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.