“The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs” by Michael Fishbane, PhD— Songs of Passion and Praise

song of songs

Fishbane, Michael. “The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs”, Jewish Publication Society, 2015.

Songs of Passion and Praise

Amos Lassen

For as long as I can remember, one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Bible has always been “The Song of Songs”. The passion of the words in both Hebrew and English strike me each and every time I read the wonderful poetry. However, do we really know what the Song of Songs is and what it means? Do we take it as an expression of the love one has for another? How do we explain the passion? Could the lyrics be about the covenant between God and Israel and that what we think of as romantic is actually religious? Then again, it might be something completely different than mentioned here. And this is what I love most about studying Hebrew scripture. No one has the correct answer if there even is one.

The Jewish Publication Society has a wonderful collection of commentaries to our bible and this is the latest addition. It includes a line-by-line commentary of the original Hebrew Bible text, complete with vocalization and cantillation marks right next to the JPS English translation. What really makes this special is that there are “four layers of commentary:

Peshat (literal meaning) where the focus is “on the grammatical meaning of the terms and phrases in their given content.” Here “the Song speaks about a maiden and her beloved.”

Derash (midrashic and religious-traditional sense) is an allegorical approach in which “the Song’s maiden is the personification of the people of Israel (sometimes as individuals, sometimes as the collectivity) and her beloved as the personification of God.”

Remez (allegorical level) looks at the text as a “philosophical allegory of the intellectual or spiritual life,” and sees it as speaking about “the human striving for perfection” and “God’s desire for the perfection of the human being and encouragement for the seeker of truth.”

Sod (mystical and spiritual intimations) sees the maiden and her lover as representatives of “male and female aspects of Divinity,” and Divine looks to “realize its own inherit harmony through love.”

Each section of the commentary analyzes the text using the four different types of interpretation. The beauty is that readers can either focus on one type of commentary, or study individual verses as seen through all four levels. The book also offers a history of the development of these commentaries as they relate to the text. “The JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs” is perfect for beginners and scholars seeking to uncover the meaning of this poetic and intriguing biblical work.

Author and scholar Michael Fishbane skillfully uses them all to provide the range of interpretations and ideas that have come out of this book. He also provides a comprehensive introduction, extensive endnotes, a full bibliography (traditional and modern), and many explanatory materials. 

The commentaries we have here interpret “The Song of Songs” historically, critically, and traditionally and that are based on sources from the ancient Near East, the entire spectrum of Jewish sources and commentaries, and modern critical studies.

Fishbane brings together his scholarly erudition, his poetic sensibility, this theological depth, and his mastery of the history of interpretation. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says that this work is “A masterpiece of scholarship!” It opens the biblical dialogue of love says Bernard McGinn, Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor emeritus, Divinity School, University of Chicago.

I am often asked if I actually read all of the books I review or do I just skim them. I actually read them but the way I read depends on the book I am reading. With something like “The Song of Songs” read every single word and often stop to think about what I have read. Quite naturally a book like this takes a great deal more time than a light novel and this basically true for the majority of the nonfiction that I read. Now let me say that I take my reviewing very seriously and I spend a lot of tine each day on it. I have a very strong work discipline and when I begin I cannot be disturbed. My friends know that and most of them know when I am working and they do not call or visit. This is one of those books that I take very seriously just as I take the time I spend each day studying Torah in Hebrew.

I love that there are so many different interpretations of the text and that they can be found in one place. These interpretations raise questions and finding answers is always fun even when they are not totally correct. The beauty of studying something that was written so long ago is that there is no totally correct answer. Here we see the sensual, the mystical and the spiritual coming together.

“The JPS Bible Commentary on the Song of Songs” is an incredible resource for reading and study and I am sure that I will be spending a lot of time with it. I look forward to those days.