Reflections on the Commentaries
Basit Bilal Koshul,
This year’s discussion at the annual SSR meeting centered around the reflections offered by Davis, Safi and Goshen-Gottstein on the relationship of love/Song of Songs with Scripture as a whole. In Richardson’s words the panelist provided a sampling of “theologies of love” to be read and commented upon. The reflections by these panelists elicited more commentaries from the SSR group than the panelists of previous years. From this greater quantity emerge a qualitative and thematic depth that built upon and intensified the SSR’s prior work. Both the quantity and the quality of the commentaries present a daunting task for anyone trying to present a coherent and intelligible “summary” of the discussion initiated by the reflections of the panelists. Still, the daunting task was made much easier for me upon the discovery of certain themes that many of the commentaries stressed — albeit in a variety of different ways. Stated in summary fashion these themes are:
- Rupture and separation are not inherently (or ontologically) tragic. Under certain circumstances separation and rupture are potentially (or pragmatically) the prelude to the birth of new and higher ideals.
- The resources for repairing/healing the rupture/separation are located within that which is ruptured/separated.
- A third theme, related to the first two, that is to be found in a number of the commentaries is: Given the fact that rupture and separation entail the emergence of multiplicity from an originary unity, the task of repair and healing is consequently (and necessarily) a communal undertaking.
It is obviously the case that many, if not all, of the commentators said much more than the three themes noted above. But since these are the themes that I found to be discussed most often in the commentaries, the focus of my summary will revolve around them — for no other purpose than to make the task of summarizing manageable.
The Creative Possibilities of Rupture and Separation
The point that rupture, separation (or sin) has a dual character, being both tragic and potentially generative, is a key point in Afzaal’s discussion. He notes that the God-human, human-nature and male-female ruptures identified by Davis in her commentary on the Song of Songs are tragic ruptures indeed. They are tragic because of the suffering and pain that results from the ruptures. But from a particular Islamic/Qur’anic perspective these ruptures should not be viewed as the product or manifestation of sin, or a fall from an original state of spotless, innocent creation. These ruptures can be viewed as “creative ruptures” whose bridging contains the possibility of bringing a new state of creation into being, one which is in some sense “more” or “better” than the one that preceded the ruptures. In other words the possibility of healing the ruptures brings with it the possibility of tasting a sweetness and bliss that could not be had in the absence of the ruptures. Muers, summarizing the collective reflections of the Cambridge Society for Biblical Reasoning, comes to a conclusion analogous to Goshen-Gottstein’s “thinking with” and “thinking about” distinction. She notes that “thinking with” the Song signifies a “drawing in” of the reader into the text that recreates the world — a recreation that is the product of the “closest possible relationship to another.” Presumably this “closest possible relationship” is possible only in the aftermath of separation. Muers goes on to note that the “thinking about” the Song means that “the scriptural world, the natural world and the political world are all drawn into the text, and draw more and more deeply into the encounter between the lovers.” In other words rupture and separation (while tragic and painful) bring with them the possibility of a deepened and more profound relationality between the reunited “lovers” that would not be possible in the absence of rupture and separation.
Pecknold echoes the sentiments of Afzaal and Muers. He notes that the text of the Song is in a sense “external” to the reader, but it is also generative because it is the text “which generates even our belonging within and beyond its borders.” In other words the texts plays the dual role of situating the reader both inside its narrative and outside its narrative — thereby simultaneously (and paradoxically) giving rise to alienated otherness and intimate identity. At the same time that the text plays this dual role, it describes the city, the garden and love in dualistic and paradoxical terms. The city is simultaneously a place of violence and a place of beauty (i.e. the beautiful garden in the city.) The garden is symbolic of the greatest of all tragedies (i.e. the Fall) and also symbolic of a place of abundance and plentitude. In the words of Cooley, the garden is symbolic of betrayal/ denial and recognition/resurrection. Love is something that is carnal (i.e. love of the body) but also something spiritual (i.e. love of beauty). Just as the text of the Song “others” (thereby alienating him/her), but then draws the reader into its narrative (thereby establishing an intimate relationship with him/her), it also paves the way for establishing an intimate relationship with that which has been otherwise alienated. Elkins states this point in different terms. He notes that that the Song intimates that there is a gap between seeking perfection and finding perfection, between fulfillment and deferral. It is precisely in these gaps between polar opposites that the creative space and possibilities of the text are to be located:
[The] Song of Songs functions like a metaphor: it creates meaning by connecting different conceptual fields through a complex interpretive matrix that gives meaning to that which, outside the Song, is uninterpreted.
For Afzaal, Muers, Pecknold and Elkins, the conditions of rupture, separation and brokenness are not just tragic, they are also potentially creative.
How is it logically possible that that which is painful and tragic can become potentially creative? The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the mystery that is love. Following the exegesis of Prophetic sayings offered by classical Muslim commentators and cited by Safi, Umar notes that God’s intense love not only of initiated the process of creation and sustains all of creation (in its “otherness”) but also continuously perpetuates the activity of creating. Umar notes:
God created the world through love, so love produces the multiplicity that fills the universe. He never ceases loving the creatures, so He never ceases creating them, and this keeps the universe in a perpetual state of transformation and flux.
It is out of His love that God created the universe and the multiplicity in the universe. In a particular sense the love of God can be seen as the “cause” of separation and rupture. But conversely (and paradoxically) it is only through love that separated and estranged parties can be reunited:
love for God grows up from the basic declaration of faith, the assertion of God’s unique reality “No god but God.” Since love is a divine attribute, it follows that “There is no true lover and no true beloved but God.” Once the lovers see things clearly, they find that they love everything in creation, because all of creation displays God’s beauty, and their own love displays God’s love. Ibn ‘Arabi tells us that when the seekers pass beyond “natural” and “spiritual” love, they reach the stage of “divine” love, where they love God in all things through God’s own love of the things. Then they love all things in every dimension of existence.
The same love that caused the original act of creation, thereby ushering in rupture and separation, initiates the process of healing and reconciliation. But the world that comes into existence as a result of this healing and reconciliation will be a “new creation” created by unified (i.e. reconciled) wills of the love and beloved. In the words of Iqbal:
Why should I ask the sages about my origin,
It is my ultimate potential that I am really concerned about.
Raise your khudi (self) to such heights that before every decree,
God Himself asks “Tell me, what is it that you desire?”
The Broken Text as Resource for Repair
Given the fact that the world and everything in it appears to be broken, given the fact that the Song of Songs itself appears to be broken, where are the possibilities of repair to be found? This is a pressing question in light of the fact that such repair and reconciliation are the necessary prerequisites for the creation of a new world. The answer to this question is provided by a number of the commentaries on the structure of the Song of Songs. Young, following Goshen-Gottstein, focuses on the “brokenness” of the Song itself. Young notes that the Song “is both intertextual and broken all the way down — in its writing, in its canonization and in its history of interpretation.” For Young the Song functions as an icon of rupture/separation, textually, historically and hermeneutically. But it is precisely the “brokenness” of the Song that makes it possible for the reader to discover that “the texts are broken open so as to provide new life for the communities that take them up.” Young’s valuation of the reparative capabilities of “broken” texts is stated in even more forceful terms by Nelkin. Nelkin posits 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.” For both Young and Nelkin, the broken character of the text serves as an invitation to the reader to bring the narrative of his/her (ruptured?) life into conversation with the “ruptured” narrative of the text, thereby initiating the process of healing both of the ruptures. Young goes on to notes that the reparative possibilities in brokenness are a character of the Qur’anic discourse also. Commenting on Safi’s discussion of the history on Qur’anic exegesis Young observes: “It is as if the Qur’an, and/or its tradition of interpretation, allows itself to be broken open so as to restore the vitality and inspiration of the community.” In their own ways, Young and Nelkin are arguing that that which is “broken” also contains the resources necessary for initiating the healing process.
Davies’ reflections locate the reparative potential of broken texts in the broken texts themselves. Beginning with the observations of Akiva and Origen, Davies focuses on the special status of the Song within the canon of Scripture. For Akiva the Song is the “holy of holies” and for Origen it is “the key to Biblical exegesis.” Consequently whatever is said about the Song is reflective of the character of Scripture as a whole. Davies posits that the text of the Song displays a degree of self-awareness in that the Song “knows that that it is both canonical and uniquely, disruptively polysemic.” He goes on to note that the Song of Songs is,
an embodied thematic, pervasively reproduced in the stylistic surface of the text, in the service of a work which resists any straightforward assimilation into the narrativity of the canon, and which, as a self-thematizing, self-presenting text-body metaphor, seems to display canonically the nature of canonicity itself.
For Davies this is not just a description of the canonical and polysemic character of the Song. This description provides a model of Biblical hermeneutics as it was practiced by the early Rabbis – a practiced that is embodied in the contemporary work of Ochs and Halivni. This model of hermeneutics, based upon a specific appreciation of the nature of canon and polysemy, undercuts the fundamentalist, sectarian and arbitrarily post-modern approaches to hermeneutics. Kepnes’ observations echo Davies’ position on this particular issue. Kepnes notes that the midrashic literature embodies a praxis of this model – a model that maintains a “balance” between hyper-literal and hyper-allegorical readings of the Song. In short, the brokenness of the Song of Songs also contains within itself a hermeneutical model of how the brokenness is to be repaired, thereby countering the claims of inerrant literalism of fundamentalist/sectarian readings and relativistic post-modern readings.
The Communal Character of Repair
Commenting on Davis’s insights on the role and character of the Song in the practice of interpretation, Harvey posits that Davis’s insights allow us to look at Goshen-Gottstein’s “thinking with” and “thinking of” distinction in a new way. He reaches this conclusion by looking at the way that the activity of Scriptural Reasoning is actually carried out. Harvey notes: “Scriptural Reasoning is not only thinking of Scripture and with Scripture, but also thinking with friends and fellow travelers about what we read in Scripture.” This makes the practice of thinking with/of Scripture a communal activity. For Harvey, the communal aspect of interpretation is also located in the text/character of the Song: “The meaning of the Song, according to Davis, is in its interaction with the other texts of Scripture, as these are read within an ongoing tradition.” In looking at the issue from this perspective, Harvey proposes a way of healing the rupture between the tree of knowledge (critical, historical biblical scholarship) and the tree of life (scripture itself.) In other words, the movement towards this healing is not the result of individual effort cut off from life of the community as a whole. And one may add that the healing is also not the result of the efforts of a community cut off from the flow of history (i.e. disregarding how previous communities interpreted the same texts.) The fact that the “broken” text of the Song contains the resources necessary for initiating the process of healing and that this process can meaningfully unfold only in a communal setting is forcefully stated by Hardy in these words:
The Song shows that the most intense awareness of the Lord requires, and occurs in, the deepest involvement with the Lord in the full scope of life with each other in the world, and vice versa.
While the healing process entails the overcoming of rupture and distance between two parties, it does not mean the conflation of identities or the complete exposition of the beloved. Hardy notes that on the one hand “the Song places readers in a dynamic and self-involving field of metaphors, through which they learn the identity of the beloved.” But at the same time “the Song allows the beloved to be mysterious and one with whom we may be intimately involved.” Consequently, while “an amazing conjunction of identity and intimacy appears” as a natural outcome of the healing process, it in no way diminishes the element of mystery that is at the core of the relationship. What Hardy calls “the deepest involvement” is specified by Quash as “naming and recognizing.” For Quash, the human being is deeply involved with the created world as its self-consciousness that is able to recognize and name different parts of creation. Quash posits that this places the human being in the mediating (“priestly”) position between God and creation — but only if the recognizing and naming is done in love. In other words, the human being is in a position to repair the rupture between the Creator and creation, if certain conditions are met. For Quash one of these conditions is that we as human beings recognize and name each other in love (i.e. repair the ruptures in the human community itself.) He notes:
When we do acknowledge and recognize one another in love…we are actually sharing in the divine life — we are more adequately reflecting the image of God. For God is himself a recognizer [and namer.]
Given what Harvey, Hardy and Quash have said, it is difficult to imagine the task of repair and healing taking place apart from a communal effort. Ford sees the communal efforts to grapple with the issues raised by reflections on the Song of Songs as a potential model of what might be possible in the future:
Those ‘bewildered by the effusion of the Divine love’ might resonate both with Davis’ lovers of God who ‘fall silent, or babble more or less incoherently’ (15) and also with Goshen-Gottstein himself ‘on the brink of assenting to a given interpretation of the Song’ while ‘hopelessly struggling to locate a core of meaning with which I could resonate religiously.’ (12) We may be able, through an Abrahamic collegiality whose heart and hope is friendship, to unite love and wisdom in ways that help to serve the healing and flourishing of ourselves, our religious communities, our societies — and even our academic disciplines and institutions. Maybe.
In light of the intensity and the extensity of the discussion that the papers by Goshen-Gottstein, Davis and Safi/Huda produced, the “maybe” might be more than a far off hope — it may be a real possibility.
In summary, one of the themes that was detailed by a number of the commentators on this year’s topic of the “theologies of love” was that rupture and separation are not intrinsically tragic, they are potentially creative. Another theme that was detailed in some of the commentaries was that that which is broken or ruptured contains the resources for repair and healing within itself. Related to both of these themes was that the activity of repair and healing is a communal activity that involves a community of inquirers brought together from a variety of places and ages. While the three themes may seem to be unrelated, none of the three are possible or comprehendible in the absence of love — this is the one element that holds these three seemingly disparate themes (and everything else in the world) together.
© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning