Postcritical Fulfillment and Deferral: “Do Not Awaken Love Too Soon”

William Wesley Elkins
The Theological School
The Casperson School of Graduate Studies
Drew University

Paul Ricoeur, in dialog with Andr� LaCocque’s interpretation of the Song of Songs, concludes that the meanings of the Song are constituted by a history of reading derived from the use of this scripture to interpret different religious practices. This conclusion is the result of an argument against the thesis, shared by historical-critical and allegorical interpretations that there is one proper meaning to this text. In addition Ricoeur suggests that a search for the original meaning by historical-critical interpreters and the gap, in allegorical interpretations, between the context of the interpreter and any religious practice, obscures the ways that the Song of Songs constitutes a biblical hermeneutics. Simply stated, Ricoeur argues that the Song functions like a metaphor: it creates meaning by connecting different conceptual fields through a complex interpretative matrix that gives meaning to that which, outside the Song, is uninterpreted. [1]

The value of introducing Ricoeur’s hermeneutic of the Song of Songs in the context of Davis’ and Goshen-Gottstein’s interpretations is the possibility it offers of productively correlating these interpretations.

First, one of the important trajectories of Davis’ article is her use of the interpretation of Andr� LaCocque. They both agree that the Song is an erotic work of poetic imagination. They disagree, however, on the implications of this perspective. LaCocque argues that the language of the Song is an iconoclastic critique of the covenant tradition and of marital love. The Song�s use of religious language to represent the erotic desacralizes and delegitimates the traditions of Israel. Davis, however, interprets the erotic language of the Song religiously. The Song, through adoration and praise, returns us to Eden “with the intent of imaginatively healing the ruptures that occurred there between mend and woman, between humanity and God, between human and non-human creation.” The images that repair the breaks introduced by disobedience and distrust are metaphors of the relations of intimacy of the lovers in the garden. In the garden of the Song, creation is restored through an intimacy and trust between God and humanity, an intimacy between men and women beyond the structures and ideologies and power, and through a flourishing of nature beyond the deprivations introduced into creation as a consequence of God’s judgment against sin. Although the symbolism of the Song is erotic, its purpose is soteriological. The erotic, when read liturgically, is transformed but not suppressed. The natural remains natural, yet it functions mystically: in reading the Song the reader is repaired and recreated in the image of God. Finally, for Davis the Song functions like an icon . It reveals the natural in the light of the divine. In addition, the icon draws the reader, the way an icon draws those who pray through them, into a transformative religious practice.

What then is the connection between Ricoeur’s philosophical perspective on the Song of Songs and Davis’ interpretation? Davis’ essay has exemplified the way a particular religious use of the Song activates the hermeneutic function of the Song. Used, for example, in a Christian baptismal liturgy, the Song connects a sense of fallen creation to a liturgical space that reenacts the recreation of humanity. Moreover, Davis’ interpretation is an example of the ways that the Song makes meaning when it is used to link different religious practices.

Goshen-Gottstein’s argument, although not a direct critique of Davis, articulates Rabbinic themes that, prima facie, appear dissonant with her interpretation. Of particular note is his attestation to a crisis of interpretation in regards to the Song of Songs.

As a reader who is aware of the rich history of interpretation of the Song, the Song itself is hopelessly lost to me…consequently I am unable to find a way of “thinking with” the Song of Songs. I may be able to “think of” the Song of Songs, through the lens of the Rabbis, Maimonides, the Zohar or Rav Kook. …thereby shaping my consciousness and how I live the world spiritually. However, I will not be able to “think with” the Song of Songs. It will not be the Song of Songs that has function as a spiritual structuring force but what has been made of it through the history of interpretation. It is here that I locate my crisis in relation to the Song of Songs. This is perhaps the only biblical text of which I am unable to make spiritual sense on its own account for which I am wholly indebted to the history of its interpretation.

This conclusion is the result of a complex argument that correlates two factors: (1) early rabbinic patterns of interpretation and (2) an evaluation, on the basis of early rabbinic practice, of the unpersuasiveness of erotic interpretations of the Song and interpretations of the Song as an allegory of love. The early rabbis did not interpret the Song as a whole but intertextually interpreted various fragments of the Song, connecting them to a variety of scriptures in order to highlight and praise different rabbinic values. Thus allegory was not a part of rabbinic practice and love was not a central to their use of the Song. For Goshen-Gottstein there seems to be no persuasive argument for interpreting the Song as a spiritually erotic or an allegory of the love between God and Israel, despite the tradition of later interpreters of the Song of Songs. Any unifying interpretation Song, on rabbinic principles, would be illegitimate. There is, however, a possibility, as he notes, that Christian interpreters may have discovered an appropriate use of the text. This use, however, determined as it is by a transfer of use from the original context to Christian liturgy and hymnody, does violate the intertextual pattern of interpretation practiced by the early rabbis.

Given the contrast between Davis’ and Goshen-Gottstein’s interpretations, it seems that we are left with a dilemma: if the original context of the Song is changed through reading it as part of a Christian liturgy, it is possible to interpret the Song as a whole. However, if we interpret the Song as a single text, we violate rabbinic patterns of interpretation. Moreover, since context determines use, different contexts will constitute different meanings for the Song. How then is it possible to understand the hermeneutics of the Song of Songs?

For postcritical scriptural interpreters, it is the practice of interpretation that shapes hermeneutic theory. It is possible, therefore, that there will be different hermeneutics for different communities of interpretation. The apparent conflict between the interpretations of Davis and Goshen-Gottstein thus may be interpreted as the result of their participation in different communities of interpretation. These interpretations do not conflict because they are being used by different communities for different purposes. The meaning, as Wittgenstein would remind us, is the use. Here there are as many meanings as there are uses of the Song in different communities of interpretation. The meaning of Davis’ interpretation is integral to using the Song in liturgy or for an iconic theology that seeks the healing of creation. Goshen-Gottstein’s interpretation is integral to a recovery of the complex nuances of rabbinic patterns of interpretation. But if these interpretations are not in conflict, then for what reason and to what purpose would we read them together with the Song of Songs?

For the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, there is one promising possibility. It requires however, as Davis and Goshen-Gottstein note, a confession of particularity and limitation: (to our discomfort) the interpretative perspective of postcritical interpreters may still be shaped by the temptation to search for an original or core meaning to a text. The language of and preference for unity is, of course, may be a reflection of a historical-critical method or a systematic theological or philosophical perspective that, for some purposes, we cannot forgo. As a corrective to this temptation, Goshen-Gottstein’s rabbinic perspective and Davis’ use of iconography are exemplary. Each interpretation is particular, bound by a context of practice, and unsystematic. However, the virtues of particularity and self-limitation tend towards paradox when the strengths of different interpretations make it difficult to discover a connection between them. The problem for a postcritical hermeneutic is to discover how interpretations are complementary without violating the integrity of their difference.

Given these considerations, the question that postcritical interpreters should ask is: is it possible and, if so, how do each of the interpretations offered attempt to repair religious practice by using a particular history of reading? The trajectory of Davis’ interpretation of the Song is to use the erotics of the Song to repair creation. The trajectory of Goshen-Gottstein’s rabbinic perspective is to use rabbinic practices of interpretation to disconnect the song from allegorizing interpretations that obscure the intertextual richness of the Song. These are different interpretations, but they resolve different problems. Responding to the difficulties of different reading practices of different communities, one does not contradict the other. They are, as Wittgenstein might note, playing different games. No fault, no fine. There is however, a paradox here. Although Davis’ interpretation, in Goshen-Gottstein’s perspective, may be one of these suspect allegorizing interpretations, her use of numerous textual connections of the Song to Genesis makes her interpretative practice, however Christian, recognizably rabbinic . The question that arises then is, what is it about scriptural reasoning that leads postcritical interpreters to patterns of rabbinic interpretation?

If postcritical interpretation is shaped by an investigation of the ways scripture repairs the difficulties/problems of religious practice, given the above interpretations of the Song of Songs, a postcritical hermeneutics may be shaped by a search for the ways different interpretative perspectives repair each other. It is at this point that postcritical interpreters may experience the tendency to generalize and systematize. But having noted this temptation, what might be a postcritical complementarity between Davis’ and Goshen-Gottstein’s interpretation of the Song of Songs? It may be this: Following Ricoeur, the Song of Songs itself is the connection between different practices and different religious hermeneutics.

Following the trajectory of Davis’s interpretation, the Song is an expression of love that reaches towards a divine love that heals creation. Following the trajectories of Goshen-Gottstein’s interpretation, the Song implicates the reader in all the intertextual complexities of the covenantal tradition. In this tradition, the ways of God have been revealed to humanity. However, if, according to Rosenzweig, the first address of God to humanity is �love me�, love, nevertheless, is not all the covenant requires. There is something more to worship of God than love. There is Torah, teaching, interpretation, practices of prayer, praise, peace and justice. But given who God was, is, and will be, who would not love God? The history of Israel, the church and humanity tells the best and worst of this story. We have not loved as we have been loved, so we need to be and do something else.

In the Methodist tradition, ordinands affirm the belief that they will be perfected in love in this life. What we are and what we do may fulfill love for the moment. However, if we are postcritical in our commitments we will recognize that the fullness of God requires that we defer perfection even as we seek it. Given this, in the final analysis, isn’t the Song of Songs a model for a hermeneutic that contrasts fulfillment and deferral? How would religious practices and patterns of interpretation be changed by readings of the Song that touch upon the richness and perfections of love and yet command and caution readers to refrain from loving until love itself is ready? What are the implications of the time and place of love being so perfect � and yet, not-yet ready?

I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the Valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens. As an apple tree among the tress of the wood, so is by beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples. For I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right had embraced me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready. (2:1-7)

As scriptural reasoners and hermeneutic philosophers, the questions what do we do until love is ready? How do we pas the time, how do we prepare for love? If the Song is a model, we will be lead to teach and be taught, loving and learning to love God, creation and humanity. In this way the fullness of presence and deferral of fulfillment in Song of Songs is a beginning of textual wisdom that leads through love to Love. In the final judgment, however, poetics, even theological poetics, is too theoretical. There is much more to love than Wisdom and move Love in wisdom than we can know. Ending with a question is more rabbinic, pragmatic and true to the task: Given the different uses of the song of Songs in Jewish and Christian tradition, and the use of the poetics of love in the Sufi tradition (see the profound paper by Omid Safi ), how would scriptural reasoners interpret the scriptural values of following texts?

Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord (Ps 107:43)

Do not forsake wisdom and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. (Prov 4:6)

Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. (Prov 9:8)

He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who cherishes understanding prospers. (Prov 19:8)

A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father�.(Prov 29:3)

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God�s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. (Ecc 9:1)

[1] Andr� LaCocque and Paul Ricoeur, Thinking Biblically: Exegetical Studies , (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 265-303.

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning