Shades of eroticism — in Holy Scripture

Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

Sometimes words in a book are life changing. For me, it is the Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim) that has been a beckoning light—since high school, when I read it with Dianne Sagotsky and we were astonished and giggly about its frank sensuality. In the Bible! In Holy Scripture!

It was years before I read the Song of Songs again more closely in contemporary translations. But its delicate, joyful verses incompletely remembered — my beloved is pre-eminent above 10,000…his curled locks black as a raven…his belly a tablet of ivory set with sapphires…his legs like marble pillars in sockets of gold…his mouth: delicious! — stayed with me as indelible inspiration for relationship. 

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Despite the eroticism of the Song of Songs since the Hebrew Bible was canonized early in the first century of the common era, the text seems not to have attracted a wild, mass following. Not like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the racy novel by the English writer, E. L. James, which has been bought by some 20 million English-speaking readers and reportedly edged past the “Harry Potter” series and the “Da Vinci Code” to become the best-selling book in British publishing history.

The author herself claims that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a love story: Anastasia Steele, virginal, college student, meets Christian Grey, a 27-year old billionaire with a yen for dominance and submission. But others see: Harlequin romance meets soft pornography. The book has also been identified as “mommy porn,” which humorously captures the book’s content and its broad following.

Recently, I was at a “Fifty Shades of Grey” discussion at which some 27 women had read the first book and a few had tackled the sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.” Close to 20 readers concluded: repetitious and badly written. 

No amount of editing could fix “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The series is not literature, but hack-lit for a money machine, because at its core is a spiritual vacuum. 

I do not mean that they are ungodly books because of the graphic sexuality. I mean that the books fail utterly in projecting values about self-preservation and the role of romantic love in growth of personhood.

When in fall of 2010, Rabbi Shalom Paul lectured in St. Louis on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he mentioned in passing that the Song of Songs includes God “in a suffix.” But the Shir HaShirim neither mentions God as creator nor the God of history who redeemed us from slavery, nor God of covenant and commandments. In translation, God is not explicitly mentioned at all.

When I lived in Chicago, senior Reform rabbi, Rabbi Herman Schalman said that the Song was included in Jewish scripture because it was “too beautiful to leave out.” Traditional Judaism has sought something more substantial and read the exuberant relationship between lovers as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel.

But contemporary translators, like husband and wife Ariel and Chana Bloch, fix the text firmly in a relationship between male and female lovers. As the Blochs point out in their artful introduction, the word for union, as it appears in the Song, occurs in only one other place in scripture where it definitely refers to carnal union.

The source(s) of the text is unknown. Are we reading wondrous fragments from a dramatic piece, secular love poetry, ceremonial verses for marriage, or a compilation from multiple genres? Probably the Song of Songs, as I complained above, has never caught on, because unlike other biblical books (Genesis, Ruth, Esther, or Jonah), there is no continuous narrative. 

As one of the Five Scrolls, each of which is designated for a particular festival, the Song of Songs has been adopted for the Passover liturgy. In my haggadah (prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis) before karpas, greens dipped in salt water, there are passages from the Song which associate passion and (Spring) renewal: Arise my beloved, my fair one…/ For lo, the winter is past. / The time of singing is here. /The song of the dove / Is heard in our land. And: Let us go down to the vineyards / To see if the vines have budded. / There I will give you my love.

In the Song of Songs there is freshness, fragrance, and vitality because in the lovers’ declarations about one another there is a kaleidoscope of vineyards, spices, blossoms, fruit, ewes, gazelles, goats, doves, trees, flowing water…

Because of the cornucopia of allusions to nature, Song of Songs places sexual drive within a grand natural scheme as part of the transcendent life force. The Song encourages us to embrace sexuality as our human, biological destiny. As “Shades of Grey” models degrading accommodation, the Song of Songs models equality and collaboration. 

Even though a relationship with God is not explicitly articulated in the Song of Songs, it evokes the concept of B’tselem Elohim, made in God’s image. Because for the person who has committed his/her life to you the Shir HaShirim models recognition and affirmation of the other person’s quality and goodness, his/her divine spark.

The Song of Songs is only 117 verses. See for yourself. Share with a partner. The Jewish Study Bible (Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation, Oxford University Press, 1999) offers a compelling introduction and annotated translation to this sweet but mysteriously brief text.

Elaine K. Alexander is a freelance writer who went to high school in New Jersey. After a 20 year stopover in Chicago, she settled in St. Louis. Her special interests are Yiddish and the Shoah.