“The Song of Songs: A Biography” by Ilana Pardes— The Greatest Love Poem

Pardes, Ilana. “The Song of Songs: A Biography”, (Lives of Great Religious Books), Princeton University Press, 2019.

The Greatest Love Poem

Amos Lassen

Ilana Pardes in “The Song of Songs: A Biography” gives us the essential history of the greatest love poem ever written. What makes it even more interesting is that we have varieties of love throughout and we can look at it as a poem about divine love or as a poem about human love. In Pardes’ biography, we concentrate on human love and she “reveals how allegorical and literal interpretations are inextricably intertwined in the Song’s tumultuous life.” The body is key to many allegorical commentaries in all its aspects including pleasure and pain and eroticism. In this world of modernity today, the allegory has not disappeared and we see new modes of allegory that have come forth in modern settings and including the literary and the scholarly to the communal. This is the beauty of Hebrew scripture. Each of us has the ability to interpret as it affects us individually or as a group. I cannot remember how many times I have read and studied “The Song of Songs” intently and each time I would find something I had not thought about or not noticed before.

Writer Pardes gives us rare insights into the history and story of this poem and she traces a diverse line of passionate readers and these include Jewish and Christian interpreters of late antiquity who debated the Song’s allegorical meaning, medieval Hebrew poets who introduced it into the elegant and opulent world of banquets, and kabbalists who used it as a way to the celestial spheres. We see how feminist critics have been amazed by the poem’s egalitarian representation of courtship, and how it became a song of America for Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison. And yes, it is audacious and it is beautiful in its audaciousness.

 For centuries, mystics, poets, and writers from ancient rabbis to modern poets  have loved this poem and transformed it in their literary outputs. This study is not an interpretation but rather a history (biography) of “The Song of Songs” and a look at perceptive literary readings. Through examples we see the distinction between literal and allegorical as ambiguous. Of course the big questions remains— Is it a celebration of the erotic desires of a young man and woman? Is it about the love of God for the Jewish people or is it about the desire of the mystic soul for union with God?

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