The Bible's Sleeping Beauty and Her Great-Granddaughters

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 4/14/2004

One of the most interesting critiques of modernity has gone beyond condemnations of capitalism to describe all forms of modern life (including those that call themselves socialist) as dominated by technology, patriarchy, hierarchy, and alienation, all focused on the race for mastery of the earth and of society. This critique finds its roots in the life experience of women; it affirms the earth-web of life, and celebrates a kind of spirituality that wells up from community

According to this view, the religious traditions based on the Hebrew Bible, with their strong emphasis on the Father-God in Heaven and male leadership on earth, are not only the sources from which patriarchy and the technomastery originated, but also continue to provide the most rigidly role-ridden, male-dominant versions of how men and women should live in the world.

Sometimes this critique looks upon modernity as the beginning of liberation from these old oppressions.

I think this view is partly right and partly mistaken. I want to look at some strands of biblical tradition that may preserve some prebiblical understandings of the importance of women, of women's spirituality, and of the earth-web.

Indeed, whether or not these texts are actual deposits of such a prebiblical history, I think that when they are looked at by eyes that have lived through the modern age, they may help our own generation rebalance mastery and mystery, women and men, human beings and the earth.

These strands may almost be seen as a Sleeping Beauty, hidden away in the most secret chambers of the biblical faiths. Hidden away so deeply that only the elaborate public places of male dominion have seemed to make up the reality of the traditions. Yet this Sleeping Beauty of women's energy may all along have been quietly breathing life-energy into the public places. And now it may be possible for her to awake to fuller life when she is kissed awake by her great-great-granddaughters. (And perhaps by some grandsons too.)

If we look into the Hebrew Bible for its richest, deepest explorations of the place of men and women in the world and of the relationships of human beings with the earth, we find two mythic tales: the Garden of Eden and the Song of Songs. I think that the first is a tale of the painful awakening of the human race from an unconscious infancy into a tense adolescence and a drudging adulthood, and that the second is a vision of that adulthood renewed, refreshed, made fully playful and conscious at the same time. In short, the Song of Songs is Eden for grown-ups.

Seen from one angle, the story of Eden seems to embody and command the dominion of men over women, as well as rigid roles of life for both women and men. And this is indeed the way most of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have viewed the story. The male seems to be the dominant figure, the real creation; the woman seems merely an afterthought.

The woman is weak: she hearkens not to God but to the cunning serpent, challenges God impetuously, brings sin and trouble into the world, visits upon all future women their subservience to men and their pain in childbirth. From this angle of vision, all of it -- the whole story -- seems to be both warrant and command to keep women in their place.

Now let us give the story a twist, a turn like the one we give a kaleidoscope in order to see all its elements in a new context. Let us experiment with seeing it as a tale of growing up. A story not of disaster and sin, but of the troublesome spiral of growing, returning, growing, returning.

Suppose that humankind begins not as "male," or "man," but as embryonic or infantile "androgyne" -- the Adam of Genesis 1. Is there any warrant to see the story this way? Yes, for this is where the Bible not only asserts that human beings are created "male and female, in the Image of God," but also, in the same breath, has God speak of the Divine Self not as "My Image" but as "Our Image" -- as if to say, "I too am Male and Female."

Genesis 1 and 5 describe Adam sometimes as "he" and sometimes as "they," shifting back and forth from singular to plural as if the Bible were trying to say simultaneously that there is a single humanness in both men and women, and that in this single humanness there is also a doublenessaleness and femalenessoth of which are real, and both of which have a part in making the one human form.

At this point in the Creation story, all the elements of "male" and "female" and all the other aspects of humanity are still cloudy, unclear, undifferentiated. The human being is close cousin of the dark, moist, earthy humus; so Adam and Adamah, as the Hebrew calls the human
and the humus, are a great deal like each other.

And as the first stage of growth, the two "sides" of the human, which we call male and female, begin to separate. As the Adam of Genesis 2 evolves, from this "s/he" is removed the "she" as a rib from the body, as a specific figure from the undifferentiated ground. Indeed, the female aspect becomes clearer, more focused, more active first. Its emergence necessarily, dialectically, defines what remains as male.

Why is it the woman who emerges from what then remains defined as man? Why does the man not emerge from, why is he not birthed by, the woman we who read the story might expect? Perhaps to suggest that in the Garden of Delight, a man could give birth; in Eden, the roles we know to apply in ordinary history are not locked in. Even after this birth, this separation, it is clear that the two remain bone of each other's bone, flesh of each other's flesh.

But then the woman side takes another step. The Snake faces her with the necessity of choice -- and she chooses. Why is it the woman who makes this choice? Perhaps because the text is again teaching us that in the Garden of Delight, the gender roles that we know have applied in most of "ordinary" history are not locked into place: just as in Eden a man can give birth, so in Eden a woman can make history -- indeed, start history going.

Since choosing is itself an act of distinction making, it is no surprise that the woman chooses to take fully into herself the consciousness of distinctions, differences. All differences; but the difference that becomes most apparent, once this choice to make choices is made, is the difference between "good" and "bad."

Why this focus? Because the advance in consciousness that discovers "separation" also signals and requires a separation -- that of human beings from their embeddedness in Mother Earth. And this separation is painful. There is some sense in which all earth shrieks out in protest at this painful birthingnd warns us of the resulting difficulties we will face:

The knowledge of death will come into the world, as will the struggle to wring a livelihood from the earth. No more will we freely eat what we find; now we will struggle to subdue the earth, to make it feed us, so as to stave off death.

And the earth will fight back. It will turn barren when we overuse it. And the roles that rigidify what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a man, will come into the world. The very revolution in consciousness that the woman initiated will unfold in such a way as to isolate women into childbearing and into subservience to men. It will isolate men into the production of food and into rulership of the family. The women's work of birthing new human beings will become painful labor; the men's work of shaping a living from the earth will become exhausting toil.

But does the story insist that this new set of social roles and structures is the right way to live? Or is there any hint that the process of growth and change will continue?

Within the story itself, there is such a hint. For the story itself describes Eden as the Garden of Delight. It is only outside the Garden that male domination takes command of life. The whole tenor of biblical hope is that the Garden can somehow be rediscovered, recreated, reawakened within us and around us.

In the new Garden of Delight, exhausting toil will no longer be the human lotor each will live under his or her own vine and fig tree to eat there unafraid. And in that Garden, to be fully human is to be androgynous. If male and female are to be distinguished, then still it must he possible as it was in Eden for the man to "give birth" and for the woman to "start history." That is, in the world of delight men and women would not be locked into the roles that they have been locked into throughout most of history.

Now of course the ancient Eden of delight was infantile. Once consciousness dawns, we cannot go home again to the garden of infantile unconsciousness. But can we go forward to a conscious Eden?

Thai is the vision of the Song of Songs. But before we examine this other "garden" of the Bible, let us look at one crucial question: why is it the woman who carries the burden of "growth" or "sin" in the story of Eden?

One way of understanding the story is that it is about the unfolding of a single human life -- from infancy to a certain kind of drudging adulthood. In that life story, perhaps the clearest shock of sexual differentiation, emerging from the relative androgyny of childish girls and boys, is the swelling of a girl into a woman.

Perhaps in that sense the women are the ones who eat first from the tree that can teach the knowing of distinctions, and they feed the knowledge to men. Perhaps the Eden story has it be the snake who teaches women this wisdom because the snake molts its skin without dying. So the snake can best teach women how to understand "molting" of their uterine skins in menstruation, when they bleed without dying, and the "molting" of our old identities in growing up, when they change without dying. (It is the snake that teaches the woman that she will not die, but will grow up, if she eats from the tree.)

It is precisely menstruation -- the event through which women discover themselves as women -- that has been for women the instrument of role differentiation to childbirth, child rearing, and subordination to men.

And then the woman teaches the man as well, how to "molt" his old identity and change without dying.

Seen this way, the story may be helpful in teaching how each human being grows into consciousness and adulthood. Seen this way, it is about fluidity and change within a single life, but about stasis and inevitability in the long haul -- for each individual life will go through he same cycle as the life before it.

But the story may be communicating something else as well --something about the life spiral of the human ace as a whole, about the role of consciousness in the emergence of the human race from the humus.

The Eden story is a tale of how the human race as a whole grows up. Beginning as an undifferentiated part of the web of life, human beings -- led perhaps by women who began to create culture by educating children, teaching language, worshipping the Goddess -- separate themselves from the earth. Women's creation of this special role for themselves enables men to learn to imprison them in the very roles that women had used to liberate themselves.

The male step on the spiral perhaps represents what might be called "the biblical revolution" -- itself both an advance for some values and a retreat for others, like most revolutions.

An advance for economics -- that is, the knowledge of how to battle the earth to wring food from it.

A retreat for peacefulness. As the Bible describes this moment, it encompasses the emergence of Cain and Abel -- farmer and shepherd -- and the first murder. An advance for men who were freed to make the future, and a retreat for women whose power became the Sleeping Beauty hidden somewhere in the corridors of the Hebrew Bible and its successors and interpreters in the Talmud, the New Testament, and the Koran.

At the level of overarching mythic symbol, the Hebrew Bible carries some powerful assertions that women and men must walk together in the world. One way to see this doubleness is that it operates at the biological level: to make or at least to continue the human family requires both men and women.

But another way to see the doubleness is that it operates within each human being, psychologically and spiritually. The notion that Adam was originally androgynous, somehow both "male" and "female"was recognized long ago. Nineteen hundred years ago some of the ancient Jewish commentators said it and thus suggested a second level of perception.

For whoever wrote down the words of Genesis and of rabbinic commentary could tell, from looking at the world, that there were within men and within women both "male" and "female." And once this way of thinking enters the world, it becomes harder to separate men and women into utterly separate roles and spheres of life.

What does it mean to use such metaphors as "male" and "female" to describe behaviors and characteristics that could appear in both sexes? The metaphors, coming partly from biology and partly from our cultural inheritance of how to look at biology -- a cultural inheritance deeply influenced by the Bible -- have become connected with two other pairs of polarities: mastery and mystery, activism and nurturance.

Our traditions have seen activism and mastery as male, nurturance and mystery as female. And while these identifications have tended to push men in the direction of the activist and masterful pole, women in the direction of the nurturant and mysterious pole, the traditions have tried to make sure that there would be some balance in the world between these poles.

How was the power of men and women balanced? Through the family -- which until the modern age had far more presence, power, and domain in the world than we are used to thinking. It was families and clans that made up not only the institution of sex and child rearing, but most of the economy, most of the polity. Even a monarchy or a major commercial firm was really a clan, a household. It might command more power or more money than any other clan or household in the land, but not enough to eclipse them.

And the monarchical or commercial clan had within itself all that was familial, nurturing, and self-limiting about the weaker families: the loves and quarrels, the creative tugs and ineptitudes of sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, parents and children.

For all these families had within them both men, who were encouraged to seek mastery and activity, and women, who were encouraged to express mystery and nurturance. The women's expression of mystery and nurturance surrounded, infused, diluted, the men's pursuit of mastery. Even though men were dominant in the family, women and their values could not be ignored. And all families in the land, even the most powerful, were affected by this balance.

Now let us look more deeply and more practically at what the Bible taught and practiced about the intertwined male and female in all human beingshe androgyny within each man and woman. It was not only in the mythic stories of Creation and Eden but also in the commands for an everyday path of life that the biblical traditions looked beyond the rigid roles that might imprison men and women.

Or rather, the traditions looked beyond these roles in regard to men, by creating forms in which men could be nurturing and could experience mystery -- could be "female," as the biblical traditions understood femaleness.

Priests, rabbis, monks, and mystics are not masterful or activist in the world, especially not when they are compared with kings and explorers, engineers and entrepreneurs. Priests, rabbis, monks, and mystics are "women." They celebrate mystery and nurture the community. To the extent that they become the models for how other men are supposed to be and live, they encourage androgyny in men.

It has even been argued, in David Bakan's The Duality of Human Existence (Beacon Press, 1971), that many of the practices that the Bible enjoins upon men are precisely intended to "motherize" men: to limit or dissolve their mastery and their activism lest it swallow up and destroy the world.

For example, it may be that the biblical command that fathers circumcise their boy children was intended to "motherize" both the father and son.

How does this work? First of all, this moment of intense physical and emotional connection binds the father to his son in a way analogous to the mother's physical and emotional connection through the birth canal. Otherwise, fathers might feel only distantly connected.

And this act of connection is one in which the father almost enacts the impulse to murder his son, but deliberately refrains. What does he do instead? By hallowing the child's genitals, he looks forward to the next generation, to his grandchildren. He becomes "motherly"; he focuses on nurturing the cycle of the generations.

As for the son, removing the tough outer casing of his genitals makes him -- at least symbolically -- more vulnerable, more open, more "womanly." By shedding even a little blood from his genitals, he imitates women's menstrual bleeding.

And the spiraling cycles of the seventh day (the Sabbath Day), the seventh month (with four festivals in its four phases of the moon), the seventh year (the Sabbatical Year, when the whole land and all workers were allowed to rest), and the seventh cycle (the Jubilee Year, when all social mastery was disrupted by redistribution of the land) may also represent the periodic honoring of the earth mother that women knew was necessary: a kind of rhythmic menstrual period for the earth as well as for society, a periodic rest in which their fertility was allowed time off.

So this spiraling cycle, too, may have taught men to intersperse their active, productive work with periods of rest, contemplation, nurturance.

These efforts of the biblical traditions to androgynize men by teaching them elements of nurturance and mystery are not matched by similar efforts to androgynize women by teaching them elements of mastery. The biblical stories do, however, celebrate specific women who are active and masterful -- in the Hebrew Scriptures, Rebecca, Tamar, Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Yael; and in the Christian New Testament, Mary and the Magdalene.

It is noteworthy that some of the early activist women come from communities that were only loosely connected with the People Israel -- communities in which women had a more independent and empowered place.

Thus Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel are from a family of strong women for whom wells and sacred objects called teraphim may have had some connection with the moon and menstruation.

Tamar, who in the guise of a sacred prostitute seduces Judah for the sake of what he later admits is greater righteousness, is a Canaanite.

Tzipporah, who knows the sacred blood mystery of circumcision when her husband Moses doesn't, is a Midianite.

Ruth, who wins Boaz at a sacred moment in the barley harvest through sexual assertiveness that redeems the land and the family, is a Moabite.

These women may have brought from other cultures into Israelite life what might be called "protofeminist" values of independence and activism, as well as the spirituality that gave form and support to such values. But the Bible does not lay out a path of life that would shape such women. It only hints at wells, water, the moon, the Queen of Heaven, the sacred use of sexuality -- and then stigmatizes some while treating others (for example, moon and water symbolism) as legitimate but marginal. At best it only keeps such possibilities alive in secret -- the Sleeping Beauty.

In our own generation, many women enter on a collision course with the old religious traditions precisely because the Bible fails to be symmetrical about encouraging the public, the assertive, the "male" within women, in the way that it encourages the receptive, the mysterious, the "female" within men.

What happened in the modern age?

The family lost power. It had been the institution that shaped all worlds, even politics and economics. Since mystery and nurturance had been located in the family, mystery and nurturance also lost power when they were ghettoized into the home and family.

All the weight of nurturing the human race was dumped onto women, and the only institutional framework for nurturance that women were given was the family.

And the impulse toward mastery was unleashed in men. They could pursue it in the public world of commerce, industry, science, politics, and war. Pursue it without pausing -- to rework all the institutions of public life so that these institutions carried forward the impulse toward mastery.

Indeed, even the distinction between "private" and "public," between the home and family on the one hand and all other institutions on the other, became much sharper as the family became tiny, or "nuclear," and its extended network much weaker.

At the same time, the "public" institutions became much bigger, grander, and more powerful. In the modern age, one set of families -- the monarchical and commercial set -- became less families than engines of efficiency and bureaucracy. And the other set of families -- those with less power and wealth -- gave up their ability to be economic or political units, stopped being clans, and
disintegrated into tiny nuclear households.

In the big new bureaucracies, men ruled and women obeyed. In the tiny new nuclear households, women kept some power. But it was power only to rule the lives of children, and even that power was grasped more and more by agencies of the state or the business corporation.

At the theological level as well, feminine aspects of the Godhead lost power. Mary was eclipsed in Protestant Christianity, and the Shekhinah in modernist Judaism.

And these shifts of power in the direction of men and of mastery showed in the world. We have already seen how dangerous the results have been. For if we, the human race, can make an Auschwitz and prepare to make a worse worldwide Auschwitz, the imbalance between our ability to act and our ability to nurture has become an issue of life and death.

Action, "I/It," is on the verge of devouring nurturance, "I/Thou" -- and with it, the world.

So at this moment of our history there is an uprising of women. At the moment when nurturance has been cramped into the ghetto of the tiny nuclear household, those most skilled at nurturance break out of the ghetto, go into public streets, and insist that nurturance reenter the public spheres where the future of society as a whole is being made: the spheres of power and wealth.

Why is this happening? Because women are discovering and insisting that their nurturance will come to nothing -- indeed, be burnt to ashes -- unless they act to make things happen, to change the future. So they have tried to carry the values and skills of nurturance into public space, by intertwining with them the "male" values and skills of activism and mastery.

The goal of these changes -- dimly seen though it may be -- is a world in which the balance of mastery and mystery, activism and nurturance, is achieved not, as before, by a balance of power between activist men and nurturant women, but by a balance of activism and nurturance within men and within women. The passage from the one world to the other is extremely hard for the women and men who are attempting it.

How to ease this passage? Here the Sleeping Beauty of the biblical traditions -- if we are able to reawaken her-- may be of crucial help. So let us now turn to the place in the biblical traditions where the Sleeping Beauty of women's life experience has her home: the Song of Songs.

What is the Song? First, it is one of the greatest love poems in all of human literature -- erotic, playful, passionate, funny, tipsy with love for the spring, the flowers, the smells, the legs and breasts and forehead of each lover's sweet beloved.

But wait, maybe it is not "one" of anything. Maybe it is a weaving of erotic strands that sometimes seem to have a woven unity -- even a plot -- and sometimes seem to dissolve into a collection of poems that share only the theme of love.

If there is a plot, a story, it is about lovers who seek each other and who passionately celebrate each other's bodies, but who vanish from each other just when they are about to join. It is about watch-men and brothers who seek to impose order, and how the order vanishes.

It is about... but the plot, the story, also vanishes ... and reappears ... interrupted by flashes of the comic: "the foxes, the little foxes, are come to frolic in our vines!" Interrupted by a vision of the King in his jeweled chariot -- reduced to pallor by the glory of the spring. "Your breasts are like twin fawns...."

An unsatisfactory uncertainty! If we cannot be sure what the Song is, what was it? Where did it come from?

We have it because, after a vigorous debate, the rabbis of ancient Palestine, about a generation after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, decided that it was part of the holy canon that we call "The Bible," and that it belonged among the Writings (like the Scroll of Esther and the Book of Job) that had been touched by the Holy Spirit.

A peculiar book to be part of the Bible, they noted: a book in which the People of Israel is never mentioned, a book in which God's Name is never mentioned, a hymn of wild goats, mountains, brooks, and springs, in which God is never praised for all these wonders.

And before the Rabbis voted? Quite possibly, it was a group of songs that came not from specifically Israelite tradition at all, but centuries before from those earthy gods-and-goddesses-worshipping traditions that Israel lived among, within, and around -- that intertwined with Israel.

The Song was par excellence the Sleeping Beauty of the Bible, hidden away deep in the palace of the King by women who felt there need not forever be a battle between God and the Goddess. Ready to awaken her when new women, spiritually open to her, would be ready to kiss her to consciousness.

To all who preserved the Song of Songs, it seemed like something "more." To the Rabbis who voted to make it part of the Bible, to the Jews who have for centuries chanted it every Passover and every Friday evening as the Sabbath comes, to the Church in which it became a fruitful text for mystical meditation -- to the sufis who also drewon ikts mystic propoerties -- to all these people and institutions, there was something "more" that arose from its words.

Why? How? The Rabbis and the Church came to similar conclusions: the former, that the love story of two lovers was an allegory of God's love for the People of Israel; the latter, that it was an allegory of Christ's love for the Church.

Today, perhaps we do not need to choose between seeing the Song as either physical or allegorical, either sexual or mystical. We do not need to see one of the lovers in the Song as God, and the other as the Church or the People of Israel.

Instead, we may see God everywhere in the Song and the earthy earth everywhere in the Song. The Song is filled with God because the Song is filled with passionate love, flowing fluid erotic love. God is everywhere in the Song precisely because God's Name is nowhere in the Song. Nowhere specified, nowhere differentiated, nowhere singled out.

Who is this God that is everywhere in the Song -- in the bodies of the lovers, in the birds and flowers of the spring, in the fluidity and evanescence of all its images and indeed of the "story" itself that emerges from the poems? This God is the God Who is Immanent -- present so fully in the Creation that S/He does not bother to be visible outside it.

The Song offers us an Eden -- but not the infantile unconscious Eden. Instead, an Eden for grown-ups. We have a Garden, and we have a man and woman living in it. But the Parental God of Eden is gone, as would indeed be the case if the Parent's children had grown up.

And the adolescent stirrings of a fearful sexuality that shadow Eve and Adam are gone: in the Song, sexuality is vigorous and playful, unforced and unforcing. Indeed, with all their Eros the lovers never quite consummate their love, never quite achieve an orgasm. And this is never shown to be a result of asceticism or a cause for mourning. The joy of Eros does not need a climax, according to the Song: the joy is in the process, just as God is in the Process.

The Song is a hymn to fluidity and flow, rather than to rigidity and structure. "Do not rouse love until it please," sings its refrains against the "clockiness," the calendar, of most biblical and most Rabbinic religion.

The form of the Song itself is a hymn to flow; that is why it is so hard to be sure whether there is or is not a story in it. It is intended to be evanescent: now you see it, now you don't. Like the lovers. Like love. Like God.

Here humans have at last been able to eat from the flowing Tree of Life. The Tree of Distinctions -- of Knowing Good and Evil -- has taken its proper place within the Garden. There is neither an unconscious embeddedness in the humus, the earth, nor an embittered enmity. There is a free and playful relation. The era of Cain and Abel has ended: in the Song, the Shepherd and the King can live at peace. There is no murder.

And of the two lovers, the woman leads the story. She speaks more lines than does the male lover; she seeks; she is the more active partner. She leads androgynously, assertively but fluidly. She is the fulfillment of those assertive, fluid, androgynous women -- Eve, Rebecca, Tamar, Miriam, Ruth, Mary.

And the man of the Song is also androgynous -- vigorous and virile, but also nurturing, fluid, given to mystery. In the Song, Adam and Eve are again androgynous -- not quite like the original Adam, for each is still a separate man and woman; but each bears, within, an aspect of the other.

If we hear the Song in this way, what does it come to teach us? Let us be clear that this is a way of hearing the Song that is quite different from the way in which Jewish and Christian male mystics, in male-dominant traditions, have heard it: for they have leached all of physical, sexual passion out of it and have insisted on seeing God in it as separate from the People, the Church, the Earth, the World.

It is also quite different from a purely pagan way of hearing the Song, in which God is totally absent or totally present, totally infused within the earth.

Hearing the Song as both the fulfillment and critique of Eden puts it in relationship and tension with the whole rest of the Bible (and with the biblical traditions).

This way of hearing the Song also puts it in relationship and tension with the images and myths and mythopoeic histories of the prebiblical, "pre-ancient" period that have so stirred the imaginations and energies of many contemporary women.

To put it in other words: hearing the Song in this way can give us a way of both affirming and going beyond the conventionally opposed polarities of "theism" and "paganism."

It can give us a way of going beyond the conventional polarization of "the biblical traditions" and "feminist spirituality."

It can give some men (and some women) a way of celebrating the evolution of the religious traditions that men have dominated, without getting stuck in those traditions as they were, or in male domination of them.

It can give some women (and some men) a way of celebrating the prebiblical "pagan" traditions, and the matriarchies that may have housed them, without getting stuck in paganism or in endless arguments over whether matriarchy actually existed.

Hearing the Song as a culmination of the mytho-history that begins with Eden would teach both women and men a way of looking at the past that is a compound of less triumph and less anger, and more sadness and more joy.

It would remind us to accept that there was some value, as well as some loss, in the process of change; that our history has been a rising spiral; thai at each stage of the spiral we gave up something that would have been valuable to keep; that we gave it up because we saw (rightly) something more valuable to be learned that seemed to contradict it; and that at the next level of the spiral we can reappropriate, relearn what we gave up, this time more richly and more knowledgeably.

To say that in our own turn of the spiral the Song should be learned in a context WITH the rest of the Bible does not mean that it should be learned IN the context of the rest of the Bible.

We must give the Song a much larger place, much more on its own terms, than it has had before. Here the great Rabbi Akiba is instructive. When some of the rabbis wanted to toss the Song out of the Bible altogether, Akiba fought to include it, and won.

He said three things about it: that all the Writings were holy, but the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies; that it was holiest precisely because God's Name was not mentioned in it; and that the day on which the Song was created was of equal worth to the day on which all the rest of the world was created.

Now imagine how deeply both our secular modern cultures and the biblical religious traditions would change if we saw the Song dancing in equal and creative tension with them:

The Song, where a woman leads;
The Song, where flow has loosened structure;
The Song, where sexuality is freed of rigid definitions;
The Song, where women and men are androgynous;
The Song, where "God" is both absent and immanent.

Imagine life paths of character building that would encourage androgyny in women, with activism and adventurousnesss -- as well as in men, with nurturance and mystery.

Imagine a life path of politics and economics that would take the world of deer and doves and mountains and crocuses as seriously, and as lovingly, as we have taken the world of wheat fields and towers.

Imagine life paths of sexuality that would celebrate fluidity of loving passion in some times and parts of life, as well as celebrating firm commitments to partnership and family in others.

That would say aloud, with honor and celebration, that in some seasons of life it is good to embody love with our bodies even when we are not yet ready to affirm that the love is permanent, committed, exclusive.

That could also affirm seasons for commitment, permanence, the creation of families.

Imagine a spiritual practice that would use dance and gesture, flowers and trees, taste and smell, as richly as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have used books and words in prayer -- without giving up on books and words.

Imagine making the words and music of the Song an important part of our symbols, our cultural, and our spiritual lives. Imagine drawing on it to shape new kinds of people as powerfully as we have used the Passover Haggadah or the Passion Story or the Pilgrimage to Mecca or the ritual of voting to shape our lives as Jews, as Christians, as Muslims, as citizens of secular democratic societies.

Only a few mystics (in several different traditions) have taken the time and energy to focus on the Song, share it, meditate with it, dance it.

What if we all did?