Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…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” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.

 

 

 

Chol HaMoed Succot leading into Simchat Torah

Chol HaMoed is literally the “mundane of the festival” – the intermediate days of the festivals which are bookended by more ritually observant days, and we see this twice a year with the festivals of Pesach and of Sukkot in the spring and the autumn.

It is a strange phrase, and halachically it is an odd time – some work is restricted but not all. The boundaries are blurred between special festival time and ordinary working day. Does one do a particular ritual or not? If so, does one say the blessing or not? Needless to say, hours of rabbinic time have been spent over the generations in deciding just how much of the time is Chol – ordinary, and how much of it is Moed – festive.

And Succot has an extra dimension. Biblically there are seven days of Succot ending with Hoshanah Rabbah, when there are 7 hakkafot (circuits of the synagogue) with the lulav and etrog, and when the final judgment written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered – yet we have an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, literally the” eighth of ending” which in the diaspora has also claimed a second day.  No one quite knows what Shemini Atzeret is for – though it may have been the day of cleaning the Temple, which, given the tradition that seventy bulls were sacrificed on Succot to atone for the seventy nations of the world, might certainly need some cleaning.

The Rabbis of the Talmud are themselves somewhat puzzled about what Shemini Atzeret is, and declare Shemini Atzeret to be a holiday in its own right, not just the final day of Succot.  Reform Judaism has added Simchat Torah, an entirely different festival following a different cycle, to the date. Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This concatenation of different celebrations does mean one thing though – while the intermediate days of Succot may be an unclear time of both secular and holy mixed together, the final days are a blur of festivity and enjoyment. Not for nothing is this festival period called “zeman simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing. For a week there is the pleasure of sitting in one’s Succah, not obligated to work at the daily grind, and entertaining guests – ushpizin. And then follows the exuberance of Simchat Torah, the achievement of having read the whole scroll and the anticipation of starting again kicks in, and we dance and sing and drink and eat sweet things and let go of all the sombre introspective tropes that have been shadowing us since the beginning of Elul, or some would say since Tisha b’Av.

Simchat Torah is a time for partying. We have been so solemn, so thoughtful, so penitent. Now we turn back into Life – and we dance, sing, laugh, run, bound back into life, with all inhibitions left behind.

Famously Samuel Pepys witnessed Simchat Torah in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1663 and this is what he wrote in his diary:

“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.  But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…”

Pepys was horrified at what he saw, and had no understanding of it. He had no context in which to view it and a certain set of beliefs about what constituted worship. I would love for every synagogue to have a Simchat Torah like the one he saw – the joy, the comfort with the sifrei Torah, the comfort in offering worship through the body as well as the mind, the pleasure in knowing that a new year is started, and one that offers us all the opportunities we might need once more.

Judaism is unusual in that we move on from our Atonement once we have come together as a community and taken seriously the command to return to God and let go of our habits and inclinations that stop us living the lives we should. We move on always into Life. And if we need more Atonement – well, we can always return to God, do Teshuvah at any time, but at a fixed point in our yearly cycle we make sure we do it. I think that is the beauty of this strange concept of Chol HaMoed – there is always time for the world in our festivals, and there is always time for our religious commitments in our daily lives. While much of Judaism is about keeping boundaries, we also allow the crossover places, the liminal space which allows us always to return, always to make holy that which is ordinary, and keep holiness as an ordinary imperative in our lives.