Do Not Stir up Love until It Please: the Song of Songs

[Some passages below are from Rabbi Arthur Waskow's book Godwrestling (Schocken, 1978) and were incorporated in Godwrestling -- Round 2 (Jewish Lights, 1995), along with other thoughts on the Song of Songs. This book can be ordered from The Shalom Center. Send a check for $12.95 per copy plus $3.50 postage per package to -- The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.]

According to tradition, during Passover every year there is a special reading of the Song of Songs—just as the Book of Esther is read for Purim and the Book of Ruth for Shavuot. So in the spring of 1973 the women and men of a Washington havurah, Fabrangen, gathered in the house of one member family to sit in a circle on the floor, munch fruit and matzah, and for the first time fulfill the mitzvah of reading the Song of Songs together. …

As people settled into place, they began to glance through a number of different translations of Shir HaShirim. One of them was set up as a dramatic dialogue, showing with different type faces which passages are spoken by a woman, which by a man, and which by the chorus of "the daughters of Jerusalem."

None of us had ever before read Shir HaShirim put into English in such a way as to hear it as a conversation among its persons, let alone one so full of erotic playfulness and innuendo, so full of tastes and smells, so full of longing looks between the lovers.

As the readers settled down, our own conversation hushed to all the soft "shsh” sounds: "Shir hashirim, asher li¬Shlomo ... The Song of Songs, which is for Solomon”:
O for your kiss! For your love
More enticing than wine,
For your scent and sweet name --
For all this they love you.

And, about twenty five minutes later,
Go --
go now, my love,
be quick
as a gazelle
on the fragrant hills!

After the reading had finished, there were a few min¬utes of warm and thoughtful quiet. Suddenly a woman burst out: "A woman wrote that! It's dif¬ferent from every other book in the Bible."

—"You mean because the woman is fully equal here, chooses her own life? Because she is the one who searches for her lover, takes the initiative, reaches out? Like Eve?"

—"There is that, that's part of it, but it's not just that . . . it's what she's like. There may not have been a single other woman mystic in all of Jewish history, but whoever wrote this was !"

Laughter and pleased nods from a couple of other women. Startled looks from most of the men, and then: "What in it makes you feel that way?"

So, slowly, we began to unravel the text together. Images of flow and spontaneity: a cloud of goats scudding across Mount Gilead . . . the turtledove . . . dreams . . . the appearance/disappearance of the lovers . . . deep breaths of spice . . . Over and over, the refrain, “Do not stir up love until it please."

Finally, one of the men this time: "I think I see.... It feels like a whole different form of spiritual life, a whole different way of being Jewish from the rest of the Bible, and the rabbis. They never say, 'Until it please' or ‘Till we fulfill.’ They always know exactly when to start and when to stop. What time of the day, what day of the month. Exactly. Look: let's reread what she has to say about the men in her life, her brothers and the rest."

One woman, smiling: "My brothers told me to guard the vine¬yard, but I didn't guard my vineyard."

Another, her amusement gathering: "My brothers told me that when I grow up, they will adorn me like a wall, like a door—with bronze and gold. But I told them that when I grow up my breasts will be my adornment; I don't need all their artificial ornaments."

Still another, laughing: "And as for Solomon, in the midst of this lovely springtime the poor man marches up to the city with a chariot of bronze and a retinue of sixty guards. Think of it: guards to show his glory, when all around are smells and birds and flowers."

And finally, a man in a troubled voice: "And when she goes out at night to find her lover, the guardsmen beat her up."

A chorus: "Of course."

A pause. "Guarding. Guarded. Feeling guarded. The rabbis are always guarding. They want to feel anchored, they don't like to float. Especially anchored in time. The whole Talmud begins, 'From what time may one recite the evening Shema?' The Song of Songs doesn't seem to worry about structure, about anchoring. Even about time . . . "

Several of us put it together: Shir HaShirim is a criticism, a gen¬tle one but clear, of the whole "male" mode of guarding: of the focus on calendars and clocks, on regularity and structure, that in¬forms most of Jewish tradition. Do not stir up love until it please. We say the words "floating," "flowing," again and again.

Another pause. Someone asks, "What are the traditional commentaries like?"

— "I looked at some of them yesterday. They assert it's all a one-¬to one allegory: the love of Israel for God. And they take it all so point¬-for point—like, her two breasts are Moses and Aaron." (Laughter throughout the room.)

-- "Every other volume in Midrash Rabba that I've read, the rabbis open up the text to spontaneity and freedom. This one, it feels like they clamp down: as if this text felt so open, they couldn't bear to open it up further and had to close it down instead."

"That allegory business feels all wrong. Seems to me the Song is not just using one drama—the love story—to talk about another one, God and Humanity. I think it's about three relationships all at once—a man and a woman, human beings and nature, God and human beings, all at once. You can't separate them, they flow into each other. At least when you relate this way, they do: be free and flowing with the springtime, and you reach God; be free and flowing with each other, and you reach God."

"That's almost the way I feel . . . but I'd go even further. There's no reaching God here. God is in the process. The book doesn't name God. This and Esther—they’re the only parts of the whole Bible that never mention God. Seems to me that Shir HaShirim says if you're free and flowing with each other and with the springtime, you are with God already. You don't have to wrestle God, to meet God face to face or all the rest. You're there!"

"Even the shape of the book, the style, the medium is about flow and spontaneity too. You know, there's this old argument whether the whole thing is one connected story or it's simply a collection of different love poems. Feels to me like partly both: the story is loose, not tightly plotted, pieces are left only lightly linked, sometimes just by an echo in the phrasing. But there are connections, it's not just an anthology. It's up to us to bring it all together, it's like we have to finish making the story and maybe we can make it different every time. It doesn't fit in order like the other books. Is there a plot? Now you see it, now you don’t."

Another pause as people drink this in. Nods. Then: ''Why are we supposed to read this on Passover anyway?"

—"Well, presumably because of the Spring imagery and so on. But now I have a different sense of it. We read the Haggadah and tell the story of the redemption from Egypt in order to teach ourselves how to achieve the great redemption, how to bring Messiah. So maybe we have to read this too, because the Haggadah is not enough? It's necessary, but not sufficient?

"The Haggadah is perhaps the great statement, the best statement, of the male mode of liberation. It's not just that Moses leads the Exodus while a woman leads the Song of Songs. It's deeper—the Haggadah keeps asking about what time of day, what day of the month we should study the Exodus. The clock and calendar again. So maybe as good as the Haggadah is, we can't bring Messiah unless we unify the male and female modes? Maybe we have to read Shir HaShirim and the Haggadah together in order to learn how to do it?"

"But you mean, to read it this way, the way we've been reading it right now. Jews have read it for thousands of years, but not this way. Not women and men together as a statement about women and men and nature and God, together. It almost seems to me we couldn't have read it this way before the Holocaust, before the most terrible assault on Jewish bodies.... That's when we rediscovered our bodies. And nature, the land."

"The Holocaust plus one generation. So now we might learn how to bring Messiah?''

Silence again. There is a tradition that when ten are together, in deep community, the Shekhinah—God's Presence in the world, God's female aspect—may be in the room. The silence deepens. We look at each other: we can feel the Shekhinah among us. . . . sheh’hekhianu, vekimanu, vehigiyanu lazman hazeh. Blessed be the One who has kept us alive, lifted us up, and brought us to this season.

As I thought afterwards about the discussion, I realized that at least at the conscious level it is mostly the women's movement that has helped us read Shir HaShirim in new ways—more than the reconnection of Jews with the land or their bodily suffering from the Holocaust. And especially those parts of the women's movement that have taken a "wrestling" kind of posture, an androgynous kind of shape. (For suddenly it occurs to me that wrestling is androgyny in motion. Just as wrestling slips from fighting to making love and back again, so androgyny slips from duality to unity and back again.)

What was "wrestling" about our encounter over Shir HaShirim? Our way of talking and the interpretation we developed neither treated women and men as identical, interchangeable units, nor separated them as utterly different -- but moved back and forth from difference to interchange.

To say "women and men are both androgynous" is not to say "we are all simply human and there are no differences"—for the very word "androgynous" means "manly/ womanly," it unifies opposites. It says there are differences between "manliness” and "womanliness," but all men are manly/ womanly and all women are manly/womanly.

But there was a still deeper sense in which the wrestling metaphor applied: our deep spiritual experience of reading Shir HaShirim together was the fruit of a sometimes tense and bitter social struggle, a political struggle, the feminist struggle. Wrestling human beings had fused with wrestling God.

To begin with, it was the energy level of women in motion that had opened the door to a new understanding of Shir HaShirim. The women had begun to wrestle with the text. In the very act of fighting against the ancient male interpretations of it, they had lovingly clasped it to them.

And in this Godwrestle they prevailed. Then it was the men who accepted that “defeat” and, by accepting it, made reconciliation possible. The struggles of years had opened up the men—broken them open, perhaps— and it was their openness that affirmed and enriched the new understanding.

Thus the men completed the androgynous process. They made what might have been only the separated feelings of half the broken body into the understanding of a reunified community.

Continuing to reflect on our new approaches to the Song, I began to wonder what it meant to say that the Haggadah or the Exodus is liberation in a male mode. There are "male" overtones that flash across my memory, but they feel like only stereotypes of the way men act, and I wonder whether I am falling into the very stereotypes that Eden and Shir HaShirim teach us to reach beyond.

For example, I remember one of the children at the Fabrangen Cheder, our parents’ coop school for children: scared by the recital of how Sinai quaked and smoked, thundered and lightninged before the Ten Commandments, he blurted out: "It's like Daddy when he tells me something important. He yells and shakes me so I'll remember."—"Just Daddy? What about Mommy?"—"No, Mommy picks me up in her lap and tells me softly that it's really important. God was really a daddy at Sinai."
So it is male to thunder and to shake? And because it is male, God is male? Or at least was male at Sinai? How do we unpeel this set of labels?
First, we could say that shaking is not male at its root, it is we who have made it male. It is certainly one aspect of human interchange, and indeed of the way the universe seems to act toward humans. (The physical earthquake is only a minuscule part of how we are shaken by death, flood, drought.) But what makes this aspect male? It is the attribute of unaccountable power, and males have taken power, without being called to account, in most of our history. So perhaps it was the reality of male power on earth that shaped the image of God as male in heaven. And once that male God image had been fixed in human minds, it reinforced the assumption that men, not women, should hold power in society.
But if unaccountable power is the root of these images of God, that helps us to understand why there are certain "female" images of God— but only of a certain kind. For example, as a counterpoint to Sinai there is the story of manna. One of the central messages of Sinai was the Sabbath, but the Sabbath had been taught before. When God gave manna, it came in a double portion on Friday, and on Shabbos no manna fell. Not by command but by behavior modification; not by threat but by nurture; not transfixed by Nature's thundering voice or shaken in Nature's furious arms, but fed at Nature's breast. If God was "Daddy" at Sinai, God in giving manna was a "Mommy."
But for humans to be fed and left unfed at Nature's breast is still to be controlled. Still to be shaped by unaccountable power. The manna comes when it is sent; no human gets to decide. Mommy may be quieter than Daddy, but still she rules.
The contrast between the ' 'male" aspect of God at Sinai and the "female" aspects of God in the giving of manna seems much less important than the similarity between "father" and "mother" roles.
And the image of God in Eden is precisely that of Parent: birthing, feeding, commanding, rebuking the children become-adolescents who are human. God as Parent/ Mother/ Father.
Not so in Song of Songs. The new Garden is one of male and female, yes; but there is no Parent and there are no children. No one is giving orders, and no one obeys them. Rather there are grownups, lovers. God is gone; the Name is literally not mentioned. Even if we follow the rabbinic allegory that sees the lovers of the Song as God and Israel, then still the relationship with God is that of grownups, lovers, not of children facing Parent.
The Song of Songs is Eden for adults. It is a profoundly "adult “story in which not only is sexuality clear and central, but the sub¬jection to unaccountable power is gone and the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil is subsumed into the Tree of Life. The inner connec¬tion that appears in Eden between the onset of sexuality and the emergence of human freedom is fulfilled in Shir HaShirim.
The prophecy of Eden fulfilled: a man shall leave his mother and his father and cleave to his woman, and they shall be one flesh.
When it is possible for us to leave behind the Mother God and Father God, the unaccountably powerful Parent, we shall be able to reunite man and woman into one flesh.
When it is possible for us to leave behind the Mother God and Father God, we shall be able to know God as Lover . . .
But how do we transpose these thoughts and feelings into everyday practice?
One possibility is that we rework in practice, not only in thought, the relationship of the “sexual” with the “spiritual.” The rabbis felt the spiritual charge in the Song of Songs, but could give themselves to it only by denying its sexuality. By saying that the whole Song is an allegory of love between God and Israel, they affirmed their own erotic relationship with Torah study, while turning away from more physical eros. When they voted to treat the Song as Holy Writ, part of the Bible, they simultaneously forbade it to be sung in taverns. It sounds as if they feared that it might easily degenerate into a bawdy “torch song,”with no spiritual aspect. How can we today affirm both aspects of the Song -- indeed, see them as one truth?

[From here is from Godwrestling – Round 2 (1996).
I have taken part in readings of the Song that try to go beyond an academic recitation, beyond the speedy mumble that is often heard in a traditional synagogue on Friday night. Sometimes the scene has been set with low lights, candles, incense, flowers. Sometimes there fruit and nuts to share. The community is sitting not in locked-in pews and not in rows where they cannot see each others’ faces, but in an informal curve or circle.
Then a couple who have read the Song before may read it aloud in English dialogue, as Marcia Falk’s translation makes more possible. I have seen this done by two men, by two women, by a man and woman: the configuration rarely makes a difference to the atmosphere in the community. Or sometimes I have seen the reading done, verse by verse or poem by poem, by people going ‘round the circle in the room. This is sometimes less powerful, but perhaps only because the readers are usually less intimate with Shir HaShirim than readers who have prepared ahead of time. The reading is interspersed with songs in Hebrew and in English that have been written to the verses of the Song.
When the last verses are read, the last “Dodi li” sung or hummed, the community begins to share its thoughts and feelings as we did that Passover night in Fabrangen.
I have seen or heard about such readings of the Song in a community of elders in their 70s, in a group of adolescents, in a group of gay men, among lesbians, among the members of a conventional suburban family synagogue, among young single urban Jews. I have never seen this kind of reading fail to elicit a warm, thoughtful, gentle, yet impassioned opening of the spirit among the people in the room.
And third, an attempt to fuse the flow of Shir HaShirim with the clockiness of Talmud. Nothing could be more essentially a calendar act than the traditional ceremony of Count¬ing the Omer—the forty nine days from the second night of Pass¬over to the eve of Shavuot. the memorial of the Revelation on Mount Sinai. When Fabrangen prepared for Passover in 1974, the dryness, rigidity, and distance of the Omer were discussed, in the aura of our deep hearing of what Shir HaShirim had said to us in 1973. We recalled that in the days when the Temple stood, the Omer had been counted with a sheaf of barley, celebrating the return from winter to spring as well as the ascent from Egypt to Sinai. We realized that few of us had ever counted Omer, and those few in a desultory way, because it had been cut away from the earthy symbols of new life.
So we decided to revive the Omer among us by suffusing its calendric style with the teachings of Shir HaShirim. For the seven weeks of the Omer we chanted, in our homes and families, one chapter a week of Shir HaShirim (and the eighth on Shavuot itself); we looked at and smelled and touched a cluster of flowers, new each week; each week we met a new person, in flesh and blood or in a book. And thus by reaching out to Torah, nature, and a human being, we reached out to God— spontaneously, flowingly, not against the calendar but with the calendar transmuted.
All three of these suggestions bring the Song or its atmosphere into prayer and ceremony. Is there any way to bring the Song into our ethics? In the years since that transformative Passover reading, I have wrestled more and more with the questions that are central to Shir HaShirim, and have watched the Jewish community more and more wrestle with them too. Those issues are the two that emerge from Eden, now come to a great crisis in human history: the relations between “adam” and “adamah,” the earth and its human earthlings; and the relations between men and women: their sexuality, their inequality. (These are the problems that emerge from the eating of the Knowledge fruit, the problems God hands to Eve and Adam after Eden.)
Even more deeply than I felt it twenty years and more ago, I now believe that the Song of Songs is Eden for grown-ups. A human race of grown-ups, orr rather a grown-up human race. And I believe the time for growing up is now. Why do I think this? --
When the humans enter Eden, God says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill up the earth and subdue it.” When the humans leave Eden, these imperatives continue. They must be addressed under conditions of strife and pain: warfare between human beings and the earth, pain in birthing children, domination of men over women -- even sexual desire suffused with imbalance and anxiety.
These four commands are in fact the imperatives that have governed all of human history. But in our generation they have been carried out.
The human race has not only been fruitful and multiplied but has indeed filled up the earth and subdued it to the point where we could destroy the fabric of life, and are already destroying more species than have died since the Great Meteor 65 million years ago.
The era that in our tradition begins at Eden is over. Now what?
Now, it seems to be, comes Eden for grown-ups: the Song of Songs.
Now comes a sexual ethic rooted not in fear, shame, dominance, and the need to multiply but in a loving dance, as in the Song.
Now comes a way of relating to the earth rooted not in sweaty battling to make it barely feed us, but in a loving dance, as in the Song.
What this means awaits us.
* * *
When the rabbis were still arguing over what ought and what ought not to be regarded as part of the Biblical canon, some of them felt Shir HaShirim—in its sexuality, its earthiness, its not one-mention of the Name of God—was troubling. But Rabbi Akiba said, "All the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies."
Akiba may have felt the same auras that we felt from Shir HaShirim. He said that the day on which the Song was created stood equal in the balance with all the rest of time. He taught that the Song was the love story of God and the People Israel, and he may have felt that to know God as lover was to live in Eden as a grown-up. But beyond these records of his teaching, I have a fantasy about Akiba.
There is a story that Akiba and three other great rabbis had a powerful mystical experience of "going into Pardes"—the garden, the orchard, Paradise. We do not know what they saw there; but one went mad, one died, and one plucked up the Root of Being and denied there was a Judge or Justice in the world. Only Akiba, says the Talmud, came out unharmed.
What was this Pardes? I imagine that they walked into the garden of Shir HaShirim. They found there goats and flowers, sexuality and love. They did not see the God of Sinai or of Eden; they did not hear the Name of God at all. They knew this was the ultimate experience.
• One decided there was nothing more that life or death could offer than this Garden, and died in joyful bliss.
• One went mad because this moment seemed utterly contradictory to Torah, and yet he knew for certain both were true.
• One gave up God and Torah because this seemed more real.
• Only Akiba knew that this was Torah: highest Torah, Torah fulfilled, Torah for adults.
Only Akiba, and he came out unharmed. Scorched just enough to say the Song was holiest of all, like the Dark Beauty who says at the beginning of the Song that the sun has scorched her with its gazing. Akiba -- scorched enough to be the only one of the rabbis to proclaim the coming of Messiah. For once you have lived in the Garden of the Song, how can you not believe Messiah has come?


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