A Pesach Love Story
The erotic theme of the Song of Songs, which is read this Shabbat, is about ‘the holy of holies of human life’
Extracted from the Chief Rabbi’s new Pesach Machzor, Koren, £29.95
Detail from Israeli artist Leela Ganin’s Song of Songs, published by Facsimile Editions, London next month
Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, is the strangest book in the Hebrew Bible, one of the strangest ever to be included in a canon of sacred texts. It is written as a series of songs between two human lovers, candid, passionate, even erotic. It is one of only two books in Tanach that does not explicitly contain the name of God (Esther is the other) and it has no obvious religious content.
Yet Rabbi Akiva famously said: “The whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the [sacred] Writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah, Yadayim 3:5).
Rabbi Akiva’s insight is essential. Shir Hashirim, a duet scored for two young lovers, each delighting in the other, longing for one another’s presence, is one of the central books of Tanach and the key that unlocks the rest. It is about love as the holy of holies of human life. It is about the love of Israel for God and God for Israel, and the fact that it is written as the story of two young and human lovers is also fundamental, for it tells us that to separate human and divine love and to allocate one to the body, the other to the soul, is a false distinction.
Love is the energy God has planted in the human heart, redeeming us from narcissism and solipsism, making the human or divine Other no less real to me than I am to myself, thus grounding our being in that-which-is-not-me. One cannot love God without loving all that is good in the human situation.
Love creates. Love reveals. Love redeems. Love is the connection between God and us. That is the faith of Judaism and if we do not understand this, we will not understand it at all. We will, for example, fail to realise that the demands God makes of His people through the prophets are expressions of love, that what Einstein called Judaism’s “almost fanatical love of justice” is about love no less than justice, that the Torah is God’s marriage-contract with the Jewish people and the mitzvot are all invitations to love: “I seek You with all my heart; do not let me stray from Your commands” (Psalms 119:10).
Sadly, one must emphasise this point because it has long been said by the enemies of Judaism that it is a religion of law not love, justice not forgiveness, retribution not compassion. Simon May in his Love: A History rightly calls this “one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.”
If we seek to understand the nature of biblical love, the place to begin is the Exodus itself. One feature of the narrative from the beginning of Exodus to the end of the book of Numbers is unmistakable. The Israelites are portrayed as ungrateful recipients of divine redemption. At almost every stage of the way they complain: when Moses’s first intervention makes their situation momentarily worse, when they come up against the barrier of the Sea of Reeds, when they have no water, when they lack food, when Moses delays his return from the mountain, and when the spies return with a demoralising report about the Promised Land and its inhabitants.
They sin. They rebel. They make a golden calf. They engage in false nostalgia about Egypt. More than once they express the desire to return whence they came. God gets angry with them. At times Moses comes close to despair. So unlovely is the portrait painted of them in the Torah that it almost seems to invite the thought, “How odd / of God / To choose / the Jews.”
Yet as we proceed through Tanach, another picture emerges. We hear it in the eighth century BCE from one of the first literary prophets, Hosea. The story Hosea has to tell is extraordinary. God appears to him and tells him to marry a prostitute, a woman who will bear him children but will be unfaithful to him. God wants the prophet to know what it feels like to love and to be betrayed. The prophet, uncertain perhaps about whether the children are in fact his, is to call them “Unloved” and “Not my people.”
He will then discover the power and persistence of love. He will wait until his wife is abandoned by all her lovers, and he will take her back, despite her betrayal. He will love her children, whatever his doubts about their parentage. He will change their names to “My people” and “Beloved.” He will, in other words, know from his own experience what God feels about the Israelites.
It is an astonishing and daring narrative, suggesting as it does that God cannot, will not, cease to love His people. He has been hurt by them, wounded by their faithlessness, but His love is inextinguishable. Hosea then hears God say this:
“I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt” (Hosea 2:16–17).
This is a retelling of the Exodus as a love story. In Hosea’s vision, it has become something other and more than the liberation of a people from slavery. Israel left Egypt like a bride leaving the place where she has lived to accompany her new husband, God, on a journey to the new home they will build together. That is how it was “in the days of her youth” and how it will be again. The desert is now no longer simply the space between Egypt and Israel, but the setting of a honeymoon in which the people and God were alone together, celebrating their company, their intimacy.
Two centuries after Hosea, the people are now in exile in Babylon. There the prophet Ezekiel retells the past in a different but related way. God had first seen Israel as a young girl, a child. He watched over her as she grew to adulthood:
“You grew and matured and came forth in all your glory, your breasts full and your hair grown, and you were naked and exposed. Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of My garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you My solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became Mine” (Ezekiel 16:7–8).
Again, a daring love story. God sees Israel as a young woman and cares for her. He “spreads the corner of His garment” over her, which as we recall from the book of Ruth (3:9) constitutes a promise to marry. The marriage itself takes the form of a solemn oath, a covenant. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai has been transformed by the prophet into a marriage ceremony.
Hosea and Ezekiel both envisage the Exodus as a kind of elopement between a groom — God — and His bride — Israel. However, in both cases it is God who loves and God who acts. It was left to Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s somewhat older contemporary, to deliver the decisive transformation in our picture of the Exodus, saying in the name of God:
“I remember of you the kindness of your youth, your love when you were a bride; how you walked after Me in the desert, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2).
Now it is not just God who calls, but Israel who responds — Israel who follows her husband faithfully into the no-man’s-land of the desert as a trusting bride, willing in the name of love, to take the risk of travelling to an unknown destination.
The message of Hosea, Ezekiel and Jeremiah is that the Exodus was more than a theological drama about the defeat of false gods by the true One, or a political narrative about slavery and freedom. It is a love story — troubled and tense, to be sure — yet an elopement by bride and groom to the desert where they can be alone together, far out of sight of prying eyes and the distractions of civilisation.
That is the theme of the Song of Songs. Like God summoning His people out of Egypt, the lover in the song calls on his beloved, “Come… let us leave” (2:10). The beloved herself says: “Come, draw me after you, let us run!” (1:4). Then in an image of extraordinary poignancy, we see the two of them emerging together from the wilderness: “Who is this, rising from the desert, leaning on her beloved?” (Song. 8:5).
Israel, leaning on God, emerging, flushed with love, from the wilderness: that is the Exodus as seen by the great prophets. Nor were they the first to develop this idea. It appears, fully fledged, in the book of Deuteronomy, where the word “love” appears twenty-three times as a description of the relationship between God and the people. When we read the Song of Songs on Pesach as a commentary to the Exodus, it spells out Jeremiah’s message. God chose Israel because Israel was willing to follow Him into the desert, leaving Egypt and all its glory behind for the insecurity of freedom, relying instead on the security of faith.