Song of Songs: the history of a heavenly love poem

The Song of Songs, Ilana Pardes, Princeton University Press, £20


Only eight chapters long, this ancient love poem has challenged and delighted its readers in equal measure. Is it allegory or is a more earthly phenomenon at play? How did it enter the canon of scripture?

In this short book Pardes takes us through a journey from the earliest days of the book right up to modernity and shows how each generation bring their own context and insights to it. She invites us to see the poem more fully, to explore its amorousness and plunge into the intensity of its emotions.

With Rabbi Akiva we are at Sinai; With Rabbi Eliezer at the Red Sea —both have the passion of new and untarnished love. For the early mystics the poem links us to Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot, for the later kabbalists this song was critical to the links between heaven and earth.

While the rabbis saw the love as allegory between God and Israel, for the Christian world it was allegory between Church and Christ. The secular Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain used the poem more literally as a love poem, while the liturgists wove divine love from its verse into our prayers. The history of this poem is never straightforward — both allegorical and literary interpretations weave through its lifetime, eroticism and sensuality blend with asceticism and purity.

Pardes does a wonderful job of shining a light into the many manifestations and understandings of this poem, while the clear expressive language of love and passion is not diminished in any way. The Zohar says: “Whatever was, whatever is, and whatever will eventually be…is all in Song of Songs.” Indeed feminist re-readings are also explored, along with its foundational role in modern literature — the book is a smorgasbord of exegetical and eisegetical agenda through history and the life of this poem presented in it is a great pleasure to read.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive