A Feminist Literalist Allegorical Reading of Shir Hashirim
There’s a certain joke that goes back and forth between my husband Daniel and me every year as we get ready to read Shir Hashirim. It has to do with the decision in the ArtScroll edition of Shir Hashirim to translate the megillah according to the rabbinic allegory and not the simple meaning. So the words שני שדיך (lit., “your two breasts”) are translated as “your two sustainers, your nourishing synagogues.” We laugh at this as well as the other instances where these same words are translated as “Your two tablets” or “Your Moses and Aaron.”
We are students of literature and we know allegory when we see it. We are familiar with the business of allegorical reading, according to which every element within a text is assigned a separate symbolic referent or meaning. We know the traditional allegorical reading of Shir Hashirim. We also know that’s not really the intended meaning of the author(s).
I want to confess a certain discomfort, however, with my own smug, smarter-than-thou, dismissal of the allegorical translation of Shir Hashirim. I confess this because I am not entirely pleased with the alternatives.
Feminist versus Rabbinic Reading
In her introduction to the multivolume series The Feminist Companion to the Bible, Athalya Brenner explains her decision to make Song of Songs (SoS) the first volume in her series (bolding mine):
The SoS appears to be a completely secular collection of love lyrics, its allegorical interpretation notwithstanding. God is perhaps mentioned in one opaque expression (8:6), but no more. The primary subject matter in the SoS is earthy enough–heterosexual love and its erotic manifestations. Since the book’s primary signification appears to be neither theological nor even religious, it is easier to handle and highly suitable for an introductory anthology of feminist criticism.
The implication of this is as follows: SoS is an exemplary feminist text precisely because it is not a religious text; God and religion play no real role in this book. But why does a feminist reading require the absence of God? The contrast between this and the rabbinic take is striking.
In Mishnah Yadayim 3:5, Rabbi Akiva is famously quoted as saying that,
חס ושלום לא נחלק אדם מישראל על שיר השירים שלא תטמא את הידים שאין כל העולם כלו כדאי כיום שניתן בו שיר השירים לישראל שכל כתובים קדש ושיר השירים קודש קדשים.
Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel, for all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kedashim (“holy of holies”).
R. Akiva’s statement comes in the context of a rabbinic dispute over the sacredness of Shir Hashirim. Clearly, his hyperbolic statement betrays a certain anxiety about the erotic contents of this work. But in the end, Akiva is given the final word.
If R. Akiva enacts a wordplay and asserts that the double-named Shir Hashirim, is doubly honored as kodesh kedashim, the feminists say the very opposite: Song of Songs is a feminist text precisely because it is חוליני חולין (or חילוני החילונים pun intended), wholly secular. For them, the religious allegorical reading of the Song obscures its plain sense true meaning as a collection of human, this-wordly love poems that play out against the natural, real-life background of the Land of Israel and lend extraordinary voice and agency to a female protagonist. As feminist scholar Carol Meyers notes,
The society depicted in the Bible is portrayed primarily from a male perspective in terms of male accomplishments and in relation to a God to whom anthropomorphic imagery predominates. Yet in the Song such characteristics disappear and in fact the opposite may be true, that is, a gynocentric mode predominates.
If there is a feminist sensibility or feminist history to be discerned in the Bible, then, it is only there because a masculinely construed God, otherwise ubiquitous in the Bible, is completely absent in this text, and religion, with its attendant ideological, patriarchal biases, isn’t getting in the way.
To Have My God and My Feminism Too
I am discomfited and disturbed by this reading, because, as it were, I want to have my (potato starch!) cake and eat it too.
I want my feminism and my God, all at the same time.
I want my literal reading of the text, one that which acknowledges the exceptional role and voice assigned to women in this extraordinary canonical book.
I want a reading that acknowledges the marvelous reciprocal love shared by the young male and female protagonists of the story.
I want the text to have its literal meaning and other meanings too.
This is great literature, and like all works of this caliber, I want to read the text in a way that activates all of its interpretive possibilities, that allows the text to mean one thing and another, and another, that doesn’t force me to strip the text down to its most secular and least godly meaning.
I look at our world which is filled with explicit sexual imagery on every billboard or every street corner, on every TV channel and every radio station, and I am sick at heart for a reading of the world, which can elevate my sexuality above base, prosaic level to which it is has fallen in daily discourse. This is not to say that the love poetry in Shir Hashirim is casual and base, or that one should not, at least at first, appreciate the plain meaning of these love lyrics. What I mean is that I am also moved by the dogged interpretive effort in midrashic literature to draw theological meaning from human, bodily experience and thereby, to sanctify the material world.
Sanctifying a Sexual Poem
I read the dizzying, line-by-line allegorical rendering of Shir Hashirim in such midrashic compendia as Shir Hashirim Rabbah, and I am amazed by the desire to read religious, spiritual and historically redemptive significance into every syllable of what otherwise might be seen as a very this-worldly, very sexy poem.
I am moved, awed, and somewhat humbled by the ability of the rabbis to see a love poem between a man and a woman as standing for their love for God. I know this move. I have seen it all over medieval Hebrew poetry–poet-Rabbis using the conceit of human love as a metaphor for our relationship with God.
When these rabbis read Shir Hashirim, amidst the myrrh and frankincense, the gazelles and the clusters of henna, they recognized their covenantal relationship with God. They saw the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah and the recitation of the Shema and daily prayers — all hallmarks of traditional expression of Israelite love of God and markers God’s role in this covenant. They saw moments in Jewish history when the Jewish people experienced divine redemption. Is it possible that their allegory told them more than the literal translation tells me?
And so, I am in a bind.
I want the seemingly impossible.
I want a Feminist Literalist Allegorical Reading of Shir Hashirim.
But why, aside from the obvious contradictions in terms, am I saying that this is impossible? Why can’t I just open up Shir Hashirim Rabbah and claim it as my reading of the text? To explain my quandary, I need to lay out how the traditional allegorical reading of Shir Hashirim often works.
King Solomon Is God and the Woman Is Israel
שיר השירים אשר לשלמה: According to the Rabbis in Shir Hashirim Rabbah I.1.ii, when you see a reference to Hamelekh “Shelomo” in the song, this is not actually a reference to King Solomon, a king in the 10th century, but rather to Hamelekh shehashalom lo, the King who is complete or who is in possession of peace–in other words, a masculine God. The very notion that God is necessarily masculine presents a fundamental theological problem for the feminist, especially given the opposition between the masculine and the feminine that undergirds the allegory.
According to the terms of this rabbinic allegory, the Shulamite, stands for the feminine people of Israel, sinful and subordinate, pining for the forgiveness of her male, divine lover to let her return. The femininity of the Shulamite is crucial here because it is only the feminine that is lacking agency, power, and wholeness in the world.
The word שובי “return,” appears four times in SoS 7:1:
שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי הַשּׁוּלַמִּית
שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי וְנֶחֱזֶה בָּךְ
Return, return, O Shulamite!
Return, return, that we may gaze upon you.
R. Samuel b. Hiyya explains this fourfold repetition:
ד’ פעמים כתיב כאן שובי שובי, כנגד ד’ מלכיות ששולטין בישראל…
Four times the word ‘return’ is used here,corresponding to the four powers that have subjected Israel…
דבר אחר השולמית, אומה שאני עתיד להושיבה בנוה שלום, הדא הוא דכתיב (ישעיה ל”ב) וישב עמי בנוה שלום וגו’,
Another explanation: O Shulamite: the nation to which I will one day settle in an abode of peace, as it is written, “Then my people shall dwell in peaceful homes (Isaiah 32:18).
Sins Derive from Feminine Weakness
Fundamental to this allegorical interpretation is an understanding of the strength and agency of masculinity and the corresponding weakness and disenfranchisement of femininity. Occasionally, this allegorical system gives rise to the sort of analysis where all the deficiencies of the people are somehow associated with their feminine personality.
Shir Hashirim Rabbah (parasha 1, on Song 1:5) thus assigns a negative value to Israel being feminine, based on the way sons and daughters inherit according to Jewish law:
ר’ ברכיה בשם רבי שמואל בר נחמן אמר נמשלו ישראל כנקבה,
R. Berekhiah in the name of Shmuel bar Nachman: Israel is likened to a female:
מה נקבה זו נוטלת עישור נכסים מאביה ויוצאה, כך ירשו ישראל ארץ שבעה עממים שהוא עישור שבעים אומות,
Just as a female [unmarried] child takes a tenth of the property of her father and departs, so Israel inherited the land of the seven nations, which is a tenth of the that of the seventy nations [comprising all of the nations of the world],
וע”י שירשו ישראל כנקבה אמרו שירה בלשון נקבה שנא’ (שמות טו) אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל את השירה הזאת לה’,
And because Israel inherited like a female, the song they uttered is called in the feminine form shirah, as it says “Thus sang Moses and the children of Israel sang this song (shirah) unto the Lord” (Exod 15:1).
אבל לע”ל הן עתידין לירש כזכר היורש לכל נכסי אביו… והן אומרין בלשון זכר שנא’ (תהלים צו) שירו לה’ שיר חדש, שירה חדשה אין כתיב אלא שיר חדש
But in the days to come the people of Israel will inherit fully like a male who inherits all of his father’s property… And they say in masculine form, as it says (Ps. 95:1), “Sing unto the Lord a new song: it is not written with the feminine shirah hadashah but with the masculine shir hadash.
In the name of R. Joshua b. Levi, the midrash goes on to compare the feminized Israel to a woman who repeatedly becomes pregnant and then gives birth, explicitly likening female procreativity to a repeated cycle of enslavement and deliverance. The inferiority of women thus becomes not just a matter of law and social construction, but an essential outgrowth of biology. According to this reading of SoS, the endlessly deferred, unconsummated nature of the love plot reflects a feminized condition of limited agency and biological enslavement. The people of Israel, as the Shulamite, are forever pining for our masculine lover, waiting for the time when our portion and song are complete.
The Impossibility of a Feminist Literalist Allegory on the Song?
What are the implications of this midrash and this reading of Song of Songs?
That there is a lesser feminine mode of law, biology, and song and a higher masculine mode.
Exile is the feminine mode.
Redemption, agency, and power are the masculine mode.
And so, where am I?
My literalist side, rejects the “two synagogues” reading. My feminist side rejects the rabbinic idea of femininity being used as figure for all that is weak, deficient, and downtrodden about the people. My religious side rejects the negation of any sacred content from the Song, as if the only way to cull any understanding of feminine agency and voice in this remarkably reciprocal song is to cling to an entirely secular reading.
Still I Persist in my Pursuit
Like the double-worded title of the book – Shir Hashirim – and like Rabbi Akiva’s invocation of kodesh kedashim, I persist in my quest for a reading that has a double meaning, but one that begins with an appreciation of the literal meaning of the text. I persist in my search for a reading that acknowledges the feminine “shirah” of Shir Hashirim not as a lesser, exilic, second-class form, but as a necessary, welcome component of the Israelite experience of “shir.” I want the allegory precisely because this is a book about reciprocal, non-patriarchal love.
How to I accomplish this reading?
Reading Shir HaShirim in Context of the Exodus and Spring
First, I need to do is reframe and re-situate the terms of the allegory.
The rabbis prefer to read the SoS in the context of Israel’s repeated historical experiences of exile and their longing to return to her land and her lover (God). I too want to maintain something of a historical focus, but rather than placing major emphasis on the experience of exile, I elect to move the Song into earlier times, to place it in dialogue both with the early experience of the exodus, Yetziat mitzrayim, when the enslaved Israelites are reborn as a people, as well as the story of the Garden of Eden, when all of humanity is born.
Rabbinic Usage of the Exodus and Sinai
The Exodus move, of course, is not new. In Shir Hashirim Rabbah, the rabbis connect the love plot of SoS to the Exodus story, to the giving of the Torah at Sinai, as well as to worship in the Tabernacle. But often the love story is presented in ambivalent, even contested terms.
R. Johanan, for example (Shir Hashirim Rabbah I 2), applies the verse “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ) to the experience of Israel at Mount Sinai, and likens it to the story of a king who wanted to marry a wife of good and noble family, and so sent an envoy to speak with her. Upon his return, the envoy appeared buoyant but would give no clear report to the king. According to this allegory, God is the King, Moses is the envoy, and the people are the prospective wife, whose status remains indeterminate.
Similarly, the gloss on “I am black but comely” (1:5) offered in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (I:5), surveys the main events of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness to cull those moments when the feminized, rebellious Israel is both black, a clearly racist, negative label, and comely, a more positive designation.
A Feminist Literalist Allegory – Love Story in the Wilderness
A feminist literalist allegorical reading, however, focuses on an actual, palpable love story unfolding between lovers who have already met and spoken and are in the thrilling heyday of their shared relationship. After all, what does it mean for us to read and re-experience this book at this time of year in the month of Nissan?
We are in springtime (SoS 2:12).
We have just left Egypt.
We are a young, newly born people, in love with our freedom and our powerful God.
We have just fled a cursed form of work. We are on a redemptive trajectory.
We have not yet sinned.
We have not yet worshipped other gods.
We have been drawn out of the waters of the Red Sea as a people and have been cleansed by these same waters.
We are the newly bloomed flowers, the gazelle or young harts (SoS 2:17).
Giddily, we chase God into the wilderness.
We play hide and seek with God in the gardens.
We are in the tense, exhilarating time of young love, when all is new and untested, “a foundation of gardens, a well of living water” (SoS 3:15).
We have not yet stood by the chuppah of Sinai and received the Torah.
We search around for words, metaphors to capture our love. The Torah has not yet given us a ready-made vocabulary of law and ritual with which to express our relatedness.
We are in that anxious exciting time, when we wait with bated breath for each conversation and worry about every misstep, every wrongly-uttered word. We are all at once confident and terrified about where we stand with God. Occasionally, we feel frantic. We run outside at night (SoS 3:2) and take dangerous risks around this love. There are fits and starts, gaps and continuities to our intimacies.
Still we run out to the garden and pursue our love. We attempt to make sense of it to ourselves and to the people around us, to correlate it poetically to the natural world around us, but language falters. Others do not understand; they assault our efforts, endeavoring to humiliate us into a retreat (SoS 5:7). But we do not retreat. The pursuit continues.
Protective Brothers: Building (on) a Woman
In Chapter 8 verses 8-9, the brothers who, previously incensed at their sister, had made her keeper of the vineyards (SoS 1:6) now try to lock the Shulamite away from her love, as if in a tower, behind a cedar door:
שיר השירים ח:ח אָחוֹת לָנוּ קְטַנָּה וְשָׁדַיִם אֵין לָהּ מַה נַּעֲשֶׂה לַאֲחֹתֵנוּ בַּיּוֹם שֶׁיְּדֻבַּר בָּהּ.ח:ט אִם חוֹמָה הִיא נִבְנֶה עָלֶיהָ טִירַת כָּסֶף וְאִם דֶּלֶת הִיא נָצוּר עָלֶיהָ לוּחַ אָרֶז.
Song 8:8 We have a sister whose breasts (shadayim) are not yet formed. What shall we do for our sister when she is spoken for? If she be a wall, we’ll build upon it a silver battlement. If she be a door, we will panel it in cedar.
The brothers do not succeed, however, in blocking the path and voice of love.
“Female eroticism in the Song,” writes feminist Bible scholar J. Cheryl Exum, “is paradoxically celebrated and controlled, but it does not ever seem to be successfully controlled,” not by the angry watchmen, nor by these would-be protective brothers.
In their bid for control, the brothers employ the language of building, of fortifications, towers, dividing walls and blocked doors. But even amid the buildings and battlements, one sees countervailing intimations of the wilderness / garden, as the brothers’ determination to build —niveneh alehah tirat kesef – recalls the peculiar verb choice used by the Bible in Genesis 2:22, to describe the creation of the first woman:
בראשית ב:כב וַיִּבֶן יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הַצֵּלָע אֲשֶׁר־לָקַח מִן־הָאָדָם לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen. 2:22 And the LORD God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman.
God takes a rib from Ha-Adam (the man) and builds it into an ishah, brings her to ha-Adam, resulting in not one but two new, intimately connected entities; Ha-Adam calls himself “ish” as a consequence of meeting “ishah,” poetically celebrating her as עצם מעצמי ובשר מבשרי, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
In Shir Hashirim too, the protagonists Shelomo and Ha-Shulamit boast similar, etymologically proximate names, signaling connectedness and complementarity.
If the brothers are bent on asserting control over the sister through building, the already built-up Shulamite uses the same language to assert her sense of intactness and peacefulness of her lover’s eyes:
שיר השירים ח:י אֲנִי חוֹמָה וְשָׁדַי כַּמִּגְדָּלוֹת אָז הָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כְּמוֹצְאֵת שָׁלוֹם.
Song 8:10 I am a wall, my breasts are like towers. So I was in his eyes as one who finds peace.
Shlomo and Shelomit: A Tale of Partners
I mentioned earlier that the Rabbis understood the moniker, Hamelekh Shelomo as hamelekh shehashalom lo, “the king who is in possession of peace.” In my feminist literalist version of the allegory, grounded in SoS 9:10, the Shulamite, likewise, is kemotzeit shalom, one who sees herself, reflected in her lover’s eyes, as possessing peace. Rather than being forever lacking, deficient, and subservient, then, the Shulamite is Shelomo’s equal counterpart, “Hara’ayah she-hashalom la,” as it were, one who has found her other side and is complete.
It is in this guise that I want the Shulamite of Song of Songs to stand for the People of Israel. It is at this moment, that I most want this love story to stand for our love of God and God’s love of us.
What this feminist, anthropomorphic, allegorical reading of Shir haShirim allows us to do is to dwell for moment in a garden with God and to imagine away the tensions of history and ideology. It enables us to see the feminine voice of the Song not so much as symbol of Israel’s (feminine) degraded incapacity in exile or in law, but of our wholeness with God, our built-up, fortified, sense of peace in God’s all-encompassing presence; and the lack of consummation in the Song not as evidence of limited agency and ongoing enslavement, but of future promise and hope.
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April 13, 2017
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Prof. Rabbi Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, her B.A. from Stern College (YU), and her rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.
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