Editor’s Introduction to the Articles
University of Virginia
This issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning considers the potency and problematics of the language of sexuality and desire as a mode of describing, either directly or by way of metaphor, the encounter with God. Two of the papers contributed, by Ellen Davis and Alon Goshen-Gottstein, come to this topic while exploring the fertile landscape of the Song of Songs. The third, by Omid Safi, encounters similar territory while traversing the luxuriant language of the Sufi Path of Love.
The Society of Scriptural Reasoning draws its energy and inspiration from an understanding that there is a special quality to the encounter when a community of academics read scripture as scripture. Justified by the success of the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, on terms defined from within that practice and by the practitioners, the SSR typically brackets the question of what defines scripture, allowing that the question has been answered historically, by the acceptance of certain texts within these communities we designate here as Abrahamic — those historical communities shaped by the traditions and scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
As a community of reasoners, however, the Society must return to the questions it has bracketed. As such, the question of canon and the nature of scripture are central to this issue of the journal. As is typical for the society, such questions arise out of a reading of scripture. The questions, as well as a multiplicity of responses, arise out of our engagement with sacred texts and with one another. Two of the contributed papers address and continue the historical controversy over the Song of Songs, recognizing that its inclusion in the scriptural canon, even if warranted, nonetheless raises questions not presented by the inclusion of Jeremiah, or even Job.
For Alon Goshen-Gottstein, the Song of Songs remains a problematic text, distinct from other sacred writings, only available as scripture once transformed by the glosses of its long chain of interpreters. Ellen Davis, on the other hand, understands the Song as a reparative text, perfectly at home within the canon as an intertextual response from within the canon to the ruptured relationships described in antecedent scriptural texts. The Song intentionally echoes the language used elsewhere in scripture to chastise Israel, transforming that language into an expression of love. Perhaps because the prophets used the language of infidelity to describe Israel’s sins, the Song of Songs responds in the language of sensuality and sexuality.
This volume of the journal also forces us to examine our sense of a shared scriptural canon, since the Qur’anic canon does not include the Song of Songs or a parallel text. Instead, from the Muslim side, we have a paper by Omid Safi that considers non-scriptural texts that incorporate the lush language of love and sexuality in a manner immediately familiar to interpreters of the Song. At the same time, the debate about the Song’s place in the canon may shed light on the relationship between the canon and those extra-canonical texts that occupy a privileged station within the interpretive tradition. The texts Safi discusses are themselves readings of Scripture. The recognition by the Sufi interpreters of the transformative powers of Scripture within a community, and their concern for revivifying Scriptural texts by challenging the identification of stagnant interpretations with the text itself, bear a familial resemblance to the approach to Scripture exemplified by the Society.
The ruptures in the Society’s self-understanding, occasioned by problematic location in the canon of both the Song and the Sufi path, provide occasions for healing. Fundamental to Scriptural Reasoning is that we study together despite our differences, cultural, theological, and other. We delight when we discover commonality but we learn when we encounter difference. We come to terms with these differences, and struggle with our history and our texts. We do not do so by ignoring or minimizing the disagreements nor even the ruptures, but by engaging in the reparative practice of reading and reasoning together.
Davis’ interpretation suggests that without the ruptures in the relationship between Israel and God, we would be denied the beauty and reconciliation of the Song. Similarly, Goshen-Gottstein notes that the Song’s refusal to be readily assimilated into the scriptural canon perhaps transforms it into a key for reading the rest of scripture. What first appears to stand in the way of interpretation instead leads to a deeper level of understanding. The key for Scriptural Reasoners is to recognize this truth of both scriptural texts and of each other.
Alon Goshen-Gottstein provides a two-part framework for his understanding of Scriptural Reasoning. Recognizing that the two are interrelated in practice, Goshen-Gottstein nonetheless distinguishes between “Thinking of” scripture is the more abstract level, at which we determine the meaning of a scriptural text, or “how we understand its message.” At this level, one applies all of one’s critical, analytic, and academic skills. However, as is also argued by Ellen Davis, Goshen-Gottstein asserts that even at the academic level, understanding Scripture involves “the heart and the intuition, along with the critical faculties of the discursive intellect.” On the other hand, “‘Thinking with’ means how we allow scripture to shape us.” That is to ask, once we understand a scriptural text, how do we allow that understanding to shape and transform the ways we actually live our lives?
Goshen-Gottstein draws our attention to the crisis, both within the academy and, to a lesser extent, outside it, whereby an over-accumulation of knowledge about scripture can overwhelm us, to the point that we can at best “think of” scripture but lack resources to move beyond this stage and “think with” these most important texts. As he notes, the Society was formed in part as a response to this very crisis.
However, in confronting the Song, Goshen-Gottstein does not see a way of moving beyond the “thinking of.” He writes that this is not a function merely of the layers of academic interpretation that stand between him and the Song, but the centuries of traditional interpretation and the myriad of Jewish and Christian commentaries to the Song. In continuing the process of justifying the Song’s place in the canon, a process that began at the point of its inclusion, these interpreters have provided “tremendous Spiritual wealth” at the cost, Goshen-Gottstein writes, of our (or at least his) ability to “think with” the Song itself.
In particular, Goshen-Gottstein takes issue with the suggestion that the Rabbis understood the Song of Songs to be an allegory for the love between Israel and God. In doing so, he leaves open the possibility that early Christian interpreters (e.g. Origen) and later Jewish interpreters (e.g. Rav Kook) are correct in so understanding the Song. The Rabbis, Goshen-Gottstein writes (agreeing with Daniel Boyarin’s work), were not interested in reading the Song as one coherent unit, as allegory would demand. Rather, they used the verses as expressions of praise, considering each phrase is a discrete unit: “each individual verse of the Song can serve as a prism, through which other aspects of Scripture, or of the spiritual reality of Israel, can be refracted.” The Song, then, “is never read for itself.” Goshen-Gottstein, on this account, discovers himself to be merely rabbinic in his inability to “think with” the Song. However, as he notes, the Song is not treated uniquely by the rabbis, all Scriptural texts are fair game for intertextual interpretation. The Song’s strength, however, is that it is uniquely suited to ascribe praise.
If the Song is not treated in a unique manner by the rabbis, does that make problematic Goshen-Gottstein’s understanding of the Song as particularly immune to “thinking with”? He concludes with the possibility that the difficulty of interpreting the Song without recourse to the long traditions of interpretation may in fact be a pointer to a similar need for all Scripture. Where other texts appear to yield their “true” or “intended” meaning or meanings, the Song denies that fruit from its beloved. Perhaps, Goshen-Gottstein suggests, the human and communal factors required to give meaning to the Song are in fact required of all Scriptural interpretation.
Ellen Davis begins with the provocative suggestion that we accept the Song of Songs on the same terms as the rabbis who secured its place in the canon. Standing “almost alone” among contemporary biblical scholars, Davis writes that the Song “really is, in large part, about the love that obtains between God and Israel — or, more broadly, between God and humanity.” In this paper, she does not address Goshen-Gottstein’s challenge to this understanding of the Rabbis’ interpretation. However, as noted above, Goshen-Gottstein allowed that the Song might be about love, only rejecting the position that the rabbis so understood its significance. Davis sees in the Song a return to the Garden of Eden (and the Garden of the Temple), “imaginatively healing the ruptures that occurred there: between man and woman, between humanity and God, between human and non-human creation.”
There are two levels to Davis’ commentary here. The first, of course, is her interpretation of the Song. The second becomes clear in her analysis of the difference between the ways that she and Andr� LaCocque interpret the Song of Songs.
Standing with LaCocque in seeing the Song as authored as a response to extant Scriptural texts, Davis diverges sharply from his position in her understanding of authorial intent. Where Davis sees the Song’s intertextuality as repairing the rifts described in earlier scriptural texts, LaCocque sees subversive use of sacred language in the service of human emotion and desire.
The Song, according to Davis, rethematizes the antecedent scriptural tradition: where previously one finds the dichotomy of obedience/disobedience, the Song substitutes desired intimacy and fear of its loss. The sharpness of her disagreement with LaCocque, Davis notes, points to the inherent subjectivity of interpretation. Like Goshen-Gottstein, Davis sees the subjectivity as a necessary component of all scriptural interpretation and especially interpretation of the Song. This leads Davis not to interpretative relativism, but to a “practice of interpretive humility.”
Davis suggests that the Song be understood as an ” icon .” Two aspects of this understanding are crucial from the standpoint of the Scriptural Reasoning: the first is that text as icon “is an image of this world…as seen in the light of God’s glory. It affirms that our historical, sensible experience is the basis of our experience of God, yet at the same time it suggests that features of what we call ‘reality’ are more supple than we generally suppose.” The second is that per Davis an icon represents an image of the world, but one that “does not reflect ‘universal human experience”.
The SSR shares this understanding of reality and of our way of encountering God. The Society does not pretend that we live in a redeemed age. Rather, the Society is a response to the false dichotomy we face after the Enlightenment, according to which we must choose between humanistic rejections of the Abrahamic resources and neo-Orthodox anti-modernism. Against this either/or proposition, the Society follows Davis in recognizing that while we do experience God and are transformed by the encounter, we do so only within the limits of being historically and culturally situated humans.
In Scripture, we encounter the Divine. This is mediated by our being human (and therefore finite). This finitude is not a failing, but rather an essential aspect of our humanity. The depth of Scriptural resources, the possibility of finding something “new” within, is explicable in part as a function of the finite encountering the infinite. Scripture, like the icon, does not reflect “universal human experience,” largely because such a thing does not exist. It is on this point that the two levels of Davis’ essay come together. The demand for interpretive humility experienced in the face of the subjectivity of scriptural interpretation is reinforced by the Song’s iconic nature.
While the Society finds value in the shared reading of scriptural texts by members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretive communities, it does not minimize the differences between (and within) these communities. As Davis notes of the icon, the reality experienced in the encounter with the Divine is “peculiar and only minimally intelligible.” Where we find interpretive agreement between the communities, we hypothesize that there is substantive agreement in the way we experience reality.
I must confess to initial surprise at how large an area of overlap exists between these traditions within an issue of the journal concerned with Love, that which is experienced as a most intensely particular form of reality.
Perhaps Omid Safi provides an answer for this overlap among Scriptural Reasoners of the three different traditions when he writes that “Scripture [is] a Love-letter and love the greatest of God’s mysteries.”
The Sufi tradition recognized that the sharp distinction was between those who had and those who had not experienced love. ‘Ayn al-Qozat, cited by Safi, insisted that, “Of love one can only speak with lovers. Only a lover knows the true value of love. One who has not experienced it considers it all a legend”
For this reason, Safi’s essay fits comfortably alongside the two essays devoted to the Song of Songs, although it of course does not touch on that text. As Basit Koshul notes in his comment, all “are engaged in a common endeavor — using scripture and the interpretation of scripture to understand/explicate the meaning of love.” That theme, important but tangential to the other essays, is the central focus of Safi’s presentation.
Like Davis and Goshen-Gottstein, Safi sees the subjective as a critical component of Scriptural interpretation. He goes beyond the other two in identifying this subjectivity as an essential aspect of the interpreter’s path to God. Subjectivity is critically important because only through internal seeking can God be discovered and loved.
Safi suggests that the Sufis saw ambiguity and paradox as tools for breaking through that human tendency to reify religion and lose the power of seeking and encountering God. Goshen-Gottstein’s suggestion that the difficulties one encounters in interpreting the Song of Songs might be a key to understanding the need for human interpretation of Scripture seems to find an analogue here. “Love,” writes one of the Sufi masters quoted by Safi, “is a sweetness, but its inner reality is bewilderment.” That Goshen-Gottstein is troubled uniquely by the Song of Songs, and yet focuses his attention on it finds an echo in the Sufi tradition as well, with Safi quoting Ahmed Ghazali , “Love is an affliction and I am not about to abstain from affliction.”
As Safi discusses the “Path of Love,” describing a dominant Sufi tradition, he also narrates the historical path that this tradition took in developing its conception of Love, both of humans and of God. A term ( ‘ishq ) initially dismissed as overly human (i.e. erotic) eventually comes to be used of love for God; this Divine love is then recognized as the primary form of love, the human love once so named is ultimately seen as a metaphorical approximation of spiritual desire — or, at best, a stage on the path to that latter goal. The ways that different interpreters have understood the Song of Songs clearly have parallels here.
Safi notes that the structure of most writings on human desire/love for God points to the utter dependence upon God, the beloved. He cites Ghazali as pressing the concept of God as the beloved to a recognition that, as beloved, God also needs the lover/worshiper. While protecting God’s essence from such “imperfection,” the Sufis suggested that God as Creator, in relation with the Creation, was in fact needful of being loved.
How one relates to one’s traditions is a central theme of Sufi Islam as Safi characterizes it. He writes that Sufi leaders were experts in the traditions they repeatedly exhorted their students to transcend. What was expected of the Sufi was to engage the tradition, but also to remember that the tradition is a tool aimed at transcending one’s current spiritual state on the path to encountering and loving God. When one’s goal becomes conformity with a particular sectarian approach, one loses the spontaneity demanded of one who looks to God with love, suggest the mystics Safi discusses.
It seems to me that Scriptural Reasoning relates to its antecedent traditions and texts in much the same way as the Sufi mystics did (and do). We struggle with Scripture and its traditional interpretation because they both challenge us and provide resources through which we can respond to the challenges (intellectual, cultural, political) we face today. Even so, we reexamine our traditions to see where we (and our predecessors) have mistaken one possible understanding of a text as the text itself. Often, in these cases, another interpretation would yield greater fruit in the contemporary world.
Faced with suffering unveiled within or through a text, Scriptural Reasoning does not instantly transform the world. As the icon points to an alternative reality, through Scriptural study we develop resources for recognizing where the world needs such transformation. Encountering others in need, we recognize our Beloved, and see our Beloved anew and with eyes refreshed. Our recognition of another in need is experienced as a call to love, a call to action, and also a call to further study.
© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning