The Jewish Eye
The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love
The Song of Songs
A Woman in Love
By Benjamin J. Segal
Gefen Publishing House, 2009, 192 pages.
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 26, 2009
The biblical book The Song of Songs is one of the most perplexing and inscrutable volumes of the Hebrew Bible. Do its eight chapters depict the drama a young girl's yearning for her lover and the lover's longing for his beloved, as is evident in its literal reading? If so, why did ancient Jews include this physical depiction in the Bible and why was it accepted as a holy document by Christianity? Is it, as the second century Rabbi Akiva proclaimed, the most holy book of the Bible? If so, why? Is it instead a work of symbolism or allegory depicting the spiritual love between the Jewish people and God, as rabbis say, or between the Christian and the church, as priests declare?
Benjamin J. Segal, a rabbi, educator and lecturer successfully answers these and many other questions in his very readable, interesting and informative volume.
Segal interprets The Song of Songs as a single love poem that expresses the emotional longings and the natural rapture of physical love between a young woman and man, an ideal love, a model for others. This love is egalitarian, both the male and female assume the initiative, unembarrassed. He sees no suggestion in the poem that it was intended to be interpreted allegorically and found evidence that it was in fact understood literally in ancient times. The Song's author, he writes, is unknown, although the work is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, who this tradition says wrote over a thousand poems. It was probably composed in the fourth or third century B.C.E. by a woman or a man who wanted to capture the feminine voice and emotion.
He answers the issue of how a love poem could be canonized in the Bible by saying that the book was first accepted as canonical by the general population, who were entranced by its portrayal of love, and then consented to by the rabbis and priests as well, perhaps because they could see allegory in its account.
Segal reveals the clever ways that The Song of Songs poet relates her tale. These include the use of double entendres, which are among the poet's favorite techniques, as well as graphic metaphors and symbols. It includes as well an intentional and clever blurring of intent: is the girl speaking now or is it the boy? This ambiguity allows the accomplished poet to speak even of coition in an erotic, but non-pornographic way, as in "I have come to my garden, my sister bride" in 5:1.
He shows how the young couple interacts verbally. For example, she uses a term or metaphor of endearment on which he latches and modifies ever so subtly as a term of his love for his beloved.
He recognizes that the Song, like poetry in general, is subject to various interpretations. Therefore he frequently incorporates more than a single explanation into his commentary, but uses this as an opportunity to show the skill of the author and the depth of her presentation. Thus, generally, two different accounts do not conflict, but supplement each other and add depth and meaning. In 6:2, for instance, the girl informs her friends that her lover "has gone to his garden." The girls were led to understand her to be speaking of a physical site, a direction; however, she probably meant intimacy, he came to her.
Similarly, Segal highlights many incidences that should be read as irony; are the lover's friends really complementing her when they describe her in 5:9 and again in 6:1 as the "most beautiful of women," or are they mocking her self-assurance, her delusion.
Segal's interpretation of the great poem is divided into six parts, each in a separate section of his book, each following the other. Each could stand alone, but together they add a multiple dimension to his presentation, like the difference between a two and three dimension viewing.
The first is a translation and commentary. The second offers the reader a fuller and deeper understanding. Verse 8:8 discloses that the young girl's brothers see their kid sister as immature, lacking even female breasts, while her own self image in 8:10 is the opposite; her breasts are the focal point of her attraction. He shows how the poet uses "wine" repeatedly as an understated symbol for physical love, which clarifies 8:2 where the boy offers the girl spiced wine.
The notes in the third section provide an even richer viewing of the poem and assemble some ideas contained in other commentaries. The 34 page Overview, which follows, is an excellent summary of the many themes contained in the poem, bringing them together in a clear and exciting manner, and adding new insights. He shows many reasons, for example, why he is convinced that the poem was written by a woman or a man using a female voice. He clarifies why King Solomon is the anti-hero of the poem: the beloved declaring, sometimes subtly and at other times overtly and derisively, that her lover is more precious to her than King Solomon and his enormous wealth. The fifth section is an excursus on love and the sixth an appendix discussing the poet's style. All in all, a wealth of absorbing material.
The twelfth century Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra described The Song of Songs: "This noble book is entirely a delight, and none of Solomon's one thousand and five songs can match it." Those who love reading brilliant poetry and speculating upon the various levels of meanings contained in its themes will be fascinated by Segal's interpretations. So, too, those who seek to understand biblical books and those who read simply for enjoyment.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on email@example.com. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.
The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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- Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, Israel Drazin.
Revealing unknown but true facts about the prophetical books of the Bible, this book also addresses provocative questions that many Rabbis have avoided answering.
- The Artscroll Tehillim, Edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz.
The psalms of King David, in Hebrew with English translation on the facing page. This edition includes brief commentaries related to the Tehillim.
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