Sunday, April 08, 2007


Rachel Barenblat has a lovely set of eight thoughts that remind me of several things:
  1. Rabbi Akiva's comment on the sufficiency of the Song (see below),
  2. T. S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi - it was, we may say, satisfactory,
  3. and of course John the Evangelist's development of the work that the Son came to do: the witness of his acts - part of the chiasm in John chapter 5 but more explicitly made in John 19:30 - It is finished - also translatable as satisfactory, or complete (tetelestai).
Introducing the love song - [from program notes I wrote for a concert based on texts from the Song performed by vox humana April 1, 2007, St John the Divine, Victoria, BC]

אָשִׁירָה נָּא לִידִידִי שִׁירַת דּוֹדִי לְכַרְמוֹ cantabo dilecto meo canticum patruelis mei vineae suae
Let me sing of my beloved; a song of my beloved about his vineyard.

There are many love songs from the ancient Near East. Perhaps the best preserved is the Canticum Canticorum or the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's. And it is not alone in the canonical text. God sings a song for his beloved (Isaiah 5:1 above). There is a certain irony in Isaiah's use of a love song to begin a serious critique of Israel, but the prophecy does not end with chapter 5. His later namesake writes: For your maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; (54:5).

The traditional 8 chapters of the Song of Songs can be seen as a structure of five parts divided by variations on what is almost a refrain: I have charged You, daughters of Jerusalem, by the hosts of roe or by the hearted dear hart of the field, not to awaken or disturb this my love till it please. This first charge (2:7) betrays plays on words that are untranslatable. The gazelle or roe (tsiba'ot) sounds like Sabaoth (hosts); the deer of the fields (aylot hasadeh) sounds like El Shadday - the Most High. God is not mentioned in the Song, but there is an undercurrent of play that implies presence rather than absence. The play is not without cost. At the end of part 3 (5:8), the girl, searching for her beloved in the streets, is apprehended by the keepers of the walls of the city: They struck me; they wounded me; they took away My veil from me; those keepers of the walls.

The Song has been a favorite text for composers. Palestrina wrote 29 motets of which the choir will sing 4 tonight. But compose or sing, there is a warning from Rabbi Akiva (c100 CE) not to see the Song simply as entertainment. Whoever warbles the Song of Songs at banqueting houses, treating it like an ordinary song, has no portion in the world to come. (Tos. San. 12:10)

We see from his record in the Talmud that he had a very high regard for this text. The entire world is unworthy of the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all of Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. (M. Yad 3:5)

Christendom agrees with the rabbinic joy in the Song. Palestrina's mass based on the Sicut Lilium cantus firmus recognizes the identity and the costly role of the Bridegroom.

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