with all things outside us, we need to find passion.
God is not cold or complacent or detached. He is involved rather than aloof, immersed rather than indifferent. God is discovered not in the monotony of subsistence, but in the ecstasy of living. But today we have rejected the God of wonder and replaced him with the God of cheap tricks. If Nietzsche was right and God is dead, then that can only be because man has killed Him. We took an enervating creator and converted Him into a haunting spirit. We don’t pray because we have a flame burning in our hearts, but because we have debts burning in our pocket. Our prayers are shallow attempts at deal making, cynical business transactions. God, you do for me, and I’ll do for you.
The Song of Solomon challenges us to feel for God and life what a man and a woman feel for each other in the heat of passion. The song challenges us to be erotically charged in our religious commitments. For a man who tries to uncover the mysteries of a beautiful woman, every interaction is emotionally pointed. He pursues her not because he wants something from her but because she excites him. Even if he never tastes of her sensual pleasures but merely beholds her from a distance in awe and wonder, still he is enraptured.
God wants to be the people’s mistress. He wants to be exciting to us for His very existence, not because He can bless us to win the lottery. God wants us to thrill to the study of His law, delight in the fulfillment of His commandments, revel in uncovering the mysteries of the universe, and soar in the fathoming the mysteries of His name. It is no coincidence that Kabbala employs extensive sexual imagery in depicting the relationship between God and man.
The sexual instinct is all-consuming, and the saintly righteous are obsessed with God’s existence.
This is why Torah study is so central to Judaism. At its core Eros is a manifestation of a desire to know. Eroticism is the stuff of curiosity. To live without Eros is to fundamentally lose a desire to appreciate and apprehend. I believe that the secret of Eros is to be found in Song of Songs. Hence, the song serves as the soul of the Torah, the spirit within God’s word, all of which is about life.
And here is the hidden secret of the song, the foundation of Eros: Never once in the poem are the lovers described as finally indulging their lust for each other. They live in a perpetual state of hunger.
“I slept, but my heart was awake. Hark! my beloved is knocking. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’ I had put off my garment, how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet, how could I soil them? My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I am sick with love.” (5:2-8)
Second, the couple are never described as being married. In other words, they are both platonic and illicit lovers. Their relationship involves neither consummation nor consecration. From here we derive that Eros embodies the twin qualities of hunger and sin.
One of the reasons that marriage becomes so boring is that it is so legal. Sex is allowed and expected, even obligatory. The thrill of Eros is predicated on the idea of experiencing something so powerful that it carries us away. It is the pleasure of losing control and being overpowered by something greater than ourselves. Anyone who has ever experienced a truly erotic moment knows the experience of being totally consumed by emotion. But because the pleasures of eroticism are entirely dependent on being overwhelmed and consumed by a greater force, it is for this reason – and this is key – that Eros is always associated with sin. The force of Eros is such that you begin to do things that you are not meant to do. You betray your own principles. You cannot stop yourself from entering the danger zone. You allow yourself to be carried away on a wave of pleasure, even as you crash against the rocks.
Marriage says that your sexual partner will only ever be your spouse. How then can marriage, predicated as it is on the exclusivity of a contract, ever enjoy the pleasures of sin and Eros? The answer is that life in general, and marriage in particular, must be made sinful.
Judaism offers an ingenious formula for enjoying the pleasures of Eros within a religious framework. Judaism actually incorporates the forbidden and sinful into the marital state. For 12 days out of every month – the five days of menstruation and seven days thereafter – a man’s wife becomes forbidden to him. Not only may he not have sex with her, he may not even touch her or share her bed. Suddenly, from the confines of the routine and the predictable emerges the sinful and the erotic. And because he may not consummate his lust, he learns to hunger for her.
Eroticism is further injected into the life of a relationship through the Jewish concept of modest dress, the main purpose of which in marriage is to enhance the erotic quality of the human body and impose “erotic barriers” that must be overcome in order to obtain the object of desire. It is specifically in the resistance created by those erotic obstacles and barriers that passion is to be found.
Judaism, with its extensive laws, introduces the concept of the forbidden into endless areas of life, even mundane acts like eating a meal. Judaism forbids us from simply devouring an animal. To do so is sinful. But there is a process that may be undertaken of slaughtering the beast, draining it of blood, preparing it according to traditional requirements. The animal is thereby rendered kosher. The transformation of the sinful into the permissible, of the forbidden into the accepted, injects the simple act of eating with the pleasure of the erotic.
By recapturing the erotic we regain the desire to know. Plunging into the mystery of existence, we live everyday life as a totally novel experience. Eroticism transforms life from a destination into a journey, from a passage into an adventure. The Song of Solomon tells us a magical story of a man and a woman who have but one desire: to know each other. But even as they slowly meet in the erotic encounter, they do so amidst being surrounded by a dark fog of all-encompassing mystery. With each interaction they come to know that what there is to know about each other can never be fully known. That woman is a mortal woman. But she also represents the Torah, which beckons to us to come and know the enigma of God, the secrets of the creation, the depths of our own infinite soul. That man and woman are also God and Israel, locked in a cosmic relationship, destined to spend an eternity drawing ever closer in love, understanding and wisdom.