Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hol Hamoed/ April 19, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Shabbat Hol Hamoed/ April 19, 2003

The Song of Songs and Human Relations

Dr. Ruth Wolf
Department of Criminology


The Song of Songs, read on the intervening Sabbath of Passover, is a primary source for examining parameters of union and love between a couple. The nature of this book is unclear: is it secular love poetry, or perhaps a work intended to be read allegorically from the outset? While the traditional Jewish approach is to view the Song of Songs as an allegory for the relationship between G-d and Israel, even as allegory, there is significance in the mashal, the example, and the paradigm utilizes the love between a man and a woman.

Below we shall examine whether the modern psychological notions on mature love relationships in a couple are also to be found in the Song of Songs. We shall try to establish what parameters have a bearing on the success of the marriage, what qualities are required in the partners in order to build a good relationship, and which of these qualities find expression in the Song.

Rabbi Abraham ben David (Ba’alei ha-Nefesh, p. 15) emphasized: “Therefore a man ought to love his wife as himself, respecting her, being merciful to her, and protecting her as he would protect a part of his own body; likewise, she must serve him, respect him, and love him as herself, since from man was she taken.” The qualities emphasized here are love, respect, mercy and protection – parameters that also pertain to close friendship between two people. The wholeness in the relationship of man and woman is both physical and spiritual, emphasizing the duty of the spouses to respect and look after each other.

In the Song of Songs the beloved woman says, “His left hand was under my head/ His right arm embraced me” (2:6). This verse conveys not only physical contact but emphasizes qualities that pertain to the realization and satisfaction of love between friends, feelings of warmth, support, security and belonging.

The Song of Songs contains much physical imagery of a lover and his beloved, as well as descriptions of the beloved: “I am dark, but comely, ... Like the tents of Kedar,/ Like the pavilions of Solomon” (1:5); “Beautiful as the moon,/ Radiant as the sun” (6:10); “Your lips are like a crimson thread” (4:3); “Ah, you are fair, my darling,/ ah, you are fair,/ With your dove-like eyes!” (1:15), to cite but a few examples. There are also passages that are descriptive of the lover’s strength and outward beauty: “His legs are like marble pillars/ Set in sockets of fine gold” (5:15); “Swift as a gazelle or a young stag,/ To the hills of spice” (8:14); “He is majestic as Lebanon,/ Stately as the cedars” (5:15). These picturesque passages emphasize the motif of desire and beauty, important in love.

The Song of Songs also describes the passion of a man and woman in love. Yet at the same time the Song of Songs emphasizes the wish of the beloved to bring her heart’s chosen to her mother’s home, to bring to fulfillment the love relationship between them in a mature and family-oriented manner: “I would lead you, I would bring you/ To the house of my mother,/ Of her who taught me” (8:2).

Interlaced with verses expressing love play are verses relating to the deeper significance of the relationship between lovers, such as “If only I could be with you as with a brother” (8:1). This text brings out the mature, emotional nature of love, not tied to exclusively to physical attraction. In this love the woman seeks a fraternal relationship with her beloved, a relationship of special emotional closeness.

Hand in hand with the unique depiction of the lovers’ beauty goes imagery reflecting their essence. “I delight to sit in his shade” (2:3) brings out the beloved’s expectations of her lover as symbolizing protection and strength. The perception of the lover as a protector is also expressed in the imagery, “He browses [lit. a shepherd] among the lilies” (6:3), like a shepherd looking after his flock and perceived as guiding his flock, concerned for their welfare. Thus we see that beauty and physical strength alone are not sufficient for love; the essence of the lover – the role that he/she plays – is also significant.

The parameters mentioned in the Song of Songs as describing issues in a couple’s relationship are stressed as important in psychological literature as well. Maslow (1974) emphasized that to love and be loved is a basic need of human beings, just like the need for belonging, appreciation, security and self-fulfillment. Rabin (1995) listed ten parameters necessary for a mature relationship between a man and a woman: warmth – friendship, deep and sincere feelings between a couple; caring – a feeling of concern; understanding that one’s partner is prepared to help in time of need; expression of affection – love is expressed in a variety of ways, including verbal and non-verbal expression of feelings; acceptance – a sense of unconditional acceptance by one’s partner, even when there are disagreements and friction, the feeling is that each spouse gives the other a sense of deep security; empathy – understanding the other’s emotions, including sensitivity to the other’s points of weakness, vulnerability, and awareness of these points, as well as empathy in the sense of truly attempting to see the world from the other person’s point of view; intimacy – a state in which partners are open to sharing with the other their feelings, apprehensions, beliefs, fears, aspirations and deepest desires, sometimes even the most closely hidden, as well as sharing ideas, thoughts, feelings, whether they are accepted or not; friendship – seeing one’s partner as a true friend; contentment – bringing one’s partner happiness and pleasure; support – a feeling that partners can rely on one another, giving and supporting when needed, but also being able to lean on one’s partner for support in hard times; closeness – enjoying quality time together, wanting to live in close proximity with one another, sharing experiences together.

Gordon (1992) emphasized the role of communication in forming proper, loving relations between partners. For her, intimacy means open and honest communication between a couple. Having undisclosed expectations and hiding information is hurtful to a relationship. A sense of closeness and affection between partners is achieved precisely by being candid, relying on the other, and placing one’s trust in the other.

Satir (1988) related to problematic couples as couples who lack a friendly relationship, since spouses are first and foremost friends. This friendship is formed out of relations of respect, in which each partner retains his/her own value of self while preserving the other’s value of self. Satir stressed that healthy communication between partners is possible if each one is attentive to his/her own needs and uniqueness, and realizes his/her wishes even within the partnership.

Satif recommended that couples speak the language of the heart. She maintained that some couples translate this language into weakness. Many couples, according to her, communicate cerebrally, via thought and cognition, and ignore the language of the heart – emotions. Emotional communication of this type should draw a couple closer. It includes sharing one’s feeling with the other, whether these feelings are pleasant or unpleasant. The other can also be understood by means of feelings.

Brandon (1980) argued that romantic love occurs when there are mutual bonds and friendship between partners. Parameters such as concern for the other, respect of the other, understanding, giving and assistance to one’s partner are essential to establishing and maintaining love between a couple.

A life of sharing between partners is possible when there is a bond between the two. Friendship, respect, reciprocity, equality, probity and other traits help this bond. This emotion, this bond, requires work. One must invest effort in a relationship. It says in the Bible, “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This union, which the Bible refers to as a man “clinging” to his wife, is the main meaning of love, and the power of giving is the dominant force in this bond. The ability to love is the ability to give, to bestow on another.

The wholeness of a person finds expression in realizing a relationship of partnership. It has already been said that a man and a woman form a single, complete unit: “Rabbi Eleazar said: Any man who does not have a woman is not a man, for it is said, ‘Male and female He created them, ... and He called their name man’” (Yevamot 63a). This wholeness is made possible by mutual concessions accompanied by preservation of each partner’s individuality within the context of the couple’s relationship. Written long before the descriptions of love in modern psychological literature, the Song of Songs presents a fine representation of mature love.