Thursday, November 15, 2007

Song of Songs: Solomon's Life

I'm learning Song of Songs with Rabbi Mordechai Cohen. My favorite interpretation is the one I learned with my father, that of the Malbim. The Malbim sees Song of Songs on several different levels, but I prefer the literal interpretation. According to the literal level, there is a King who has kidnapped a shepherdess and installed her in his palace. He woos and courts her with all his precious gems, offers of silver and gold and a life of luxury but she refuses, damning those who guard her and claiming that her true love, a shepherd boy, will come for her. In the end, the shepherdess manages to escape and is reunited with her true love.

It's obvious to see why I like this interpretation. It's romantic; it echoes Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, The Princess Bride and every other love story in which there is an impressive rival whom the maiden does not appreciate, indeed whose face she spits upon (think about the Disney Esmeralda and the way she treats Frollo.) It does not matter how handsome the rival is (think the Disney version of Gaston) or the riches he has to offer her (think the Phantom.) She prefers her simple, good and perfect love.

But I came up with a different idea, something far more interesting. Song of Songs mirrors Solomon's life. It mirrors both what was done to his mother and what he does to his own daughter. What do I mean? Allow me to explain.

(I owe the following train of thought to the incorrect but fascinating "David and Bathsheba" movie.)

Solomon's mother is the lovely Bat-Sheba, a maiden whom David sees bathing upon the rooftop. In the literal rendition of the story, one must not forget David's power. He is king; he sees a woman he desires and summons her, ordering her to be brought before him. Leave the midrash aside for a moment and look at the words of the pasuk:

ד וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד מַלְאָכִים וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, וְהִיא מִתְקַדֶּשֶׁת, מִטֻּמְאָתָהּ; וַתָּשָׁב, אֶל-בֵּיתָהּ.
4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house.

I know that Rashi often translates the word "took" as taking with words, in which case perhaps David took Bathsheba with sweet, pretty words and succeeded in seducing her. But there is the more literal sense of the phrase; David knew that this woman was married (he is warned of this in the preceding pasuk) and he sends messengers and takes her anyway. She has no choice but to obey; he is the king and she is merely his subject. It is in this way that David "kidnaps" the maiden; he takes her and makes her his.

Note that he then seems to have nothing to do with her. There is no mention of a relationship, no continued intimacy between the two of them. It is only when the woman has conceived that she sends for him because she is in trouble; her husband is away at war and yet she will bear a child! It is then that David sends for Uriah in order to have him sleep with his wife; in that way he can think that the child is his. This is devious. Unfortunately Uriah does not fulfill David's wish; instead he "sleeps at the door of his house." He has not had sexual relations with his wife! This upsets David's plans. David tries again but Uriah still does not sleep with his wife. It is then that David determines to kill Uriah, seeing as he has no other choice (otherwise Uriah will return to war and find his wife pregnant- and he not having slept with her!) It is in this manner that David makes Bathsheba wholly his.

Solomon retells this story in Shir Hashirim, casting himself in the role of the king who brings a young woman into his chambers and attempts to seduce her, wooing her with pleasant words and offering her whatever she might wish. However, unlike his mother, this woman is faithful to her lover and refuses the king's advances. She defies Shlomo; Shlomo has recreated the tale. This is the Bathsheba who was not....the faithful Bathsheba, the one who would have dared a king's wrath out of loyalty to her husband.

But the story is not yet done! Folklore suggests that Solomon not only recreates the story of his own parentage but utilizes his own personal experience with his daughter. In a midrash that quite mimics the Rapunzel tale (and is brought down in Howard Schwartz's Elijah's Violin), King Solomon predicts that his daughter is to marry a poor man. Infuriated by this fate for his beloved daughter, he imprisons her upon a little island in a beautiful palace. However, King Solomon cannot outwit God, and the poor man is carried by a large eagle to the palace. King Solomon's daughter weds the man and King Solomon realizes that no one is mightier than God.

It is once again the same story; King Solomon imprisons his own daughter because he wishes a king or a man of noble blood to wed her. Yet the poor man who was destined for her finds her and marries her; the lovers wed and cannot be sundered.

It is fascinating to think that Song of Songs may be modeled after King Solomon's life experiences, both with his mother (who was unfaithful and chose the king over her husband) and his daughter (who was imprisoned by the king but whose young, poor lover found and married her nonetheless.) It's fun to find biographical references in this most beautiful, passionate and sensual of biblical works!


yitz.. said...

Rebbe Natan brings down in Likkutei Halachot a few different narratives from the tanach where women were imprisoned by kings.. (Sarah, almost Rachel, and Esther) and explains how it can be understood as decribing prayer.. that the tzaddik frees the innocent and virtuous prayer from the evil king who holds her captive.

G said...

My only question is this: If that is what is really behind Shir HaShirim would it have been elevated to the status of a Megillah, a sefer hakadosh?

Mordechai Cohen said...

In response to g: very good question! The Malbim doesn't say that the literal tale is "what is really behind Shir HaShirim"; it is simply a vehicle for expressing the struggles of the soul (imprisoned by material desires) to reach its true love: a spiritual connection with God. The Malbim's bi-level reading of Shir ha-Shirim is analyzed very nicely in Baruch Alster's recent dissertation, Ahavah Enoshit ve-Ziqatah le-Ahavah Ruhanit ba-Parshanut ha-Yehudit le-Shir ha-Shirim (Bar Ilan University 2006).