When is a love song not a love song?
When it’s an allegory for God’s love for the Jewish people, of course.
That, in any rate, is the argument Rabbi Akiva famously used to get the Song of Songs included among the sacred books of the Bible, despite the fact that the Song begins “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” and continues in that vein for eight chapters, with frequent detours into metaphorical descriptions of body parts.
Shir Hashirim, as it is called in Hebrew, traditionally is read on the Shabbat of Pesach. With that day coming up, Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck is featuring a lunch-and-learn this Shabbat afternoon with Professor Michael Fishbane, probably American Jewry’s foremost scholar on the Song of Songs and its millennia of interpretation.
Dr. Fishbane staked his claim to that position by writing a 300 page commentary on the Song of Songs, which the Jewish Publication Society published three years ago. He is the Nathan Cummings Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, but he has lived in Teaneck since August. He is edging toward retirement, teaching two courses in the fall semester. “We came here to be closer to family at this time in our lives,” he said. His son Eitan, a professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, lives in Teaneck; another son, Elisha, lives in Highland Park.
Dr. Fishbane’s engagement with the Song of Songs began when he started teaching at Chicago in 1990, after a quarter of a century as a student and teacher at Brandeis University. He started the work leading to the published commentary more than 15 years ago.
In the interpretation of the Song of Songs, he said, “you have the entire range of the Jewish tradition filtered through the dynamics of love and longing and desire, at the human level, the national level, the covenantal level. I became captive to its embrace.”
Despite what Rabbi Akiva would have us believe, the Song of Songs is not just an allegory for God’s love of Israel. It remains at its heart a human love song. (Dr. Fishbane traces its origins to a thousand years of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian lyrics.) In fact, Jewish tradition as it developed in the Middle Ages speaks of four levels of interpretation. (Contemporary Christian Bible interpreters similarly counted four levels of interpretation, though the levels were defined differently.)
There is the pshat, the plain meaning, by which the Song of Songs consists of the dialogue of two besotted lovers, one male, one female, full of ardor but lacking a clear plot line. There is the drash, the homiletic interpretation that understands it to be talking about the history of God’s love for the Jewish people, as preferred by Rabbi Akiva. There is also the remez, which understands the book as containing important philosophical or moral teachings. And there is the sod, the secret, mystical level, particularly beloved by the kabbalists.
These four different levels form the basis of Dr. Fishbane’s commentary. He discusses each verse using each of the four approaches. His goal is for readers “to really see the dynamic relationships between these four levels of interpretation,” he said.
Reading the book at the simple level of pshat, as you do when you are following the synagogue reading in the Hebrew or in translation, you soon confront the problem that the book has no clear plot.
That, Dr. Fishbane explains, is because “the text itself is a series of ancient love lyrics and love dialogues that have been placed together. If one looks carefully at the original text and sees it in the light of the love lyrics from which it’s drawn, you can see that multiple songs have been integrated. There are recurrences, doublets, similar kinds of repeated episodes. Even at the end, the text has no closure. It ends with the female beloved asking the male to flee as they try to negotiate times and places to meet: ‘Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a gazelle or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.’”
But later a narrative was imposed on the text by interpreters on the level of drash. After all, if it’s telling the story of a real event — the love of God for Israel — shouldn’t it be following the event’s history?
“The first real attempt to try to give this a kind of narrative coherence appears in the targum, an early rabbinic Aramaic paraphrase and translation,” Dr. Fishbane said. “They took hundreds and hundreds of instances of interpretation that are found in the midrash and tried to form a coherent narrative. They created a vision of sacred history, beginning with the patriarchs going down to Egypt, coming to Sinai, going into exile, and anticipating the redemption.”
Later, Rashi built on the targum’s scheme.
Other approaches, particularly certain philosophical ones, meshed better with looping nature of the text, “where love is sought and found and frustrated, renegotiated and lost in an ongoing cycle of seeking and finding,” Dr. Fishbane said. “It has a coherence from that point of view in terms of the dynamics of love.”
Dr. Fishbane said that there are a number of reasons why the book came to be associated with Passover. “The Song of Songs is in large part talking about the rebirth of nature,” he said. “When love is reborn, nature is reborn. Pesach is the time of the rebirth of nature and the rebirth of the nation.”
Then there is the book’s ninth verse: “I have compared thee, O my love, to a steed in Pharaoh’s chariots.” For those reading the book as an allegory for Jewish history, that line was identified with the coming out from Egypt.
“That was also linked with the coming of the beloved, which would redeem the people,” Dr. Fishbane said. As Shir Hashirim became fixed in the Passover liturgy, more hints and suggestions were added.
Dr. Fishbane connects to all four levels of reading the texts. “You can’t read them all simultaneously, but you can experience the multiple levels. The power of the four levels is they were not simply hermetically sealed off; they seamlessly lead one into the other,” he said.
And all are worth experiencing.
“The first pshat level of the love lyrics is about the concreteness of physical and emotional love between human beings, its joys and frustrations,” he said. That’s certainly a human experience.
As for reading it as a historical allegory — “the fact is we’re not only individual people to fall in love. We’re members of the Jewish community. I overlay my personal and natural self with my identification with the Jewish people and the history of the covenant.
“The third level, the philosophical level, deals with purifying one’s emotions. What we would today call self-development or enlightenment, when one tries to purify one’s mind or consciousness.
And “the mystical level is understood as a kind of cosmic love song for God’s love for the world,” he said. “I do have access to all these levels. I try to keep it all in play.
“Most Jews are not aware of this range, of multiple options for interpretation. They think a text has to mean X or Y, that one level is authoritative. I wanted to open that up.”
Ten years ago, Dr. Fishbane placed the four levels of interpretation at the center of a book of theology, “Sacred Attunements.”
“I wanted to use each of these four levels as a way of cultivating certain attitudes toward the world and God and the Jewish tradition. Jewish thought is always interpretive, reinterpreting older texts. Since these four levels reflect the major mental and spiritual ways the Hebrew Bible was interpreted, I tried to find out how these levels orient one to the world, to tradition, to God.”
Dr. Fishbane now is finishing up a new book of theology, following up on “Sacred Attunements,” which he expects to publish in the next year or so. And he is working on a project, funded by the Templeton Foundation, to collect chasidic spiritual practices.
“In some cases lists of practices were appended to the beginning or end of a traditional chasidic work,” he said. “In other cases they have to be ferreted out from the massive chasidic literature of sermons and homilies and records of narratives by students and disciples in Europe.
“There is no collection that allows us to see both the physical practices and the mental practices — the type of thing the chasidic masters want people to focus and clarify their minds on. What we in contemporary terms talk about as mindfulness practices. How do you maintain a certain state of mind, a certain way of focusing attention, a certain way of dealing with negative emotions and moving with cycles of feelings? These are things that we may know from contemporary psychological literature or world religious practice, but they greatly preoccupied Jewish thinkers for the last 250 years or more.
“It felt like an appropriate thing to be working on at this time of my life. Personally integrating them into my life and writing them down so other people can have access to them is a wonderful challenge,” Dr. Fishbane said.