A slightly more condensed version of these articles were originally written for the online mag Examiner.com (now AXS). My links thereto no longer work, so I am guessing they took them down. I moved them here.
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The Song and Jewish tradition

Article 3 Article 5

Anat: I sleep but my heart is awake
Anat: I sleep but my heart is awake
The last two articles in this series have looked at how the Song of Songs might be viewed as part of the literatures of love and romance being produced in the outside world at the time. The goal here is to look at how it came to be viewed within the Jewish Community once it had been received as scripture.

By the second century, CE [AD], a core of Rabbinic interpreters, including Rabbi Akiva (1st-2nd c., mentioned three weeks ago) held that the Song needed to be read as an allegory. It had a sacred aura (in large part due to its being associated with Solomon), but its apparent topic (sex and romance) did not seem appropriate. So, thought the rabbis, it must mean something else, and it occurred to them that perhaps the girl in the Song represented Israel, and the boy in the Song represented God. Suddenly it made sense as a metaphor for the love of God for his people Israel (and visa-versa). At any rate, intentional allegories, like the parables of Jesus, were well known in the Jewish community. In addition, there were Greco-Roman interpretations of classical texts (such as the Illiad and the Odyssey) that used allegory to transform the meaning of texts not originally intended to be allegories. So it was not a big step for Jewish scholars to follow suit and read difficult texts the same way.

This approach, which is certainly what lead R. Akiba to be such an ardent supporter of the book, has been the official interpretation since that time. But once the sacredness of the book had been established, and the Pandora's Box of reading it allegorically had been opened, other ways of viewing the text quickly began to emerge.

Ze'ev Raban: Shir haShirim 4.1-6
Ze'ev Raban: Shir haShirim 4.1-6
In the Targum (Aramaic interpretative translation) of the Song, dating around the seventh century, the book is read as an allegorical history of Israel. So 1.2-3.6 tell the story of the exodus and conquest; 3.7-5.1 describes Solomon's temple; 5.2-6.1 are about Israel's sin and the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities; in 6.2-7.11 Israel repents, and God restores the temple; 7.12-8.14 refer to the period after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE[AD] (see Midrash Rabbah: Ointments). Saadia Gaon (10th c.) took a similar approach.

Rashi saw in it a story of a woman estranged from, but longing for, her husband, who promises to return. In this category, within the last 400 or so years, there are those who see three players: a shepherd, his shepherdess lover, and Solomon. Solomon, in this reading, may be a villain of sorts, trying to lure her away with the trappings of the royal court, but of course, she makes the right decision. Both this and Rashi's approach remain a skeleton on which to hang the Israel/God theory.

Some scholars have seen it as a love affair between Solomon (the generic wise man) and wisdom itself. Those with a philosophical bent, influenced by Aristotle, read it as the union between limited human intellect with that of God (look at Zohar: The Mystery of the Kiss and Zohar: Intercourse). Among those in the last category, Moses Ibn Tibbon (13th c.) divided the song into three sections corresponding to Adam and Eve in the Garden, the same after having eaten from tree of life, and then again after having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. These represent three types of intellect, the second obviously to be preferred.

The influence of scholarship in the last couple of centuries, but particularly in the last 40 years or so, has steered the basic interpretation back toward the sex and romance approach. But really all this does, for those who still hang on to the allegorical approach, is to intensify its meaning as a parable, to point our relationship with God to an even more intimate level.

In the next article we will consider how it was read in the Christian community in the same general period.

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