THOUGHTS ON SONG OF SONGS
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
April 4, 2018 – יט ניסן תשעח
This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Claire & Sam Krumper in memory of Jack Levine Z”L.
Full of Mitzvoth
Customarily, Song of Songs is chanted in the synagogue on the Intermediate Sabbath or eighth day of Passover, whichever is applicable and first occurs. Because the book, read literally, is an erotic poem, the sages offered other interpretations that stray far from the plain meaning. For example, with regard to the lines “Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil (Song of Songs 4:3),” the sages suggested a play on the word רקתך. Instead of “thy temples,” they read it as ריקנין, meaning “thy empty ones.” Charitably, the homilist asserted that even the empty ones of Israel are full of mitzvoth, just as a pomegranate is full of seeds (Berakhot 57a).
Scripture uses the term “empty” to describe the bandits and ruffians who associated themselves with the young outlaw Jephthah (Judges 11:3). The term connotes someone lacking in religious piety or achievement in Torah scholarship. The “welter and waste” (capturing the sense of the Hebrew tohu va-bohu) that was the universe before God began the process of creation (Genesis 1:2 (Robert Alter translation)) is rendered by Onkelos as ריקניא, emptiness. An “empty” person is, in effect, an uncivilized waste of human life.
In the early rabbinic period, Jewry was divided along religious and educational lines. The elite were those scrupulously adherent to the more challenging commandments. One who was reliable on matters of Levitical tithing was call נאמן, or trustworthy. One who was careful to avoid Levitical impurity and even consumed mundane foodstuffs in a state of purity was accorded the title of חבר, or comrade. The highest level of attainment was knowledge of the Oral Law and acceptance as a scholar. By contrast, the Am ha-Aretz were the ignorant masses whose ritual piety was suspect. Even lower-down was the boorish underclass of entirely uncultivated — empty — people.
The Am Ha-Aretz were scorned. The famous legend concerning Rabbi Akiba’s early years features the fabulously wealthy Ben Calba Savua, who disowned his daughter for marrying Akiba, at that point an ignorant shepherd (Ketuboth 62b). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch tried to alleviate public suffering by opening up the royal granaries during an extended famine. He announced that anyone who had studied Bible, Mishnah, Gemara, Halakhah, or Aggadah could enter, and would be offered life-saving sustenance. But he explicitly barred any Am Ha-Aretz from receiving his charity. Rabbi Jonathan ben Amram was one of Rabbi’s disciples. He disagreed with Rabbi’s exclusionary policy. Jonathan disguised himself and approached Rabbi for assistance, pleading that he should be supported just as Rabbi would have mercy on a starving dog or bird. Ultimately, Rabbi relented and adopted a more liberal approach to public welfare (Baba Bathra 8a). Rabbi Elazar warned people not to give their bread to people lacking understanding, lest horrible afflictions befall the donor (Sanhedrin 92a).
In the third century CE, the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael experienced great social upheaval. The chaos engulfing the broader Roman Empire at the end of the Pax Romana led to severe economic crisis in Palestine. The older Jewish social divide, which pitted the scholarly and pious against the unlearned, was replaced with a new line of demarcation: that between the wealthy and the poor. Whereas, previously, the learned class was exempt from taxation and public service, thereby engendering resentment from others, new government rulings stripped the scholars of that privileged status. Only the wealthy would thenceforward be able to evade public responsibility. This made them the target of popular fury. In this new environment, the preachers and sages learned to downplay their earlier venom toward the unlettered and the less religious.
The notion that even non-religious Jews, or Jews casual in their performance of the commandments and precepts, are nonetheless full of mitzvoth is a comforting one. In this vein, it is customary to append the following dictum to every chapter of Ethics of the Fathers: “All Israel has a portion in the World to Come, as it is said: ‘Your people are all righteous (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).’” In its original context, the Mishnah meant that even those condemned to die at the hands of an earthly court are, nevertheless, accepted by God in the hereafter, so long as they were not guilty of treason or gross theological error. Readers of the Ethics of the Fathers might become discouraged by their feeling that they fell short of the moral and ethical guidelines set down there by the great sages. The inclusion of Sanhedrin 10:1 was, accordingly, designed to uplift readers by reminding them that all was not lost — for even mediocrely-observant Jews are considered righteous, and are beloved of the Almighty.
In the contemporary Jewish world, which is rent by denominational and sectarian controversies and disagreements, we seem to have lost the ability to speak positively about those individual, or categories of, Jews who fall short of the religious and scholastic expectations that we may set for ourselves. Only the pulpit rabbi eulogizing a marginally-observant congregant is tasked with recovering that lost art.
During the Omer period, we observe rites of mourning. The origin of this practice is dubious and might even be extrinsic to the Jewish experience. But, as often has happened, rabbinic literature has manufactured a Jewish context and has moralized the matter. We are told that Rabbi Akiba’s 24,000 disciples perished as punishment for poor interpersonal behavior. They did not respect one another (Yebamoth 62b).
We must learn to say pleasant things about other kinds of Jews and we need to believe what we say. The key is to see real virtue and righteousness in the behavior of people who are undoubtedly still short of optimal piety. If we can do that perhaps God will hasten the Final Redemption that proved so elusive in the violent days of Akiba and his students.
If you would like to sponsor an upcoming essay, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .