Shiur #19a: Optimism and the Song of Songs

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #19a: Optimism and the Song of Songs

 

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

 

On another occasion, [Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva] were going to Yerushalayim, and when they came to Mount Scopus, they rent their clothes.  When they came to the Temple Mount, they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies; [the others] wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

(Makkot 24b)

 

            Before we can understand the significance of this aggada, we need to consider another source, which requires some background knowledge.  In Mishnaic times, people were keeping their teruma produce beside the Torah scrolls, and mice were damaging the scrolls to reach the food.  To prevent this desecration of the Torah scrolls, the Sages declared that touching these scrolls is metamei yadayim (ritually defiles hands).  This would prevent people from keeping their teruma in the scrolls, as defiled teruma must be destroyed.  There was then a question regarding whether or not some of the Ketuvim, such as Kohelet and Shir Ha-shirim, were included in this edict.  Thus, in this context, causing defilement is actually a sign of sanctity.

 

Rabbi Akiva said: "God forbid!  No one of Israel ever claimed that Shir Ha-shirim does not defile the hands.  After all, the universe in its entirety was never as worthwhile as the day that Shir Ha-shirim was given to Israel; all Scriptures are holy, but Shir Ha-shirim is the holiest of the holy. If there was ever a debate, it was only about Kohelet."

(Yadayim 3:5)

 

            Why is there a question about the ritual status of Shir Ha-shirim, and what is Rabbi Akiva's argument that it surely defiles hands?  One possibility is that the parable of Shir Ha-shirim could mistakenly be taken for a secular love song, and Rabbi Akiva is strongly contesting that interpretation.  Indeed, a different gemara (Sanhedrin 101a) indicates very strong opposition to treating the Song of Songs as a human love song.  Perhaps Rabbi Akiva needs to affirm the metaphorical reading of this book as a song of love between God and the Jewish people.

 

            Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, former Chief Rabbi of Antwerp and Tel Aviv (Derashot El Ami 2:15), understands the tension about this work differently: he links Rabbi Akiva's reaction to the Temple ruins with his statement about Shir Ha-shirim.  Shir Ha-shirim, the powerful love song between God and the Jewish people, represents a great spirit of optimism and hope. Some of the Sages question the continuing significance of such a work when the Temple has been destroyed and the Jews have been exiled: does optimism still have a place in such a fragmented world?  When Rabbi Akiva contends that Shir Ha-shirim does generate tumat yadayim, he forcefully asserts that our aspirations and hopes have become no less relevant in our broken world.

 

            The same spirit enables Rabbi Akiva to laugh when encountering foxes roaming the Temple mount.  He sees this as the confirmation of a biblical prophecy, and this fills him with hope that more positive prophecies of consolation will also be fulfilled.  This optimistic spirit enables Rabbi Akiva to maintain that Shir Ha-shirim, the great love song between God and the Jewish people, remains the holy of holies even when we are confronted with destruction.

 

            According to Rav Amiel, Judaism incorporates more of the optimism of Shir Ha-shirim than the pessimism of Kohelet. Kohelet is read once a year on Sukkot, but Shir Ha-shirim appears in the Siddur for recital each Friday night.  Of course, this optimism should not be confused with the notion that religion quickly solves all human problems and that religious life consists of resting by still waters in a green pasture.  (Indeed, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik attacks this Pollyannaish view of religion in the majestic fourth footnote of Halakhic Man.)  Rather, religion understands the unfortunate truth that life includes tragedies, difficulties and frustrations, and that we cannot easily deal with these things or confidently understand their place in the cosmic scheme. At the same time, our faith in the divine promise and in a life of Torah and mitzvot does enable a certain ongoing optimism even as we acknowledge the existence of suffering.  Rabbi Akiva certainly mourns the loss of the Temple, even as he continues to look forward to a better future.

 

            The preceding analysis may impact on our reading of a fascinating midrash:

 

Rabbi Chiya taught that only in his elder years did the Holy Spirit reside in Shelomo, enabling him to write the three works of Mishlei, Kohelet and Shir Ha-shirim.  Rabbi Yonatan maintained that he wrote Shir Ha-shirim first and then Mishlei and then Kohelet.  He brought a proof from the way of the world: the young sing, middle-aged people tell parables and the elderly see the vanities of the world.

(Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 1:10)

 

The correct relationship between optimism and pessimism emerges from this debate.  Rabbi Yonatan identifies the time of composition of each of Shelomo's works based on the stages of a person's life.  This seems eminently reasonable: youthful ardor dominates in the mornings of a person's lifetime and experienced cynicism as evening falls.  Why does Rabbi Chiya argue with an approach that seems true to much of human experience and instead claim that all three works were penned at the same time in Shelomo's life?

 

            Rabbi Amiel suggests that all of life must jointly include elements of both the optimism of Shir Ha-shirim and the pessimism of Kohelet. In fact, it is only Kohelet's ability to balance the youthful ardor of song with an authentic understanding of the difficulties of human existence that enables the song to continue through the ripeness of advancing years.  A cheaply acquired optimism is quickly shattered on the rocks of human suffering; on the other hand, an equally easy despairing cynicism also misses the mark, as it indicates blindness to the many wonderful aspects of human existence. 

 

            It is only the more realistic optimism that sees effort and difficulty as unavoidable, but still finds cause for hope that we will survive the vicissitudes of human life.  May we all merit to share in this more complex optimism and experience the love and rapture of a genuine relationship with the Divine.