Song Of Songs Rabba and the Mind-Body Problem

Steven Kepnes,
Colgate University

For the Song of Songs to make sense as scripture one must have a theological imagination. The essay by Ellen Davis on Song of Songs displays such imagination and must therefore be understood as both a masterful work of exegesis and theology. As a work of scholarship, exegesis, and theology, Davis’s work charts out a path for scriptural reasoning with the Song. Her work displays parallels with one of the greatest works of Jewish theological exegesis of the Song, Song of Songs Rabba. This work has been recently analyzed by Michael Fishbane and published along with my commentary in TEXTUAL REASONINGS, Peter Ochs and Nancy Levene eds. (London: SCM Press, 2002).

Song of Songs can be seen as a great flashpoint for a controversy in human intellectual and religious life which has become acute in modernity and postmodernity but has its roots back in the origins of Western culture. The issue is the relationship between the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual. The issue has mostly been framed in a polemic fashion as the soul versus the body. This has led to classic reductions of either the body to the soul, as in Neoplatonic philosophy and much of classical Christian theology, or the soul to the body, as we see in modern science. Since Descartes separated the mind and the body, modern philosophy and science have been at war on the question of which is primary. The result has been a cruel dichotomy within which humans have been caught since they are either forced to deny their body for their soul or their soul for their body. The Song of Song raises the issue clearly because it is ostensibly about the sexual desire of a young women for a man but has been interpreted allegorically by Judaism and Christianity to refer to the love of humanity for God. The Song and its religious interpretation therefore raise the possibility of either a correlation or an opposition between sexual and spiritual desire.

In light of this issue the rabbinic interpretations collected in Song of Songs Rabba are particularly interesting. For what emerges from reasoning with Song of Songs Rabba is the attempt to trace out the appropriate contours of the relationship between the body, sexuality, and God. How can the body and sexual desire be a vehicle to connection with God? When does sexuality and attention to the body and physical forms lead to idolatry and sin? What role does Torah play in this? These topics which might be labeled philosophically as the “mind/body,” or “body/soul” problem, are central to the exegetical arrangement in midrashic anthology of Song of Songs Rabba.

The discussion is initiated at the end of its commentary on Songs I,I through establishment of the allegory: kol makom shne’emar melek…midabir b hakodesh barukh Hu . In every place that the text reads “King” it is speaking about God. The substitution of the spiritual [y] God for the physical/human [x] establishes a space above the dynamics of sexual desire which allows the latter to become a metaphor for the dynamics of spiritual desire. Thus, the object of desire changes but the dynamics of desire – seeking, finding, arousing, fulfilling, losing, questing again – are the same. In its very establishment of the allegory the rabbis are suggesting that there is a correlation between sexual desire and spiritual desire, between the body and the soul. But the dynamics of desire and the power of the allegory is only preserved to the extent to which the relationship between the two poles of the allegory is preserved. With a kind of binocular vision the Midrash must preserve both the literal, pshat, sense that the Song is about the sexual desire of a young woman for a young man and the secret, sod, sense that this is also the spiritual desire of Israel for God.

Keeping the midrashic metaphor alive is dependent upon the maintenance of the distance established by the allegory without reducing Song of Songs to either the spiritual terms of the allegorical reading (as Greek/Jewish philosophy does) or the overly literal purely physical/sexual terms (as the recent Ariel and Chana Bloch translation and interpretation of the Song does). [1]

This requires the midrashic preservation of the binocular vision, the seeing both the pshat and sod levels of meaning at the same time. When these are placed side by side then we have the exploration of human sexual desire and spiritual desire and the correlation of God’s kiss and mouth and breath and word with the human word and breath that the Midrash itself manages. Thus the Midrash helps to preserve what Davis calls the “iconographic” reading of the Song of Songs. The midrash functions as what we might call an “iconographic lens” that both ties what Davis calls the “sensible to the transcendent experience” and displays the Song’s theological meaning.

[1] The Song of Songs . Translated by Ariel and Chana Bloch. (NY: Random House, 1995). In their commentary the translators totally eschew the spiritual reading of the Song and view it solely as “the sexual awakening of a young women for her lover” (3).



© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning