Love’s Fever: A Return to the Garden
The time-honed debate about whether the Song of Songs is a celebration of sensual love or a depiction of the ever-changing, running-and-returning relationship of the Holy One and the People is put to rest in Rabbi Shefa Gold’s recent translation and commentary of the Song. Gold’s In the Fever of Love: An Illumination of the Song of Songs (Ben Yehuda Press, 2009) affirms both the sensual and the holy, conflating the two in her intimate rendition of its lyrics of longing.
Gold’s book, illustrated by Phillip Ratner with drawings that match her exuberant words, is her very personal dialogue with the lines of the Song. It is written in two fonts, italic bold for her translation of the biblical text and plain type for her commentary on it. She presents a few lines of text and then her intimate and passionate response to them. This way of engaging text makes the ancient words fresh and relevant. By sharing so personally, she also models a distinctively Jewish variety of intimacy: intimacy with biblical text.
If we look at the books of the Tanakh (the entire Hebrew Bible) as an ongoing narrative, the Song of Songs’ exhortation to embrace life with all the senses, despite the inevitability of loss, offers an exquisite answer to the existential questions of Job, whose struggle precedes it. This intimacy is the theme of Gold’s book. She forthrightly reveals her inner world to her readers. This is a world in which the love of God is life’s central concern. Gold’s rendition sings the Song to one who is at once a physical lover and God. As readers, we accompany her on her journey toward yichud (oneness with a sacred other). Paralleling the running-and-returning dance with the intimacy of the lovers in the text, Gold makes us privy to her own yearnings for intimacy, her resistances to it, and her dogged labors to overcome all obstacles in pursuit of the hungers of spirit, heart, and body. Some may be discomfited by the depth of her self-revelation. But if we are honest about our own journeys — their yearnings and their times of missing the mark — Gold’s vulnerability mirrors our own. For all of us are ivrim/Hebrews/“boundary crossers.” Just as the word “Hopi” is at once the name of a Native American tribe and a universal description of “people,” the word, “ivri” is as much a statement about the human condition as it is the name of our tribe. Despite our intentions, we are destined to go outside the lines. We can never fully live within the template created for us, which charges us “to walk in God’s ways” (Talmud: Sotah-14: A) and seek alignment with the Holy One. Yet Judaism’s promise is that renewal is a continual possibility. We always have the opportunity of teshuvah: the charge to return to our sacred intentions. Like Gold in the Song of Songs, we can continually reach out anew toward yichud. The effort is at once sacred and secular.
The impulse behind Gold’s effort, as In the Fever of Love reveals, is an endless yearning to know and experience life, God, and love. Seeing spiritual yearning through the filter of relationship, as she does, brings a feminist hermeneutic to the Song of Songs. It is reminiscent of theologian Phyllis Trible, who in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Harper-Collins, 1978) proclaimed the Song of Songs the antidote to the events in the Garden of Eden. The story of the garden, according to Trible is, “a love story gone awry.”
Gold’s verbal canvas of the canticle landscape parallels Trible’s view of the early Genesis narrative as a story of relationships: divine and earthling, earthling and plant, earthling and animal and finally within the divided earthling—male and female. Her Song of Songs is a homecoming to the time of these early relationships in the Garden of Eden, which were characterized by “respect, reverence… and worship,” according to Trible. In Gold’s intimate sharing of her personal labor to connect with the objects of her yearning, Gold’s Song of Songs gifts us with a return to that garden.