The Sunday Age
Sunday August 31, 2008
'LET him kiss me with kisses of his mouth." The Song of Songs is passionate. It is erotic. It celebrates human sexuality and carries desire to the limits of language. But why is it in the Bible? Neither God nor His people are mentioned in this ancient poem of love, yet the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva famously proclaimed: "If all sacred writings are holy, then the Song of Songs is the holy of holies."Until the advent of modern biblical scholarship, the song was read by Jews as an allegory of the relationship between God and His people, and by Christians as an allegory of the love of Jesus for the Church. It is recited annually in synagogues during the Passover festival, and sung every Sabbath eve in Sephardic Jewish households. Medieval French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux delivered 86 sermons devoted to the allegorical interpretation of the Song. But at first blush (literally) the Song of Songs suggests the sexual rather than the spiritual: "I rose to open to my love, my fingers wet with myrrh."Some passages evoke the idealised, carefree rusticity of pastoral poetry. Elsewhere, elaborate praise for the beloved's physical attributes recalls ancient Arabic poems. Yet the Song's power is in its capacity to move, to fill one with longing. Modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig argues that the Song's beauty takes one beyond the "purely human". He writes of the moment, "strong as death", when "the whole world of creation is conquered and laid at the feet of love". Judaism's great mystical text, the Zohar, teaches that everything that ever was, is, or will be is contained within the Song of Songs. These are large claims for what is ostensibly a simple love poem. The Zohar implies that the text is infinitely evocative; that it is what literary critic Harold Fisch calls "pure poetry", multivalent, with no single literal meaning."Pure poetry" is the language of dreams, where images appear and dissolve inexplicably into others according to an inner logic that flows deep beneath the linear narrative. The Song of Songs draws these poetic depths to the surface of biblical text. In its dreamy non-linearity, it is a beautiful, feminine moment in an overwhelmingly patriarchal Bible. Here, gender biases established in Eden are redressed in a dream-world of mutuality, where holy lovers rise from the desert, before the day breathes, to call to each other from cinnamon hills, and run like gazelles in fields of flowering henna.Deborah Masel is a journalist and teacher of Jewish mysticism.