Rabbis Without Borders
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Two weeks ago, on this very blog, my colleague Ruth Abusch-Magder said, “Let’s talk about sex!”
And now, just before Passover, let’s talk about it some more. Let’s talk about what is beautiful in sex – and also what is harmful. Let’s talk about love, and let’s talk about assault.
Passover is the perfect time – because it’s a Passover tradition to read Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, the Bible’s erotic love poem. Song of Songs celebrates spring, with lush images of flowers in bloom, flocks grazing in green fields, and human lovers flirting. Well, maybe a bit more than flirting, if we take one of the lovers at her word.
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved… (Song of Songs 5:4-6)
Whew! I could use a cold shower! This explicit text hides nothing!
If you aren’t familiar with Song of Songs, you might be asking, “Wait, this is in the Bible? How did I miss it?”
One famous Christian commentator, Origen of Alexandria (185-254) had an answer. What you see depends on what you are looking for. When children read Song of Songs, Origen said, it goes right over their heads. When teens and young adults read, all they see is sex. When mature people read, they think of the best results of sex: loving couples and families. Once readers think of interpersonal love, it’s a small step to think of God’s love.
Personally, I adore this interpretation. It fits my experience. I’m a mature person who raised children with love, and a spiritual person who feels divine inspiration as I continue grow in family love.
Origen saw in the text the best of romantic love, expressed in lines such as This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem! (Song of Songs 5:16). So did Rabbi Akiva, a great Jewish champion of the poem, who said, “Shir HaShirim is the holiest of the holy” (Mishna Yadayim 3:5).
But the explicit text of Shir HaShirim hides nothing.
When the female lover goes out at night, she says: Making their rounds in the city, the guards found me. They beat me, they wounded me, they took away my veil, those “guardians of the walls.” (Song of Songs 5:7)
Tell us, Origen, what do mature people read into that? Rabbi Akiva, where is the holiness here?
As a mature woman, I see my own younger experience reflected here. Once a man crawled through my bedroom window in the dead of night, with intent to harm. When my father, half-awakened by my screams, rushed in with a baseball bat, the intruder fled. My mother phoned the local police; they laughed at her.
Once I woke from a nap on a late night ferry to find a strange man breathing heavily on top of me. Once my boss at the grocery store told me he liked to f*** and thought he’d show me atop bags of onions.
Strong fighter that I was, I never told my mother about these narrow escapes. What would she do, tell the “guardians of the walls,” so they could laugh at her again? And what would she advise me to do: stop being at home, at work, and on public transit? Stop wearing provocative things like heavy winter sweaters?
Writers in the Jewish blogosphere are still responding to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky’s dismissive comments about “rape culture.” Within an otherwise reasonable discussion of sexual morality, he suggested that women could simply choose to avoid such a culture. I won’t quibble about the term “rape culture.” I will simply affirm that sexual assaults on women are common. The author of Song of Songs knew this too, and felt compelled to write about it, even in a poem celebrating the best of sex.
Where is the holiness here, Rabbi Akiva? Perhaps it’s expressed as we survivors tell our stories, with an expectation of being heard, believed, and supported. Passover teaches about the power of storytelling, and about the possibility of moving from oppression to freedom. May our stories have the power to move our culture.