By Hinda Tzivia Eisen
My junior year at Boston University, I produced a painting as the final project for a class about the literary afterlife of the book of Genesis. The day of the presentation, my class was given the opportunity to interpret my work before I was to give its explanation. I remember that some of what my classmates read into my painting was spot-on: the colors I had chosen, the positioning of the imagery, the symbols. Other ideas that they read into it jived with the message I was trying to send but hadn’t been intended. Still one or two interpretations of my painting were so off-base I began to regret the choices that even remotely led my classmates there.
Be it Bible, fiction, or biography, I always try to read a text or see a piece of artwork for what it is, considering its original context and the intention of its author. Shir Hashirim, the biblical Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) has taken an interpretive beating.
In every era, Shir Hashirim has raised questions. Should it have been included in the biblical canon? Is it an allegory or is it meant to be taken literally? If it is meant to be taken literally, is it a love story? Or is it a risqué tale of adulterous longing or illicit affection? If it is an allegory, it must represent the relationship between God and God’s people Israel. Or is it a cautionary tale, representing the relationship between a human king of Israel who had everything and yet still yearned for one he could not have?
Once we examine the text of Shir Hashirim itself, we find beautiful poetry. The poet pays exquisite attention to detail, using the text to paint gorgeous imagery and show deep emotion. With time and history though, a text is subject to interpretation – and misinterpretation.
How many times have we heard Shir Hashirim quoted as the proof text for the prohibition of kol ishah (hearing a woman’s voice)? We are taught the rabbinic principle “kol b’ishah ervah” (B.T. Berachot 24a) – “a woman’s voice is nakedness” – and that it comes from Shir Hashirim 2:14 which reads, “...har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant.” I had heard the principle and the proof-text aurally long before encountering each text myself. It was only when I encountered the printed texts that I realized that ervah is from the Hebrew root spelled ayin-resh-vav (“nakedness”), while arev is from the Hebrew root spelled ayin-resh-vet (“pleasant”). They are not related. Yes, I understand the rabbinic compulsion to equate sound-alike words, and particularly those related by at least two root letters. I also understand the rabbinic need to put biblical roots to established principle. I can only imagine, though, that the author of Shir Hashirim could not have intended this interpretation when he (or she) penned the lusty poem.
The question of just who should be allowed to publicly chant Shir Hashirim, as we do on Passover, has caused the most recent hot-button Song of Songs controversy. As someone who regularly spends time in egalitarian institutions, I was pretty astonished when a Conservative rabbi told me that of all of the pieces of Jewish ritual for which egalitarian Judaism has given women agency, he still prefers that Shir Hashirim be read by men – and quickly, at that. Are we supposed to be ashamed of this beautiful text? Reading this megillah on Passover is a matter of minhag (custom); barely any of our sages endorsed reading it even with berachot (blessings). The Maharil and the Vilna Gaon did, but most other sources, if they mention Shir Hashirim as part of the Passover ritual at all, do not require blessings. In fairness, most egalitarian settings wouldn't think about whether women can read Shir Hashirim. Partnership Minyanim have embraced reading the megillah as a way to give women a substantial voice in services; Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City even designates Shir Hashirim for its teen girls to read on Passover in their main sanctuary.
I have to wonder how the biblical poet would feel about the interpretation of Shir Hashirim handed down to us over the past three millennia. If the poet would have been anything like me standing with my painting, perhaps he (or she) would be regretting the inclusion of that beautiful verse whose reputation has been besmirched by over-interpretation and misapplication. Perhaps women chanting Shir Hashirim this Passover will take us one step closer to restoring the beautiful relationship that the poet once truly intended to showcase.
Hinda Eisen is a cantorial student at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. She currrently serves as the Youth Educator at Temple Aliyah in Needham, MA and as Ba'alat T'filah atCongregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA. Her website is http://hindatze.com/.