Shir HaShirim As The Solution to Shlomo’s Conundrum: Part two of a series

So, I’m not gonna sum up my last post, because its here, on this website. It’s a click away, and one of only two other posts I’ve done. Not so hard. 
Anyway, we may think of Shlomo developing along with the books ascribed to him in the Rabbinic tradition. Mishlei, the proverbs the gemara mentioned as the source of Shlomo’s explanations of Torah, is confident and clear. Stay away from these bad things, do good things. Not so hard. But, as we’ve talked about, Shlomo moves on, thinks deeper, and we arrive at the existential despair of Kohelet. What’s the point of anything? Why do anything? Why don’t we have any good answers?
So, perhaps the answer to Shlomo’s conundrum is Shir Hashirim. Shir Hashirim, is of course, a weird book, a book described as “holy of holies” by Rabbi Akiva, but a book that appears, at first glance, to be a love song, a love song at time so explicit Artscroll won’t translate it correctly (“Too Hot for Artscroll”), a book written about the love between a man and woman but said to be about the relationship between a person and God, or God and the Jewish people. So it’s a little weird. 

I’m going to look at two different peshatim on Shir Hashirim and how it functions, the first by R. Yitzchak Hutner in Pachad Yitzchak, the second by Rav Kook in Midbar Shur, and my thoughts using those two approaches. 
Rav Kook doesn’t deal with the outer-layer-peshat-love song, like most Orthodox thinkers, but his peshat may provide a basis for dealing with. Based on a statement in Shir HaShirim Rabbah that Shir HaShirim is a “doubled song”, Rav Kook sees two coexisting interpretations of Shir Hashirim, one where God is the male lover (dod) and Knesset Yisrael is the female beloved (rayah), and one where the male lover is Am Yisrael and God is the female beloved. Rav Kook sees these two interpretations as symbolizing two different ways of understanding God and the mitzvot. The first way is to try and understand the reasons and rationality underlying all the commandments and the morality behind them. This way is absolutely necessary for conveying the Torah to each generation, but it is limited. Reasons and morality will vary from person to person, and the understanding of each mitzvah will vary wildly from person to person, and the ability to call any single approach ultimate truth is extremely limited. Our best rationalizations and justifications are thus just our best guesses. The second way is to accept that each mitzvah has a rational and moral basis that goes beyond our understanding and our perspective, a basis that will only become apparent at the end of days, but must remain beyond us for now. I don’t get quite how he relates each approach to each interpretation of Shir HaShirim, but his point is that the two approaches must coexist, that we must both try to understand the mitzvot so as to allow for its continued practice while also admitting that our understanding is ultimately limited and the true reasons remain beyond us. 

To stretch Rav Kook’s idea a bit, perhaps into something he never intended, we could take his two categories of relationships to God  as an understanding of the literal and allegorical layers of the book. The literal interpretation is that of a love song between a man and a woman, a love that defies and does not require any sort of rational explanation, whose existence need not be justified, only accepted. Reasons, however, may be given, particular things that stand out to the lover about his beloved as particularly worthy of love, as the characters in shir hashirim themselves do but, more importantly, the commentators providing allegorical interpretations that vary wildly by the interpreter. The key fact, the point at which all such approaches operate around and towards, is the bare fact of this love existing, and who is the lover and beloved and their relationship are blanks filled in by the various allegorical approaches. 

In such a way, we may solve Shlomo’s conundrum by positing that the rational and moral understandings brought by Shlomo do not, or rather, cannot, constitute the basis of one’s relationship to God, In much the same way that the way a lover speaks about the things he/she likes about his/her beloved does not constitute the basis of their relationship. As the relationship grows, and as the people involved grow older, reasons may change, or fall away completely, but the love underlying it does not fade. This is not to denigrate the value of rationality. If you can’t think of anything you like about your partner, this is a problem, especially if they are, say, abusive or selfish. The fact that the basis of a relationship is unconditional is no excuse for either side to act unreasonably. In a very different way, the fact that the basis of one’s relationship to God is irrational does not mean mean that one’s entire religion should be devoid of rationality.

We still have two questions, though. Concerning Shlomo’s conundrum, how does one take the leap from an approach to Judaism based solely on rationality to an approach that can accept the irrational basis underlying it. And from the perspective of Shir HaShirim, why write it as a “common” love song if it indeed expresses such lofty ideals? This, in turn, brings us to Rav Hutner in Pachad Yitzchak. Rav Hutner uses the idea that Shlomo’s Kingdom represents a high point of Jewish History (an idea he likely gets from Rav Kook) and proposes that whereas most songs are usually sung over the defeat of the wicked (an idea which appears elsewhere in his works) a Song of Songs represents something above and beyond the defeat of evil, fitting in with the peace achieved in Shlomo’s time. He suggests that this manifests itself in the attitude towards mundane activities that do not seem to have any relation to holier pursuits. Whereas, in most eras, where the forces of evil are constantly being battled against, the purpose of mundane activities is to allow one to more effectively continue one’s battle for good. Thus, one eats and drinks and sleep to gain  strength for Torah and good deeds. In an era like Shlomo’s however, where good has momentarily defeated evil, mundane activites gain an added dimension, that of allegory, where everything one does in one’s life becomes an allegory for higher loftier ideas. Accordingly, though Rav Hutner leaves this unsaid, one can understand Shlomo’s choice to write Shir Hashirim as a love song not as a willful hiding of his true intentions, but as a natural outgrowth of this new form of religious service. To Shlomo, according to Rav Hutner, it is simply natural that the love felt between man and woman is an allegory for loftier ideas of man and god. Neither mashal nor nimshal, the readily apparent and the unknowable and unattainable, take precedent,  each is a natural outgrowth of the other and both are accomplished as one.  To take it a step further, to write about man and God in such a manner, to describe it in terms of the allegory lived on this earth instead of the loftier one it represents, to accept life as an allegory for ideas beyond you yet live within it, may be what Shir HaShirim is about. The author of Mishlei escapes the doom of Kohelet by living within the reality of Shir Hashirim. 

Shlomo HaMelech And The Pitfalls of Over-Rationalizing

I want to focus on the way Chazal seem to draw Shlomo HaMelech’s character in a consistent stream of midrashim, because I think its a good way to portray where my mind has been at recently.

Shlomo HaMelech is the wisest man in history, that much is not up for discussion. What form does this wisdom take in the rabbinic literature? Surprisingly enough, they view him as an outstanding Torah scholar. We already see him paskening shailos in peshat, coming up with ingenious solutions to some vexing problems of maternity. Chazal take it further.  With his penetrating analysis of law, he came up with the idea of Eruvin, a creative way to allow Jews to carry on shabbos, and a bat kol comes out and approves of his undertaking. But Shlomo is not satisfied with the how and the what, the wise man that he is. He must know why. And thus he comes up with “three thousand proverbs for every devar torah and one thousand and five reasons for every devar sofrim”. And he uses all these abilities for the good of the Jewish people, so much so that it is said that the Torah was like a basket with no handles, and it was Shlomo who added the handles. Shlomo is able, through his wisdom and ingenuity, lightens the burden of observance on his people, either through inventive practical psak or through creative explanation that appeals to the mind. (All of this from Eruvin 21b)

But there are pitfalls to Shlomo’s wisdom: By grounding observance of the law in the reasons he gives for them, he opens observance up to rational challenges when the reasons are thought to no longer apply. It should probably not be surprising that the same personality who comes up with Eruvin, which effectively gets rid of the prohibition of carrying, looked at the laws governing the power of the king, and deemed them inoperable. Shlomo knows he will not be corrupted by having too many wives, he will not be corrupted by having too many horses, he feels confident that his awareness of the true purpose of the law will serve as inoculation against wrongdoing, therefore, he concludes, the prohibition will no longer apply. (Sanhedrin 21b) Shlomo may be intelligent, the wisest man of all time, but he underestimates the perniciousness of human weakness, the ability of human beings to rationalize their own actions until they look at themselves in the mirror and a monster stares back at them (Breaking Bad is a devastating illustration of this point). Any Orthodox thinker will eventually arrive to the conclusion that the utility of religion lies in its non-utility, its grounding of morality in the supernatural and non-negotiable, that the social order can only be maintained when the laws that govern it cannot be swayed by the rationalization of flawed humanity. Such is one pitfall of rationalization, and though it is a dangerous one, it is relatively easy to avoid.

The second pitfall, I think, is easier to fall into, and thus, in its own way, more dangerous. Shlomo now realizes that the mitzvos guarding the social order, mishpatim, must paradoxically be beyond sense to make sense, that they must be beyond human rationalization so that they may be safe from it. He may even see other mitzvos, the ritual and the irrational (eidos and chukim) as cementing and consecrating that humility in humanity, that doing things that are beyond us remind us that we’re not all there is. But this knowledge paralyzes him. A midrash in Vaykira Rabba (30:15) describes Shlomo raising objections to identification of each of the Arba Minim, asking of each “But how do we know?”. Lacking the ability to appeal to any rational objective, having accepted the mitzvos as essentially beyond rationality, he’s unable to make actual decisions. Everything is on the table, everything can be equally true, and there is no criteria to separate right from wrong. Pri Etz Hadar could be an Etrog, but it could also not be, and neither one can be said to be preferable in a realm in which rationality does not rule. Furthermore, his whole conception of ritual, grounded in his rational understanding of the religious system, is to do things for no other reason than to preserve his own humility. However, once he knows that, he can no longer meaningfully participate in a non-self conscious manner. He can no longer take an Arba Minim without it occurring to him that this act has no intrinsic significance beyond having no rational explanation, with all explanations being very much post-facto (evidenced by his ability to think of thousands of them) defeating the point of a system that is supposed to endow this act with cosmic significance. He’s left paralyzed, unable to make meaningful decisions about Jewish law or participate meaningfully, relegated to observing the system, not being part of it.

Is there a solution to this state? I don’t know, that’s kind of why I’m writing this. I don’t believe, and I refuse to entertain the notion, that religion is meant solely for children and the ignorant. I do what I do because I don’t believe that. But I do believe that a religious person must strive towards what I’ll call a “refined innocence”, a state at which one is able to devote a mature, intelligent and advanced self wholeheartedly to the religious endeavor. I’m not yet at that state.