“Song of Songs” Revisited: Orthodox Women Struggle with the Ancient Text

JERUSALEM – The Song of Songs, the Biblical text attributed to King Solomon, has long been a source of controversy. Because of its sexual nature and sensual imagery, the ancient rabbis debated whether or not it should be included in the Bible altogether.

The debate gets re-engaged in every generation, but perhaps never more so than now that the book is being taught to young Orthodox Jewish women, who bring both their faith and their modern sensibilities to the task.

For the students’ in Debbie Zimmerman’s class in a woman’s school near Jerusalem called Nishmat, the sexualized content of the book seemed at odds with the righteous lifestyle they have been taught to live.  At a recent session, the young women in the class were strikingly candid in the way which they explored the controversial book. They were educated, learned in the Torah and opinionated. Eager to approach the meaning of the book as well as reconcile it with preconceived notions, there was an egalitarian aspect to the class.


Students engage in discussion in Debbie Zimmerman’s class. (The Land/Yvonne Juris)

The class became a forum for discussion on what values were more conducive to a healthy marriage, whether it was a sin to have sexual relations before marriage and the libidinous nature of romantic secular poetry.

“Let’s put it this way,” Zimmerman said quoting Shakespeare, “Shall I compare thee to a summers’ day?”  She added: “How often do love poems talk about your great sense of humor and how often do they talk about how beautiful you are and how your skin looks?”

“What about ‘let me not to the marriage of true minds,’” said a student. “It’s all about how love is timeless and even if your look changes.” Her statement, a defense made on behalf of the virtues of secular poetry and its potential to extol enduring love, was interrupted midway by another student who approved of her peer’s comment. She took the sentiment a step further and dismissed the Song of Songs as “candy bacon,” a designation she said she gave to the book because of its inclusion in the Torah, even though it was suggestive of promiscuity.
The teacher allowed, or rather resigned herself, to letting the students express their discomfort with the text, which some rabbis prefer to interpret as a metaphorical comparison between a love for God and a romantic love for another person.

“The question is, is Shir Hashirim supposed to disturb us?” a student asked using the Hebrew name for the Song of Songs.

“I think it’s supposed to move us emotionally,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be titillating. I think there’s a difference between being sensuous and titillating and I think it’s supposed to be sensual.”

The questions raised in Nishmat classroom have been a subject of discussion and imagination among scholars. Shir Hashirim or Song of Songs has undergone myriad changes in perception and interpretation, everything from the literal to the allegorical. The literal interpretation confronts the reader with a perplexing question of why such a romantic poem would be placed in the Jewish scriptures, known as the Tanakh.

“Song of Songs has been understood throughout Jewish tradition as an allegory but what the allegory is has many different approaches throughout the ages,” Zimmerman explained after class.

While the concerns regarding the book have more or less been settled, the curriculum surrounding the book varies widely depending on if you are a young Orthodox woman or a young Orthodox man.  The book is not as commonly studied in depth at men’s yeshivas where the study of Talmud takes precedence.

An excerpt from the first part of the Song of Songs, reads as follows:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.

Some scholars have argued that the romantic poeticism is an extended metaphor, representative of the highest expression of love between God and a person, or God and the temple. It is included in the Christian bible and was adored by St. Bernard of Clairevaux, who interpreted it as a poetic homage to Christ.  But while it is undoubtedly part of the Jewish canon, some scholars were uncomfortable with its sensual and sexualized language that describes the angst and passion of two lovers.

So it comes as no shock that in the quaint school of Nishmat, the book should once again be re-examined and interpreted through the lens of the young women. The rate at which the questions and interjections were raised by the five students during the Bible Studies class, was incessant-creating a cacophony of concerns, objections and opinions that Zimmerman patiently addressed. Many of these opinions circled around the discomfort of reading a book that so openly expressed the sensuality of two lovers.

The roadblocks in this lesson for the women who were in their late teens to early twenties, were par for the learning process, which is aided by thorough debate and engagement, Zimmerman later explained.  It is part of a growing trend for Modern Orthodox education for women who want to further their religious study with detailed examination of the text.

“I encourage my students not to censor their concerns – as long as they’re approaching the topics respectively and if they can’t approach the topic respectfully then they should still approach that,” Zimmerman said.

Students at Nishmat said that it took a different approach to Jewish learning than other schools.

Elizabeth Liberman, 23, grew up in a Jewish household that she described as being moderately observant and “egalitarian.”  Liberman and her husband decided to take some time off to enrich their knowledge of Jewish law after they got married. She has been studying at Nishmat for six months.

“I would say that when I grew up thinking that if women are doing exact thing as men, then that’s a form of sexism, and here it’s a much more realistic look,” said Liberman, 23, who came from Brooklyn to study at Nishmat. “I guess what makes it unique is how high the level of learning is for women.”

The ability for women to study the Torah and Talmud in-depth at this post-high school yeshiva, Nishmat, is part of a growing trend in Modern Orthodox seminaries.  This is a stark contrast to the education afforded to many Haredi or ultra-orthodox women who are supporting their household while the husband studies. According to an article by Orthodox Jewish education reformer Bezalel Cohen, in many Haredi Israeli households in Israel “it is the woman who carries most of the financial burden.”  This is reflected in the classes available to women in orthodox seminaries, which are often geared toward training women for vocational work, such as teaching and jobs in computer science.

Nishmat is creating a conduit for women who want to further their religious studies with advanced classes. According to Sharon Flatto, an associate professor and deputy director of the Graduate Program of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, in-depth learning is a major step forward for women’s religious study and empowerment in the Orthodox Jewish community.

“Even allowing women to study Torah is a revolution. That was a huge concession — even Orthodox giving women the opportunity to learn,” she said.   “Women have kids and that’s a huge pressure and I think that is the unspoken fear.”

For Debbie Zimmerman,  one of the foundational elements to her classroom is the acknowledgement that there are many layers present within the Torah, which also opens up more possibilities for interpretation, and the elusive but ever present concept in Torah study: debate.

The student in Zimmerman’s class who made the candy-bacon comment, added:  “I think its hugely problematic that we are coming to understand Hashem in terms of illicit affairs-and that’s uncomfortable because there are two sides to this –there is the assumption that you can identify with this on some level-but it shouldn’t be if we are being good frum girls-and it’s totally inaccessible if you can’t.”

For this student, the conflict lay in the fact that many of the behaviors she had been told to abstain from in order to live a frum or devout lifestyle that the Jews believe Hashem, or God, decreed in the Book of Moses, were flagrantly rejected in the Song of Songs.

The teacher soothed the students by reminding them that there was a literal and metaphorical connation and cautioned them not to forget the duality of the text. She broke down the book into five parts and delivered a brief lecture.

“This is what the Jewish people do,” Zimmerman said. “They’re scared to get close to love. They’re scared to get closed to God. And then when they do finally do get close to God, there freaking out and they make an egel-hazahav (golden calf).”

Zimmerman wrapped up the lesson, giving an outline on the stages of textual analysis and gave the disclaimer that the book is both “incredibly external and physical,” an aspect of love that people feel for God and for one another.


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