Cedars of Lebanon:The Levels of Love
THE book of the Song of Songs is read in the synagogue during the Passover and on Friday evenings. The absence of any overt religious references in it, together with its erotic imagery, has led many modern readers and scholars to regard the Song as a collection of secular love poems. At the end of the 1st century, during the debates around the canonization of the Bible, there were also rabbis who saw no reason for including these poems. It was Rabbi Akiba’s influence that carried the verdict. Not only was it a Holy Book, he argued, but the holiest, for it was an expression of the love binding the Community of Israel to God. The Church has similarly claimed that the poem is an allegory of love. But the following commentary from Rav Kuk brings out what seems to me to be the uniquely Jewish approach to the Song. The Church tends to disallow the meaning of the poem on any but a religious level. Rabbi Akiba, according to Rav Kuk’s interpretation, readily accepts the poem as an expression of secular love, but holds that this is only part of its meaning. For Akiba and for Judaism, implies Rav Kuk, love is one flame expressing itself on many different levels. To diminish the flame on any one level is to weaken the capacity of love on all levels. Rav Kuk calls upon the many-faceted life of Rabbi Akiba as proof of his argument-the Akiba whose experience ranged from a tradition-breaking romance with his employer’s daughter, to torture and death by the Romans for his political and religious activities.
The greatness of Abraham Isaac Kuk, former Chief Rabbi of Palestine, was his own ability to function effectively on many levels, political, legalistic, mystical, etc.; as a consequence, his religious responses took on a deeper resonance, which seems to me especially evident in this excerpt taken from Rav Kuk’s commentary to the Sabbath Prayer Book. The translation from the Hebrew is my own. -HERBERT WEINER
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