To Sing Or Not To Sing: Passover 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Questions: Is it possible, to borrow the title of Tipper Gore’s 1987 book, to raise “PG Kids in an X-Rated Society”? How do we determine when young people are ready to hear about mature subjects? And who gets to make those decisions?

Every year, the last Shabbat of Passover challenges us to confront these questions when we read parts or all of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Debates rage as to what extent we should understand the graphic descriptions of this biblical book as allegory or literal poetry.

The Pitch: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s: Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine.” (Song of Songs 1:1)

Swing #1: “[That t]his poem is the most wonderful and choicest of the songs which are Solomon’s is very clearly true because there are two types of worthy poems. The first type is the poem which presents a representation of deep things which are difficult to represent, through the use of symbolic representations and allegory. The second type is the poem crafted to draw one to love what ought to be loved and to reject what ought to be rejected. It is clear that the more the poem represents worthy matters which are ever more useful to the attainment of felicity, it is itself more worthy. So, too, with the second type: the more a poem is crafted to draw one to love worthier things and those things useful for the attainment of felicity, the worthier it is itself. In this book these two types of poems have been combined together in the worthiest fashion, for it presents a representation of the ultimate felicity and attracts one to draw near to it and to strive for it with every possible form of striving.” – Gersonides

Swing #2: “Over and beyond its eternal youthfulness and inherent charm, the Song of Songs, precisely because it is within the canon of Scripture, serves to broaden the horizons of religion. It gives expression, in poetic and hence in deathless terms, to the authentic world-view of Judaism, which denies any dichotomy between body and soul, between matter and spirit, because it recognizes them both as the twin aspects of the great and unending miracle of life.” – Robert Gordis, The Song of Songs and Lamentations

Swing #3: “The Song of Songs is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover. In a series of subtly articulated scenes, the two meet in an idealized landscape of fertility and abundance – a kind of Eden – where they discover the pleasures of love.The passage from innocence to experience is a subject of the Eden stoy, too, but there the loss of innocence is fraught with consequences. The Song looks at the same border-crossing and sees only the joy of discovery.” – Areil Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation

Late-Inning Questions: Gersonides, in his long-winded commentary, tries to dance around the literal meaning of the poem. Rabbi Gordis does too, although he acknowledges the physical nature of the text. The Blochs, meanwhile, notes first and foremost what the book is: erotic love poetry.

Since the Song of Songs is in the Bible, does it behoove us to teach it to students of any age? If not, at what age can students be introduced to the book? Can the allegorical implications of the book – that it is a metaphor for the loving relationship between God and Israel – be harmonized with its overwhelmingly sensuous content? Can we find a happy medium between both meanings of the text? And what does this book have to do with the holiday of Passover?

On Deck at Emanu-El: Please join us tonight for our semi-annual Healing Service, beginning at 5:30PM. We look forward to sharing and worshiping together.

The Big Inning At The End: Periodically, I’ve been asked how I feel about the Chicago White Sox. My answer is, I don’t. I’m a Cubs fan who did not grow up in Chicago, so I have no geographic allegiance to the city’s other major-league team. But this question will be asked of me more and more if the young baseball seasons continues as it started, in which both clubs are atop their respective leagues. Obviously, it’s still April, and many things can change … but I’m beginning to sense a bit more tension between Chicago’s north and south sides.

Shabbat Shalom v’Hag Kasher v’Sameah!