Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

May 18, 2006

Songs

We finally finished studying Song of Songs this morning: that magnificent love song between the wild young man and the girl with a head like a split pomegranate (SoS 4:3b, 6:7). Praise the Lord. Below are a few of my favourite lines from this wonderful example of Ancient Israelite porn - I mean poetry. Sorry.


This verse (SoS 5:2) has been one of my favourites ever since I read a beautiful commentary of it by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh: "I am asleep yet my heart is awake" (Rechovot: Gal Einai, 1996). The following is my translation:

I am asleep, yet my heart is awake;
The sound of my darling knocking:
"Open for me,
My sister, my lover,
My dove, my sweetheart
For my head is drenched with dew, and my curls with the drippings of nighttime."

The bottom line is that, despite being a beautiful poem (or collection of poetry), Song of Songs is also highly erotic. Perhaps moreso than many have realised. Another quick look at the same passage (and this is only one of many) reveals much of the sexual imagery.

The Hebrew word for 'knocking' (דופק) is also a reference to sexual intercourse. This is also the case in Israel today, where the word stands in for the English "fuck" (with approximately the same semantic range, and likewise considered an obscenity). It is probably reasonable to assume that the word was not particularly obscene in the days of this text's composition, for the simple reason that other obscene terms actually get deleted by later editors (witness, for example, the systematic removal of √שגל as a verb, in favour of √שכב: Deut 28:30, Isa 13:16, Jer 3:2, etc). "The sound/voice of my beloved knocking" could thus be rendered into English as "the noise of my beloved pounding", where 'pounding' contains the same semantic bivalency.

As far as I had previously been concerned, the sexual imagery of this verse stopped there. I was wrong. "My head is drenched with dew, and my curls with the drippings of nighttime" is a thinly disguised reference to male sexual arousal. The previous verse (also a favourite amongst Chabad Chassidim) notes that the speaker - at this point in the poem, the man - has just descended to his "garden". Even the most conservative of the religious commentaries understand the sexual implications, based on the similarity to the word for 'bridal chamber' (cf: Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:1).

The second of my favourite verses is not as charged as the first, but stunning in its imagery.
This is Sos 6:4 and my translation is as follows:

My darling, you are as beautiful as Tirzah, as lovely as Jerusalem,
As dreadful as a bannered (host)

Quite a transformation is affected by this enigmatic verse! The previous verse (verse 3) - another Chabad favourite - states, "אני לדודי ודודי לי" (I am my darling's and my darling is mine), while the following begs her to take her eyes off him for her appearance is somehow disturbing. Where does this shift occur? The references to Tirzah (the capital of Israel prior to Omri's founding of Samaria in the 9th century BCE) alongside Jerusalem has enabled some scholars to tentatively date the text. What is the reference to a bannered host doing?

Perhaps a more contemporary translation will suffice to clear away the ambiguities. Eco, in his The Name of the Rose (Suffolk: Picador, 1984) describes the girl who tempted Brother Adso as "beautiful and terrible as an army arrayed for battle" (p277). I'm always reminded by that line of three things. The first is Tolkein's description of the Elven witch Galadriel as "beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night" (The Lord of the Rings - London: HarperCollins, 1995 - p356); the second is Shakespeare's image of armies battling on the cheeks of fair Lucrece ("Lucrece", lines 52-77); and the third is our verse from Song of Songs.

3 Comments:

At 8:19 PM , Blogger Billie Jean said...

Very interesting.

And so far from the sanitized Artscroll version!

Have you seen Keeping Mum with Rowan Atkinson? It's not a bad black comedy and there's great usage of SoS in it (Atkinson plays a vicar).

 
At 8:33 PM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Ha, Artscroll is such a joke!
You have to love the way they work: when faced with something that appears too 'dangerous', don't translate it! Just provide your own version of what the text should be saying instead.

Whenever I'm bored and I feel like having a bit of a laugh, I open up my old Artscroll Tanakh and have a read...

 
At 9:37 PM , Blogger Billie Jean said...

It's also great when they don't translate the word at all, just transliterate. Can you spell "cop-out"?

I wonder how much of the descent that I see in OJ can be blamed on Artscroll.

 

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