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Jewish Journal

Erotic Poem, Intra-Divine Allegory, or Both?

by Rabbi John Rosove

April 18, 2014 | 8:11 am

“The world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

So said Rabbi Akiva (2nd century Palestine), who believed that The Song of Songs, traditionally attributed to King Solomon as a young man, is an allegory between two lovers, God and Israel.

According to Moshe Idel, Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Kabbalah - New Perspectives, 1990), the 12th century Spanish mystic, Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona, the 13th century Castilian mystic, Rabbi Isaac ibn Avi Sahula, and others focus on what are called the theosophical processes taking place between the two lower Sefirot of Tiferet (symbolized by the bridegroom) and Malchut (symbolized by the bride).

According to these Kabbalists, both the biblical description and human love itself reflect or symbolize higher events within the metaphysical structure of God. (p. 206)

In other accounts, such as that of the 13th century Spanish Kabbalist, Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia, The Song of Songs is an allegory of the intellect and its union with God.

These allegorical interpretations of The Song of Songs, beginning with Rabbi Akiva, are the basis upon which The Song of Songs is read each year on the Shabbat during Pesach, for it is then that we celebrate our people’s redemption on the one hand and the hoped-for-redemption of God within God’s Divine Self on the other.

All that being said, this extraordinarily enriched poetry seems at first glance to be a purely secular poem (God’s Name is never mentioned) celebrating young, sensuous and erotic love, the passionate draw of two lovers yearning for relief from their existential loneliness:

“For love is strong as death,
Harsh as the grave.
Its tongues are flames, a fierce
And holy blaze”

       Song of Songs 8:6 - Translation by Marcia Falk

Taking the Songs as a secular poem, an allegory, or both, the emotional and spiritual longing can be sated only by one’s human and/or Divine lover.

The great Rav Avraham Isaac Kook wrote of the higher love this way:

"Expanses divine my soul craves.
Confine me not in cages,
of substance or of spirit.

I am love-sick
I thirst,
I thirst for God,
as a deer for water brooks.

Alas, who can describe my pain?
Who will be a violin
to express the songs of my grief?

I am bound to the world,
all creatures,
all people are my friends.

Many parts of my soul
are intertwined with them,
But how can I share with them my light.

       Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Cook - Translation by Ben Zion Bokser

Shabbat shalom and Moadim L'simchah!

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