Book review: “The Song of Songs: A Biography” by Ilana Pardes

Book review: “The Song of Songs: A Biography” by Ilana Pardes

The Song of Songs is one of three very odd books in the Bible. 

Ecclesiastes expresses a deep mournful existential angst not found anywhere else in the Jewish and Christian scriptures; life is short and hard. 

Meanwhile, Job wrestles with the question of why bad things happen to good people — and loses; God essentially says in a long rant out of the whirlwind that God’s ways can’t be comprehended by humans, and Job comes to give up on his whining and say: OK.  The essential act of faith.

Neither book provides the message that’s found in the rest of the Bible — that, if you do the right thing, God will take care of you in some way.

The Song of Songs is even more singular.  It is, on its face, a joyfully sensual celebration of romantic and physical love.  The female lover is identified as the Shulamite, and her breasts are extravagantly praised eight times in the 2,700-word poem.  Depending on the translation, God is mentioned once or not at all.

Nonetheless, as Ilana Pardes notes in The Song of Songs: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 280 pages, $24.95), Rabbi Akiva, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism around 100 AD, declared that the

“whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

“Holy of Holies”

That is an extraordinary assertion.  It directly correlates the love poem with the most sacred part of the Temple, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God’s presence appeared.  In Hebrew, Holy of Holies is a form of superlative, meaning the Holiest of the holy, and that same superlative is at work in the poem’s title The Song of Songs

The poem itself is, like many of the Bible’s books, a stitching together of several earlier works.  This gives The Song of Songs a topsy-turvy, disjointed feel.  Pardes describes this as “dreamy” since, as in a dream, some details are very sharply in focus while others are fuzzy, and one scene elides aimlessly into the next.

That sort of delightfully chaotic dreaminess, of course, fits very well the subject of youthful physical and emotional passion.  This is a poem, from start to finish, of yearning and searching, of desiring.

Pardes suggests that it was no coincidence that Rabbi Akiva was passionate about The Song of Songs since the story of him and his wife Rachel is “one of the greatest love stories in rabbinic literature, if not the greatest.”  She continues:

“His deep appreciation of her is so singularly great that when his disciples block her from approaching him after he has just returned from many years of studying away from home, he declares, ‘Let her alone; whatever is mine and yours is hers.”…. Note that his passionate acknowledgement of the worthiness of his wife bears resemblance to his fervent proclamation in support of the Song’s sanctity.”

Rabbis and saints

Pardes’s book The Song of Songs: A Biography examines how the poem has been read and understood down the centuries by rabbis and saints, by kabbalists and poets, by nuns, monks and novelists, by Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Toni Morrison.

It’s a passionate book about a passionate poem, and Pardes communicates her excitement in looking at each of the many twists and turns in the celebration of The Song of Songs.  And throughout her book are sprinkled delectably luscious lines from the poem.

This book is also a worthy new installment in the delightfully erudite and accessible Lives of Great Religious Books series from Princeton University Press.  Each of the more than 20 books in the series tells the life story — the biography — of a work of great religious importance or renown.  Part of this involves telling how the work came to be, but most of each installment is devoted to how the book has interacted with world culture.

Other Bible books that have been subjects in the series are Exodus, Genesis and Job, and from the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. Other authors have tackled the Talmud, the Book of Common Prayer, the Koran in English, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and St. Augustine’s Confessions.

“Blissful marital moments”

Nineteen centuries ago, Rabbi Akiva fought and overcame opposition to win a place for The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.

But, for him, the poem wasn’t about human love.  Instead, Pardes writes, he saw it “as an amorous dialogue between God and the Community of Israel.”

He was among the first of many Jewish leaders who embraced the poem for its allegorical meanings.  And so have Christian thinkers down the centuries, including Origen, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

That may seem fairly straight-forward — God and the people in love with each other — but Pardes suggests that something else is going on as well.

“The decision to include the Song in the canon, as some scholars suggest, may have served as compensation for a lacuna in the biblical text: the lack of eros in the heavenly spheres.

“The prophetic metaphor by which God is imagined as husband and the nation as wife does indeed provide a monotheistic modification of polytheistic paradigms of divine eros, but the prophets — be they Hosea, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel — are mostly preoccupied with the sinful conduct of the wanton Jerusalem and offer only brief representations of blissful marital moments.”

In contrast to those thunderous prophetic harangues, The Song, she writes,

“revolves around an admirable and extended dialogue of love, which could be used to reinforce those rare uplifting aspects of the prophetic metaphor.”

Voluptuously tactile images

From the Enlightenment to the present day, there has been a greater willingness — indeed, a hunger — to read The Song of Songs for itself, without any allegorical layers.  To read it for its voluptuously tactile images and metaphors.

What’s particularly enticing is that, although the woman is called a Shulamite, neither of the lovers is named.  They are just he and she.  In this way, they aren’t specific people separate from the reader, but living, in essence, the life of the reader, the reader’s own experience.

He calls to his beloved behind the wall to open the door:

“For my head is drenched with dew,

my locks with the drops of the night.” 

The beloved says,

“I rose to open for my lover.

My hands dripped myrrh

and my fingers liquid myrrh,

over the handles of the latch,

over the handles of the bolt.”

But, by the time she gets the door open, the lover is gone.

“The curve of your thighs”

Later, she describes her beloved:

”—My lover is shining white and ruddy…

His head is purest gold,

his locks are curls

black as a raven…

His thighs are ivory pillars

set on pedestals of gold.”

He says to her:

“The curves of your thighs are like wrought rings,

the handiwork of a master.

Your navel is a crescent bowl,

let mixed wine never lack!

Your belly a mound of wheat

hedged about with lilies. 

Your breasts are two fawns,

twins of a gazelle.”

“Every atom of my blood”

As Pardes notes, the poem is distinctive in portraying the lovers speaking proudly of their own bodies.  In a Hebrew Bible that is focused on the community of Israel, here is the one place where a man and a woman can speak directly and unselfconsciously about each other’s body and contours and beauty.

In the 19th century, Walt Whitman took The Song of Songs as a jumping off point, and set about in “Song of Myself” to create, Pardes writes,

“nothing less than the ultimate Song a grand Song of all possible loves: the love of the self, the love of others, and the love of America.”

Without the model of The Song of Songs, it is difficult to imagine that Whitman would have been able to write:

“I celebrate myself….

“I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air…”

Pardes notes that Whitman’s language echoes the Shulamite’s descriptions of herself: “I am a wall, and my breasts like towers” and “I am a lily of Sharon, Rose of the valley” and “I am black but comely.”

“Black and comely”

“Black but comely” — that’s how Whitman’s King James Bible that Whitman had the line.

Over the last two centuries, many scholars and many African-Americans have come to argue that the line should more properly be translated: “I am black and comely.”  The Hebrew word between the two adjectives can mean either “and” or “but.”

Well before this reconsideration of the translation, African-Americans, even during slavery times, felt a strong kinship with the Shulamite of the poem, and, in the mid-20th century, this line was trumpeted as part of the Black Is Beautiful movement.  It’s also been used in support of Black Lives Matter.

Toni Morrison was so taken with The Song of Songs that she built two of her novels around it: Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987).

“We flesh”

In a key scene in Beloved, Morrison depicts one of her characters — Baby Suggs, an unchurched preacher — deliver a sermon which builds on The Song of Songs and expands on it.

It is about love, but not just the love of a man and a woman.  It is about the need to love each other.  But, much more, it’s about the need to love yourself despite what others, what society, tells you.  Like a latter-day Shulamite, Baby Suggs says:

“Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs,…Love it hard.  Yonder they do not love your flesh.   They despise it.  They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ‘em out.  No more do they love the skin on your back.  Yonder they flay it.  And O my people they do not love your hands…Love your hands! Love them…The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.”

Patrick T. Reardon

9.10.19

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