Discussion Gude: Shir HaShirim: A Modern Commentary on Song of Songs
- Shir HaShirim,the Song of Songs, is considered "one of the ten songs of praise sung to the Creator by various biblical characters." How does this song fit in with the others? What does it mean for something to be called "the song of songs"?
- Some read Shir HaShirim as love poetry, while others read it as a love poem between the Israelites and God. Do you think that it can work in both of these ways? Why or why not?
- In 1:4 the text states, "Let's remind ourselves that your caresses are better than wine." Gersonides views this verse as discussing a number of impediments that one needs to overcome: "One such obstacle is bodily desire, symbolized by wine. Wine can be an impediment in any kind of relationship, particularly one with God. It can enhance the relationship, as it potentially does through Kiddush, or destroy it, as when one falls into a drunken stupor." What role does wine play in your Jewish life? Do you use it to bring yourself closer to God at the appointed times? Is there something else you use to mark the special times in your life?
- Verse 1:6 begins, "Don't look down on me because I have become dark." Kravitz and Olitzky suggest the author believes that being "dark" is not considered "beautiful." They further state, "There is a measure of latent and unintentional racism that needs to be overcome in our reading of the text." Do you agree with the editors? Is there another way this line could be read? If the author is looking down on "dark" people, how do we reconcile this text with our contemporary knowledge of Ethiopian Jews? With modern-day racism?
- "Ornamented rows make your cheeks look pretty, as does a necklace [on] your throat," states the author in 1:10. With all the materialism that is rampant today, what do we do with this statement? Is it promoting materialism or merely stating when a woman might look prettiest? The Targum says that it is a metaphor for Torah. "Just as jewelry has the potential to enhance one's beauty, so does adorning oneself in the words of Torah enhance one's spiritual beauty." Does studying the Torah or participating in other acts of Judaism give you the same feeling as adorning yourself in something beautiful? Do you think that connection exists in how humans react to things?
- Now that you have finished reading chapter 1, why do you think Shir HaShirm made it into the biblical canon? What relationship do you believe the author is writing about? This is the only "erotic love poetry" that has been canonized in Judaism. What role do you think it should play? Shir HaShirim is read in the synagogue during Passover. Why do you think that is? Do you think that is a good fit?
- Verse 2:2 reads, "Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the other women." The Targum explains that this verse refers to "the Divine Presence [which] rests upon the people of Israel when they follow God's ways. However, the Presence will be removed should they turn away." This is not the only time we hear this idea expressed. Many of the prophets preach a similar message. Do you believe that God's Presence is everywhere and in all times of our lives whether good or bad? Do you believe that God's Presence ever leaves us? What do you think of the concept that if you do something unfavorable God will shun you?
- Kravitz and Olitzky, in reference to 2:3, talk about how "sex within the context of a loving relationship is celebrated" in Judaism. Some, they say, believe that the "traditional choreography of prayer mimics various aspects of the physical relationship between lovers." What do you think about that comment? Do you use prayer choreography in your life? Have you ever thought of it as symbolic of something?
- Verse 2:6 reads, "Would that his left hand be beneath my head and his right hand embrace me." Gersonides believes that the left hand refers to our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and the right hand to our yetzer hatov, or good inclination. Do you believe that humans are made up of both, as Gersonides states? Do they work together? Is one inclination more powerful than the other? Does the text give more importance to either inclination based on which hand is doing what?
- Kravitz and Olitzky write about 2:14, "At first glance, these verses read like the plot of a modern romance novel: boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. But it can also be read as the story about our search for God: we find God, we get disillusioned, we find God once again." Does this accurately reflect your relationship with God? At what times in your life do you feel as though you can "find" God? Do you believe that being in a relationship with God is hard? Why or why not?
- Chapter 2 mentions many items found in nature: lilies, mountains, thorns, trees, fields, shadows, gazelles, figs, rocks, and cliffs, just to name a few. What do you make of all of these images? Do you find them useful? How do they fit into your understanding of this book as a description of our relationship with God, or how are they impediments to that reading?
- Chapter 3 begins, "On my bed at night, I sought the one I love. I sought him, but I could not find him." Gersonides believes this text is talking about our yearning for the ultimate perfection. He goes further to state that the lover not finding him is representative of our search for ultimate perfection that we cannot achieve without proceeding in the proper order. Does Judaism provide an order for you in your life? Do you believe there is an order to how we should live our lives (either religious or secular)? Why or why not?
- Verse 3:3 reads, "The guards who patrol the city found me. [I asked,] Have you seen the one I love?" What does it mean to love someone? How does loving someone make you feel? Gersonides writes that the guards are our senses and at times they are clouded. Does love cloud our senses? If so, can humans function that way in this area? Are there other times where our senses might be clouded?
- Each commentator has a similar take on 3:8. Generally they seem to be worried about forgetting the words of Torah and refer to the Torah as a weapon that protects the people Israel. How does Torah function in your life? Do you live by morals that are set forth in it? If Torah was a weapon, what could it be successful against? If we used the words of Torah instead of actual weapons, what would the world be like?
- In the gleanings for chapter 3, Michael Gold writes the piece excerpted under "Love and Marriage." He briefly touches on how U.S. contemporary culture views falling in love and how to make a marriage successful. How did you view falling in love as a child? Did that view change as you got older? What would you say your idea of love is today? What do you feel are the necessary ingredients to make a marriage successful? Gold speaks of how important courtship is. Do you agree with him? Do you think that discovery happens between two people during the courtship phase or more during the marriage? Do we take enough time to get to know our partner?
- Verse 4:1 reads, "Oh, you are beautiful, my darling, you are beautiful. Your eyes are like doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats bounding down Mount Gilead." On a simple level, this is a description of a girl whose face is hidden by a veil and only her eyes are visible. What does it mean metaphorically to veil oneself? In the Jewish wedding ceremony, the veil is pulled back to make sure the groom is marrying the correct bridewhere we choose to wear a symbolic veil? Are our eyes always visible to those who look at us?
- Why is a pomegranate the fruit used to describe the forehead in 4:3? Midrash states that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, just as there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Might this be a reason for the comparison? What does it mean to have "mitzvot" on your forehead? Do you think it is important to advertise to others which mitzvot you keep? Why or why not?
- Chapter 4 focuses on describing the lover in a physical way. What do you think the author's intentions might have been in doing this? What do you think about how he chooses to describe certain parts of her body, for example, "Your neck is like the Tower of David"? Does that sound appealing to you? What types of descriptions resonate today?
- The commentary to 5:5 describes the lover as "opening her entire self to him." How do we do this in our relationships with other important people in our lives? How do we do this in our relationship with God? Are there ways to open ourselves and prepare for a relationship with God?
- Verse 5:6 reads, "I became so weak when he spoke." Idiomatically this can be translated as, "I almost passed out when I heard him speak." Do we fall into that type of love today? The all-consuming, heart beating fast, butterfly in the stomach kind of love? Can we afford to, or should we be more concerned with providing for our futures when choosing a mate for life? How do we know who is the right one?
- Translated into idiomatic English, part of 5:9 asks, "What is [so] special about your beloved?" What is so special about the people who are important to you in your life? How would you describe them? Like the author of this love poem does, or differently? Which qualities that they possess are most important for you?
- In the gleanings section of chapter 5 there is a text by Sally Preisand, "The Measure of Success." In it she states, "Someone once said that our purpose in living is not to get ahead of others but to get ahead of ourselves, always to play a better game of life." She continues by asking a list of questions for us to consider. Have we done our best? Are we continuing to grow? Are we more sensitive and compassionate today than we were yesterday? Have we learned to overcome our fears and accept our failures? Do we count our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count?
- "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (6:3) is one of the most used quotations in wedding rings, ketubot, and wedding ceremonies in Judaism. What does this sentence mean to you? How does a relationship you are in embody this? Is there a different sentence that would better describe a special relationship that you are in?
- In 6:10 there is a progression of light: "Who is glimpsed like the morning star, who is as fair as the moon, as bright as the sun, as awesome as a row of flags?" Like the increase in intensity of light in this verse, what else has a steady increase in your life? Do most things become more brilliant as time goes on for you?
- In the gleanings section, Melinda Ribner writes, "In order to love freely and purely, we need to remove the obstacles that block us from being in touch with our true essence. This is not so simple. We have to break down the walls we have constructed to protect ourselves from being hurt by other people. We have to let go of our fears and allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable." Do you believe the lovers in this poem have achieved that? Have you achieved that in your life? Do you find it becomes more difficult or easier to let people into your life as you mature? Using the metaphor of God and the people Israel, have we removed the obstacles in order to let God into our lives?
- In the gleanings section of chapter 6, Harold Schulweis writes, "The myth of the creation of primordial man and primordial woman out of an individual self teaches the subtle arithmetic of love: one becomes two, and two become one." Are there examples of this in this love poem? If so, where? Do you agree with the balance that Schulweis speaks of with respect to singularity and unity? How does that play out in this poem? How does that play out in your life?
- Kravitz and Olitzky write that verse 7:7, "How beautiful, how delicious is love in all its delights," can easily be seen as a description of divine love. How would you define "divine love"? They mention that all its facets are wonderful. What are the facets to divine love? Do you think the idea of divine love is found in this love poem?
- Verse 7:11, "I belong to my beloved and toward me is his desire," is often linked with Shabbat. The Rabbis thought this text was appropriate to read on Shabbat because being sexually involved with your partner would increase the sacred nature of the day. What do you do to mark Shabbat as holy? Are the actions that you partake in deemed holy by the Rabbis, and/or are they something new and modern that you and your family have created? What makes belonging to one's beloved important?
- According to Kravitz and Olitzky, Rashi reads 7:13 as a metaphor: "The 'vines' are a reference to those who study the Bible. The 'blossoms' are those who study the Mishnah. The 'pomegranates' are those who study the Talmud." What does it mean to you to study these various texts? Is text study something you do in your life? Why or why not? How does this metaphor fit into the rest of the poem? Do you think there is any particular link between what is chosen as the piece of nature and what body of text it is linked to?
- Shoni Labowitz talks about the concept of a soul mate in the gleanings section of chapter 7. Do you believe that you have a soul mate? Is it someone you have found? How would you know? Do you believe that the lovers in this text are soul mates? Does being a soul mate always have to mean having a sexual relationship?
- Why is Sheol mentioned in 8:6? What does it mean that this verse is referencing the netherworld? Have other things been mentioned in this text that could help date it, like the word "Sheol"? What might be the importance of being able to date this text?
- Verse 8:7, "Streams of water can't extinguish love, nor can rivers sweep it away; [yet] were a man to give everything that he had for love, everyone would mock him" implies that a man was mocked during this time period for showing his emotion. How has society changed today, if at all? Is it still a problem for a man to show emotion? Do you think the male lover in this text shows real emotion toward his lover?
- According to Kravitz and Olitzky, Rashi maintains that 8:9 refers to the Jewish people: "If they are firm in their faith and their reverence for god, they will be like a wall of brass that is so strong it cannot be breached." Rashi says that what this actually means is that Jews will not marry non-Jews. What should we do with this interpretation today? Can the Jewish people remain strong and firm in their commitment to God even with the modern reality of interfaith marriages?
- Verse 8:14 is an attempt at a summary that doesn't quite work. Now that you have read the whole book, how do you think Shir HaShirim should conclude? What would you do with each of the characters? What type of metaphors have you found in the text? What part were you most drawn to?
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