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.

 

 

 

Parashat Beshallach: lessons to survive national trauma in Holocaust Memorial Week.

Seventy years ago this week, the twin camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, and no-one in the outside world could ignore any longer what had been going on in territory controlled by Nazi Germany.

The western world is ready to recognise some of its collusion with what happened, but 70 years on is anxious to consign much of it to the history books, and looking at modern world events one can truly say that while some of the responsibility for the Shoah being allowed to happen is being accepted, much of it is not, and clearly nothing is being learned from it which might guide our politicians and their constituents to meaningfully help the oppressed peoples in Europe and beyond who are suffering under harsh and racist regimes today.

The Jewish world is still trying to come to terms with the events of the last century, though the pogroms and persecution are often still too recent and too raw for us to deal with yet, and we are stumbling around in the darkness of the early stages of the attempt to find meaning in what has happened to us. Post the Shoah, the trauma that our people endured, we have to assimilate something of value into our tradition and our ritual if we are to continue choosing to be Jews into the next generations. I don’t have any answers to how one deals with the experience, but reading Beshallach can help to point the way maybe, for it records the trauma of being thrust out from Egypt, the plagues which the Jews almost uncomprehendingly witnessed, the way in which the world changed so totally for them, and all security was gone – even the security of slavery. It records too the continued pursuit of them by the Egyptians, even into the inhospitable wilderness, the hopelessness and helplessness and victim positions of all those who had survived.   We read in Beshallach how the children of Israel turned on Moses, how they wished to be back in slavery in Egypt rather than in the wilderness, how they feared for themselves and their future, how they could not yet cope with what had happened to them, and did not know how to find meaning to guide them. What happened in sidra Beshallach is a paradigm for us to use to begin to deal with the Shoah. The first clue is in Moses’ speech to the people–“Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Eternal….for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more for ever”   The removal of fear which comes from the certainty that the persecutors will be disabled and will no longer threaten the victims is a vital beginning to being able to move on from the trauma of the experience.

The second clue must surely be the fact that the children of Israel walked into the midst of the sea upon dry land – as the midrash takes it the sea did not fully part until the first Israelites had taken the risk and jumped in to it, risking at the very least cold and discomfort in the darkness and swirling waters.

The third event of use to us – that there was active and knowledgeable participation by Moses in what ultimately happened to the Egyptian army – God had made their wheels stick so that their passage through the sea was too difficult and they stated very clearly that they wanted to run away from the Israelites and go back to Egypt. It was then given for Moses to choose to stretch out his hand over the waters so that the Egyptians would drown before they could escape.

And finally the fact that the survivors recognised the hand of God in what had happened to them and around them, and “they believed in the Eternal and in Moses God’s servant” – they recognised that God is present in the world, and that his purpose is served through human beings. And they sang a song of praise – they worshipped God wholeheartedly and meaningfully.

Four factors in how the children of Israel dealt with their own pain and their own survival. The removal of the fear of immediate threat, the active choice to survive, the active choice to participate in dealing with the enemy rather than relying on a greater power to sort them out, and the understanding of and communication with Gods presence.

We can take the model and use it – removing the fear and immediate threat of racist oppression by standing out against it where ever it appears, whether directly focussed on Jews or not. Making active choices to survive as Jews, teaching our children, identifying ourselves, playing a part in the Jewish community. Dealing with our enemies directly, facing up to what terrifies us and not expecting them to shelter under the protection of others. And finally through exploring and exposing ourselves with prayer, recognising the place that God has in our lives, and accepting that we have an obligation in God’s scheme of things too.

We can look at what we as a Jewish people are doing post Shoah, and find that much of it fits into the model first offered in sidra Beshallach. We have structures to fight racism and oppression. We have structures to help us make active choices about our Judaism. We have structures to make us a people to be reckoned with, a nation state, and a high profile in diaspora. And we are beginning to develop a ritual and a liturgy to remember the Shoah within our religious identity too. We’re following the pattern, but much remains to be done. We have the structures but we have to really make use of them. We have some prayers but we have to seriously pray them.

Seventy years after the liberation by the Soviets of the Jews who survived Auschwitz, we are just beginning to make a glimmer in the darkness of the pain and the confusion. The generation who physically experienced it are dead or dying and rely on us now to continue their work. We shall not let them down, but will absorb the lessons we can, and be changed as Jews because of what happened to them.