What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We've asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.
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The Song of Songs.
I fell in love with the Song of Songs when I was 19, living on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, near Haifa. Israel was itself only 16 -- a poor agricultural Israel, where the food was simple and scarce but the springs of the Galilee flowed with clear water, and hope and promise lit the quiet air. I was studying half-days at the kibbutz ulpan, and I kept notebooks in which I wrote down the songs I loved:
To the garden of nuts I went, to see the buds of the valley, to see if the vines had flowered, the pomegranates were in bloom....
The words seemed so fitting for this old/new land -- biblical words that were vividly alive all around me in the fields, and made the reclamation of this land that was laden with meaning, somehow, holy. After a day of studying Hebrew and washing floors in the children's houses, I'd pore over the words in my notebook, and write out more phrases from the Song of Songs. I felt as if the ancient Hebrew was at once a holy language and a celebration of the body, a love language, a language of longing: If only I could love like that, if only I could be desired and beloved like that!
Over the years, I returned over and over again to the Song. I read it for comfort. I read it in graduate school, for so many of its lines had infiltrated English literature. I read it when, at 23, I was living in Israel again -- black-haired, dark-skinned, lonely; I felt like a Daughter of Jerusalem wandering around the city in search of "He whom my soul loveth. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved tell him I am sick with love" (5:8).
Along the way, I learned that Rabbi Akiva said that while the Ketuvim, the Writings of the Bible, were holy, the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies. But it is not because he saw it as the most impassioned love song he could possibly sing to his wife.
No, Rabbi Akiva was singing to God.
God! My beloved, sensual, Song of Songs, allegorized into a love song between Israel and God! At best, I was disdainful.
But very recently, while unexpectedly hospitalized for a painful illness, I came upon Christian poet Kathleen Norris' "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith" (Riverhead, 1999), and found these words: "I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run."
"Religious belief as a relationship" -- one to which you are profoundly committed, that involves the whole of you, yet also demands trusting the unknown. Now Norris may not be the only one to have said that, but the way she said it struck me powerfully. For whose beloved can ever be entirely known? And who can ever know what a deep relationship will demand "in the long run?"
All of a sudden I could feel why Rabbi Akiva experienced the Songs of Songs as a love song between Israel and God.
A love song to God? How strange the words might seem to us. True, when we say the Shema we remind ourselves that we should love the Holy One with all our heart, all our soul, all our might. And before we ever say the Shema we say that God has loved us "greatly." But what does such "love" actually mean to us? Can we imagine intimacy? Yearning? Passion?
Rabbi Akiva could.
What would it be like just to taste what he might have felt as he chanted the Song of Songs? For all the nuances of a deep relationship are there: the ache of loneliness; the longing for connection; the profound sensual pleasure in the other's presence. Yearning, desire, appreciation, awe, ecstasy, wonder.
Our liturgy reminds us repeatedly that God is sovereign of the universe, creator of the cosmos, Redeemer from Egypt, Bestower of Torah and Lover of Israel. The Shema commands us to love God, and tells us that God loves us. But to experience that love, to revel in it, to ponder its nuances, we need to set aside our 21st-century skepticism -- and our inhibitions -- and open up the Song of Songs.
Read it alone or read it with friends; imagine the lover of your dreams or read it with your beloved, because the Song of Songs magnificently celebrates human love.
And then let Rabbi Akiva's heart inspire you. "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine": Read it now as a love song between the Holy One and your own soul.
A match made in heaven, indeed.
Miriyam Glazer is in her final year of rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of the University of Judaism, where she is also professor of literature. Her books include "Dancing on the Edge of the World: Jewish Stories of Faith, Inspiration and Love" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers" (State University of New York, 2000).
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