Peeking into the Holy of Holies

Dov Nelkin
University of Virginia

I thank the three main contributors to this year’s meeting of the Society of Scriptural Reasoning for their exciting and challenging papers. As always, it is a pleasure to encounter the SSR texts both for themselves and for the promise they hold for the meeting in Toronto.

R. Akiva’s statement that this text is not merely holy but rather the Holy of Holies functions rhetorically in M. Yadayim 3:5 and elsewhere to emphasize that there could have been no debate about the inclusion of this text in the canon. (Following the rabbinic idiom wryly, more so than any other text this renders one’s hands unclean). The Song’s status as Holy of Holies means that it must remain inaccessible to the vast majority of humanity even when it is the center of their connection with God. [1] Where God is most present in the world is itself hidden. This separation is emphasized by the rest of R. Akiva’s statement: the rest of the world is inadequate (אין כל העולם כלו כדאי) when compared to the day the Song was given to Israel.

Every text (or place) that is holy requires (physical, intellectual, spiritual; i.e. ritual) preparation before one attempts entry. In Jewish law, even the substitute for God’s name, “my Lord,” is not pronounced after awakening before one prepares oneself by ritually washing one’s hands. As emphasized in the (traditional) Yom Kippur liturgy, entry into the Holy of Holies requires the most elaborate of preparations and is limited by both time (to the Day of Atonement) and person (to the high priest).

I suppose it should come as no surprise then that Shir HaShirim provides an occasion for the crisis of interpretation and of ” thinking with the text” described by Alon Goshen-Gottstein . It would seem that this text, as least according to R. Akiva, is only rarely, if ever, available for “thinking with.”

I must confess, however, that Goshen-Gottstein is way ahead of me in his ability to “think with” scripture. He pronounces the Song the only text whose spiritual sense remains hidden to him, whereas I can name large tracts of texts (Leviticus 1-9, 13-15, to give just two large blocks) whose spiritual meaning for me depends upon our exegetical traditions.

Goshen-Gottstein notes that the rabbis avoided allegorical readings by their use of the Song, like the rest of scripture, as a source of potent passages rather than a discrete source of meaning. R. Akiva’s statement seems to recognize that this text most of all demands that type of reading to remain viable within the rabbinic canon. By drawing the rest of scripture into contact with the Song, R. Akiva perhaps warns against the dangers of approaching any of Scripture without first looking through the rabbinic lens. When we look to the canon, we already accept the “baggage” of tradition and there is danger in failing to recognize that the text’s meaning is determined (at least in part) within the context of community. This point is emphasized by Ellen Davis’ description of the Song as ” iconic” and therefore intelligible only within the context of a tradition of interpretation.

Ellen also suggests that this text stands above its peers in the canon as an occasion for ” humility in interpretation.” Humility, like any virtue, is developed through practice and readily generalizes. We who are humbled by the Song come to recognize the need for humility before the rest of Scripture and as we come together and share our interpretations and traditions with others both within our immediate interpretive community and the meta-community of scriptural reasoners. As Omid Safi’s citations from ‘Ayn al-Qozat ( Tamhidat 111 and 285) suggest, truly to “see as” requires one to “be as.” We cannot fully understand or, a fortiori , accept the interpretive commitments of members of other interpretive communities. We can, however, read our shared texts together and examine what arises within this dialogue.

In doing so, we should also be attentive to the impact upon the constituent communities of the meta-community. Goshen-Gottstein’s astute observation that “there is a reciprocal exchange” between the verses of the Song of Songs and the earlier scriptural texts to which they are applied is relevant here. Without changing any aspect of our respective hermeneutical traditions, something new is wrought by bringing these traditions into communication.

Every year, there seems to be some theme or approach (besides the “official” one) that unifies (sometimes in disagreement) the contributed articles. While Peter Ochs inevitably articulates the submerged theme most adequately, I wonder if my colleagues will indulge my noting that there is a tension, more pronounced than is usually the case for the SSR, about the appropriate relationship between text, reader, and tradition. Ellen Davis understands the Song of Songs itself to be a celebration and healing of its own received tradition. Still, she emphasizes that any reading of this text, especially, will be dependent largely on subjective (which is to say something other than communal) factors. Nonetheless, Davis reads the text as icon, which brings the weight of tradition and community into dialogue with subjective experience. Omid Safi presents us with a view of Islamic mysticism, but is careful to note that Sufism does not follow directly from the Qur’an and its tradition of interpretation. [2] Nonetheless, Safi is adamant that we must “focus on the interaction of particular interpretive communities within the Sacred text throughout history.” Goshen-Gottstein suggests that the Song of Songs is only meaningful (at least to him) as a religious text when read through the interpretive tradition. Interestingly enough, that troubles him as eliminating the possibility of “thinking with” the scriptural text directly.

In the past, SSR has confronted “broken texts” � those that seem to us in need of healing. Davis suggests that the Song’s central feature is that it is itself a text that heals, by rereading Scripture’s broken texts in the light of recovered intimacy. As we turn to our parallel texts and find (like the Israelites through the Yam — remembering that scripture is also a sea) our own “Path of Love,” perhaps we can comfort Goshen-Gottstein by “thinking with” him as we read Shir HaShirim together in Toronto.

[1] This connection with the Holy of Holies is used by R. Joseph Chaim b. Elijah al-Chakam (d. 1909), the author of the Ben Ish Hai , to explain why he forbade teaching the Song in translation to children and the general population (Responsa Rav Pe’alim, Y” D 56, ” v’da ki” )

[2] Safi notes that one could be the “Wellspring of Judges” (‘Ayn al-Qozat) as well as a mystic. So too in Judaism, the best example being Caro, who was equally Halakhist par excellence and mystic.

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning