Songs of Innocence and Experience
Songs of Innocence and Experience
another occasion, [Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and
Rabbi Akiva] were going to
Before we can understand the significance of this aggada, we need to consider another source, which requires some background knowledge. In Mishnaic times, people often kept their teruma produce beside Torah scrolls, and mice would damage the scrolls in order 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 near 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.
Akiva said: "God forbid! No one of
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
The same spirit enables Rabbi Akiva to laugh when encountering foxes
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
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 Shelomo 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 morning of life, and experienced cynicism dominates as evening falls. Why does Rabbi Chiya argue with an approach that seems true to much of human experience, instead claiming 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.