“All of Torah is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
Rabbi Akiva, Yaddayim (3:5)
For all our material prosperity, for all the wealth the modern world has created, for all the diseases it has cured, for all its technological marvels, something essential is missing.
We’re successful. But we’re also medicated, materialistic, and divorced. A listlessness infects our existence. Betraying a marriage often is more exciting than honoring its commitment. Watching a movie together passes as a shared romantic experience.
Eroticism, that very marrow of existence, the thirsty desire to uncover life’s secrets, is noticeably absent.
Last week I published my newest book, “Kosher Lust.” The backlash to my assertion that intense desire is not just necessary by holy has been ferocious, and might just have touched a nerve.
Judaism’s holiest book, according to the Talmud, is the Song of Solomon, which is a long erotic lust poem.
On its face, the Song is the Bible’s least worthy work. Read the verses. You’ll be scandalized.
“Oh, that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine” (1:2).
“Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the liliesâ€¦ Your lips distil nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue (4:5,7,9-11).
“Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelleâ€¦ How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.. Come my beloved, let us go forth into the fieldsâ€¦ There I will give you my love (7:1,2, 6-12).
“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (8:1-2, 7).
The erotic nature of the book has lead to a determined effort to allegorize its meaning. The Middle Ages scholar Saadia Ben Joseph described the Song of Songs as a lock to which the keys have been lost.
But here is its secret:
God is a scorching fire, the Creator a raging inferno. He is discovered not in the monotony of subsistence but in the ecstasy of living.
Moses first encounters God in a burning bush. The Torah is given on Shavuos in a raging conflagration. And our relationship with God and with all things must be suffused with passion.
How many people have complained that religion turned them off? They went to synagogue to find spiritual heights but drifted into a coma instead.
If Nietzsche was right that God is dead, it is only because we have killed Him off. We took a wondrous Creator and converted Him into a haunting spirit. We replaced the grandeur of Judaism with the monotony of minutiae. We don’t pray because we have a fire burning in our hearts but because we have debts burning in our pockets. Our prayers are shallow attempts at deal-making, our faith a cynical business transaction.
Along comes the Song and challenges us to feel for God what a man feels for a woman. The Song challenges us to be erotically charged in every religious commitment. A man who is obsessed with a woman thrills to the mere brush of her touch. Every interaction is charged with lust. The human gravitation to God should have shades of the erotic.
Lust is curiosity incarnate, Eros the manifestation of a desire to know. It is the woman who awakes not groggy-eyed but, in the words of the Psalmist, with a rush to greet the dawn, the discovery of a new day.
We Americans suffer not from physical privation but from spiritual scarcity. Today offers not the mysteries of tomorrow but the routines of yesterday. It is a cynicism captured powerfully in Ecclesiastes: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9-10).
Plato maintained that sexual attraction should not be consummated as it would obviate hunger. Satiation is the enemy of lust, routine the adversary or Eros.
The Bible says that sex is knowledge. In Song of Solomon the two lovers are described as being in a perpetual state of frustrated desire, confronted constantly with obstacles to consummation. “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and goneâ€¦. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answerâ€¦ I am sick with love.” (5:2-8).
“Kosher Lust” is a study of the three principles of erotic desire found in the Song. The book seeks to extract the fire of lust and use it to ignite the spark of marriage.
A recent study found that many American wives undress in the bathroom rather than in front of their husbands because of how their men don’t stare at them when they are exposed. Perhaps we need more voyeurism in marriage, husbands who are forced to steal peeks at their wives’ nakedness.
By recapturing the erotic we regain the desire to know.
The Song of Solomon tells us a magical story of a man and a woman who have but one desire – to explore one another.
For more than 3,000 years we Jews have been in a relationship with God but have yet to learn the most valuable lesson of all – to know how much we don’t know.