Please note that this web version does not show the footnotes included in the book.
Overview of The Song of Songs: the Honeybee in the Garden
The Song of Songs, one of the shortest books of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, has provided numerous generations of humanity with some of the most passionate and most lasting love poetry in history. The book’s verses have provoked much debate over their meaning, producing two distinct lines of interpretation during the last two millennia. On the one hand, the literal romantic nature of the poetry strikes the reader on first sight, as the lovers take turns at describing their passion for each other. On the other hand, religious scholars of both Judaism and Christianity have seen these 117 verses traditionally attributed to King Solomon, as an allegory of divine love. These two lines of interpretation have seemed to be mutually exclusive in purely verbal contexts, but are more easily fused in a visual setting. I therefore present here an illuminated manuscript of the Song of Songs; where verbal poetry can never reconcile the contradictory literal and allegorical interpretations of the text, pictures can perform exactly that task with elegance and pleasure. A painting of a lily can bring to mind fragrance and sensuality in the same moment that it can convey a sophisticated religious message. In this work, I use the illuminated manuscript as a medium for blending diverse interpretations of the poetry. The parchment, ink, paint and gold employed herein tell both of the passion of human lovers, and the passion between humanity and God. Illustration of a book is itself a form of interpretation, and the way in which I weave together the traditional Jewish understanding of the text with a modern literal reading of it in the pages ahead requires some familiarity with the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs.
Origin of the Text
What is the Song of Songs, and, if Jewish sages and scholars have argued about its meaning, what interpretations have they suggested? While an exhaustive exploration of this question is beyond the scope of the introduction to an illuminated book, my illustrations cannot be fully understood without introducing some of these ideas. To begin with, the Song of Songs is a collection of brief love poems reflecting a common theme of human, heterosexual, physical love set in locales throughout the land of Israel. While sudden shifts in mood and structure seem to differentiate one poem from another, the common appearance of evidently the same (albeit scarcely named) lovers, repeated refrains and consistent passions would indicate the pen of, if not a single original poet, at the very least, a strong redactor, following a revered literary tradition.
Jewish tradition holds that King Solomon, the child of David’s and Bathsheba’s passionate love, composed the Song of Songs either in his youth or old age. Modern scholarship does not attempt attribution to any individual, but has suggested that these poems might be part of early Hebrew cultic fertility rituals or even drama. Robert Gordis proposed that the writing and redaction of this anthology must indeed be dated to the Davidic dynasty, and may be wedding songs compiled, if not written specifically, to celebrate one of Solomon’s weddings, perhaps to a princess of Egypt. He reasons that the poems were written and redacted between the ninth and sixth centuries BCE. The presence within the poetry of many Aramaic words, on the other hand, causes Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch to conclude that the work was composed at some point following the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE. There is no reason, however, why much of the material could not have been composed prior to the Babylonian Exile. However, the thematic consistency and Aramaisms that Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch observe would certainly indicate post-exilic redaction.
Major Trends of Interpretation Within the Jewish World
The Traditional Rabbinic Model
Traditional rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs, of which the earliest surviving written statements date from the beginning of the first millenium c.e., have uniformly accepted Solomon as the single author of the poems. This paradigm holds that Solomon acted and wrote under divine guidance, each word of the poems relates not to the relationship between a man and a woman, but to the relationship between God and the “chosen people.” The Song of Songs is regarded in rabbinic tradition as the allegory of the love between God and Israel, the people of the Covenant.
This allegorical interpretation allowed the inclusion of this erotic text in the Tanakh. The early inclusion of the Song of Songs within the canon reveals that the allegorical reading of the poem was developed during earliest rabbinic times. Sid Z. Leiman compiled all Talmudic and midrashic references to the withdrawal of Biblical texts from circulation. Whereas Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs were each considered for withdrawal, the Song of Songs is never mentioned in such discussions. The sanctity of the love poetry attributed to Solomon was, nonetheless, challenged. In the context of discussions about the sanctity of Biblical texts, the question of whether the Song of Songs “defiled the hands” arose (Mishnah Yadayim, 3:5). R. Judah stated that “the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but there is a dispute concerning Ecclesiastes,” whereas R. Jose said, “Ecclesiastes does not defile the hands but there is a dispute concerning the Song of Songs…” After some further discussion, R. Akiba, the eminent sage and political activist of second century Palestine, argued:
God forbid: no man in Israel ever disputed the status of the Song of Songs saying that it does not defile the hands, for the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.”
Arthur Green notes Saul Lieberman’s suggestion that Akiva spoke of the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel, a term otherwise appplied only to the Torah itself. Lieberman shows the early rabbis to have believed in the revelation of the Song, spoken by the angels or by God Himself and revealed to Israel in a moment of theophany, either at the splitting of the Sea or at the foot of Sinai, one of those two moments when God descended in His chariot and was actually seen by the Community of Israel.
Why, however, did the early rabbis describe this collection of love poetry as sacred? How did R. Simeon ben Menasia, writing probably half a century after the trauma of the Roman devastation of Jerusalem in 135 CE, continue to find divine inspiration in these love poems? How could the discussions redacted in the Talmud record the declaration that “if one sees the Song of Songs in a dream, he may hope for piety”? Gerson Cohen explores how the Song of Songs came to be associated with “a conversation of love between Israel and its God”, against a historical background of official religious abhorrance of fertility cults and sacred prostitution, where “the institution of sacred marriage” would have been unthinkable to the Hebrew king or priest. He asserts that the power and intensity of the love-dialogue contained in the poetry provided an expression of the love between God and Israel available in no other text, indeed “comparable to the one moment in the year when the high priest entered the royal chamber, as it were, the Holy of Holies, and confronted his God privately on behalf of the house of Israel.”
Cohen observes that without the passionate expressions of Israel’s love for its God, and divine love for Israel expressed in the Song of Songs, the Jews of the early rabbinic period could not have regarded the Bible as quite complete. So convinced was Akiva of the need for this book within the Tanakh that a recorded (and somewhat garbled) remark asserts that “had the Torah not been given to Israel, the Song of Songs would have sufficed for the conduct of the world.” One third century rabbi compared the need for including the Song of Songs in the Tanakh to the jewels providing the finishing touch to a beautiful woman’s costume:
Judah ben R. [Hiyya] (220-250) said: Your cheeks are comely with circlets (Song of Songs 1:10): This refers to the Torah. Your neck with beads: this refers to the Prophets. We will make you circlets of gold: this refers to the Hagiographa. With studs of silver: this refers to the Song of Songs — something complete and finished off.
Within the traditional rabbinic model each word of divinely inspired text is immutable and never redundant. Because of the eternal nature of the bond between Torah, the people and the land of Israel with God, a historical perspective is unnecessary. Thus, within the rabbinic model the whole poem-cycle, like every other element in Tanakh, transcends the temporal world, and describes not the lives and loves of two mortal beings, but rather, the eternal relationship between God and Israel. Because of this transcendence the Song of Songs was canonized, and today retains its place within Jewish ritual, traditionally read privately on the Sabbath and chanted before the synagogue congregation on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. The poetry would probably have lost its popular familiarity if it had not thus been preserved in the canon.
Ironically, however, it may indeed have been affection for the officially-disregarded literal reading of the poems that caused the rabbis to allegorize them, thus enabling the text’s canonization. Robert Gordis wrote:
The view against which Rabbinic Judaism leveled its strictures and which led to lengthy discussions as to its canonicity was the widely held literal interpretation, with which the Rabbis were very familiar…That all objections were overridden and the Song admitted into the canon indicates that on the subconscious level, at least, another factor operated, as was the case with Ecclesiastes: a genuine affection for the book. It was this attitude which refused to permit its exclusion from Scripture, an act that would have spelled its ultimate destruction.
As we have seen above, from at least the beginning of recorded rabbinic consideration of the Song of Songs, the allegorical interpretation has competed with literal reading for communal acceptance. Within the broad and diverse world of Jewish scholarship alone (and I do not even begin to consider non-Jewish religious interpretation herein), the centuries have witnessed subtle shadings of symbolic interpretation, as well as strictly literal readings of the verses. I have attempted to fuse these traditions in my own visual interpretation of the poems.
The earliest surviving statement of the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs exists in the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Tanakh probably dating from fourth to eighth century Palestine. Passages of the Targum, written in the vernacular of late-Roman and Byzantine-era Palestine, were read during synagogue services, explaining the weekly or holiday readings from the Hebrew Bible. Nowadays in the era of the printing press, in the Diaspora most synagogue “Humashim,” or Pentateuchs, include a vernacular translation along with the Hebrew to aid congregants with less than fluent skills in the holy language. Prior to the advent of inexpensive books, congregational reading of the Targum along with the regular Hebrew text enabled no- longer-Hebrew-speaking Jews to follow the meaning of the prescribed readings. But what meaning? In the case of the Targum on the Song of Songs, the “translation” is no literal translation at all. Rather, the Targum presents an allegoric interpretation of the verse in place of literal translation, assuming that the only possible understanding of Solomon’s divinely inspired words tells the tale of the turbulent love and covenant of God and His chosen people, the Jews. The Targum presents the Song of Songs as the “narrative of Israel’s redemption from Egypt” relating each line of the poetry to the divine embrace of the Jews during the Exodus. The Targum thus establishes the allegorical reading as the normative approach to the poetry.
The next significant commentary is Song of Songs Rabbah, a large division of Midrash Rabbah, a compilation of rabbinic discussions recorded and redacted during roughly the first five centuries of the Common Era. Gathered within Midrash Rabbah are verse-by-verse explanations of Biblical verses, largely homiletical in nature. Typically, a portion of the verse is stated, followed by complementary or competing analyses of several rabbis of some textual problem posed within the phrase. These problems may relate to simple understanding of difficult imagery, to the repetition of a word or a phrase, or an observed similarity or difference between a particular word in the text at hand and its use in other contexts. In each case, the rabbis — the same men involved in the contemporaneous Mishnah and Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds — attempted to extract some moral or legal lesson from the Biblical passage at hand. Statements of Jewish law, legends, little anecdotes about life in Roman and Byzantine-era Palestine, other scriptural passages were all summoned freely to explain some puzzling passage. Indeed, the textual problem itself might be left to the reader to identify. Within Song of Songs Rabbah, a loose metaphorical comparison of the two lovers to the relationship of God and Israel was standard. I say “loose,” because the roles of God and Israel as the man or the woman occasionally vary throughout consideration of the poetry, and no narrative line within the poems is maintained; the interpretation of each verse (or part of a verse) is commonly disassociated from that of the next verse. This atomization is probably due in part to the fact that the coherent work we know as Song of Songs Rabbah is actually a redaction of centuries’ worth of discussions. However, throughout the midrash, the idea that every word relates not to a human love affair, but to the relationship between God and Israel, is entirely consistent.
Some six hundred years after the redaction of Midrash Rabbah, the eminent French rabbi, Rashi, (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040-1105, Troyes) wrote, among other things, a commentary on the Tanakh which has continued to be the single most indispensable tool for traditional Jewish rabbinic scholarship. Rashi’s commentary explored both the literal meaning of verses and their midrashic interpretations, drawing upon Talmudic precedent, comparisons to other uses of the same or similar words elsewhere in the Tanakh, and occasionally even comparisons to the eleventh century French that was his own vernacular. Rashi’s understanding of the Song of Songs is closely related to the allegoric understanding presented in the Targum and midrash. The influence of these allegorical interpretations is evident in the translation presented in the Artscroll series of prayerbooks and volumes of Tanakh which are presently highly influential in American Orthodox Judaism. Artscroll’s English rendering of the Song of Songs is explicitly based on Rashi’s commentary, and following the Targum’s precedent, provides not a literal English vernacular translation of the original Hebrew, but an allegoric interpretation. Although the allegorical reading of the text was normative, traditional readings were not always blind to the literal, erotic sense of the verses.
In 1140, Abraham ibn Ezra (b. Toledo,1092, d. northern Spain? 1167), one of the pantheon of distinguished Jewish scholars, philosophers and poets of the Sephardic Golden Age, issued a three-part commentary on the Song of Songs. Though ibn Ezra’s work has remained part of the standard canon of commentaries, one might wonder whether he accepted the legitimacy of a literal reading of the poems. Ibn Ezra divided his commentary into three parts or “expositions.” The first “exposition” is a word-by-word analysis of the grammatical and comparative linguistic meanings of the words. In the second exposition, he presents a “literal explanation” of the poems, understanding them as the declarations of a rural maiden and a shepherd. Ibn Ezra presents his explanation in great detail, but was clearly uncomfortable with the possible reaction to the literal approach. He introduced this second, literal portion of his commentary with a caution that in fact, it was only the allegory contained in the third portion, which should be taken entirely seriously:
This book surpasses all the songs which Solomon composed, and far be it, far be it that it should be understood as an erotic poem, but it is to be taken allegorically…For were it not a book of high import, as being inspired, it would not have been admitted into the canon. The following is the literal explanation, and in the Third Exposition I shall explain it allegorically.
The Third Exposition then turns the pastoral love affair into the relationship of the Shekhinah, a mystical emanation of God, and Israel.
Jewish mystical thought attempted to probe not God’s outward acts, but rather the very nature of the divine, and through that understanding, explore the nature of the connection between the God and the community of Israel. Medieval Jewish mystics adapted and converted the rationalist philosophical explorations that had come to dominate Jewish religious thought by the thirteenth century, and developed concepts of “sacred eros” which, as Arthur Green writes, “would shock not only the respectable Maimonidean, but even the earlier and more daring midrashic masters themselves.” The Song of Songs became a major source for Kabbalistic exploration of the nature of the divine. The descriptions of the divine body presented in the midrash provided the source materials for shi’ur qomah shel yotzer bereshit, the measurement of the Creator’s form, first developed in the Near East, later firmly rejected by Maimonideans, but studied by the early Kabbalists of the twelfth century Languedoc (southern France), following R. Abraham ben David of Posquieres. Although the Zohar, the great work of medieval Sephardic Kabbalism, does not present a systematic commentary on the Song of Songs, Green observes that hardly a page of the Zohar does not refer in some way to the poetry.
The Kabbalistic interpretation of the Song of Songs focuses not on the love between God and Israel, as does the earlier midrash, but rather, on dynamics within the Divinity itself:
medieval Jewish esotericism sees the … [divine wedding] taking place within God, rather than between God and Israel. This development is made possible by the major innovation in Kabbalistic thought, the sefirot, symbol-laden stages in the divine self-revelation…The essential subject matter of all Kabbalistic teaching is an account of this pulsating inner life of divinity: how the hidden One, beyond all description, takes on the multiple garments of God as we know Him — and in this case we do well to add — and Her.
The Kabbalistic tradition rested upon the idea of the physical attraction between the male and female lovers, transforming human passion into, not simply the allegorical love song between God and His chosen people, but the very nature of the divine. The Jewish mystical interpretation thus establishes a link between the two basic interpretive modes.
Despite the prevalence of the allegorical approach in the traditional rabbinic community, we have examples of eminent Jewish scholars who most certainly also read the poems literally, and adapted passages of them into their own secular verse. Abraham Ibn Ezra, Samuel the Nagid, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah HaLevi, all celebrated sages and poets of the medieval Spanish Jewish world, each adapted language and imagery of the Song of Songs into not only their liturgical poetry, but also into worldly verse. I shall include several of these poems within these pages, worked into the papercut designs dividing chapters.
Modern Scientific Scholarship
The common thread throughout these traditional rabbinic translations and interpretations of the Song of Songs is the firm belief that the metaphor comparing the lovers’ relationship to the Covenant bears more truth than the literal meaning of the words themselves. Translation, within the world of modern academic and non-Orthodox rabbinic scholarship, focuses upon the literal meaning of the text, open eroticism and all. Interpretation employs current scientific anthropological, linguistic and archaelogical evidence pertaining to the original intent of the words. Gordis notes: “The allegorical theory has been generally abandoned by modern scholars in its traditional guise. Yet a few contemporary Roman Catholic scholars and some Orthodox Jewish writers still interpret the book as an allegory of Israel’s history.” The modern approach to the text began with the German translation published in 1788 by the Jewish enlightenment scholar, Moses Mendelsohn, and its accompanying commentary by Loewe and Wolfssohn, which considered only the literal meaning of the words of the poems. The Jewish Publication Society has broken with traditional rabbinic practice, and has followed the modern approach by publishing translations of the Song of Songs (as indeed, of other books of the Hebrew Bible) without the traditional commentaries such as Rashi to serve as a lens through which to view the literal text. Recent noteworthy English translations such as Gordis (1954), Fisch (1969), Jewish Publication Society (1915 and 1962), Pope (1977), Falk (1982) and Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch (1995) have undoubtedly focussed on different problems in translation, but all have been devoted to crafting English verse as true as possible to their understanding of the literal meaning of the original Hebrew.
My Approach to Interpretation
My interpretive illuminations of the Song of Songs try to fuse aspects of both of these paradigmatic approaches to the poetry. Indeed, while I attempt to understand the words of the poems based on the anthropological, literary and archaelogical evidence I have been fortunate to find, I would argue that as Jewish literature, the Song of Songs is far weightier — and richer — than love poetry alone. In the Jewish tradition, the poems have two parallel lives. On the one hand, literally read, the book has provided us with love poetry so compelling that it has provided the essential phrases with which generations have inscribed our wedding rings, and dedicated books to our loved ones. On the other hand, it has spoken to these same generations of the love between humankind and God, its melodic chanting warmly anticipated during Passover. The understanding that the verses speak of passionate eternal love between the Jews and their God has strengthened individuals and communities through harshest adversity and persecution. Within the context of Jewish literature the verses of the Song of Songs are infinitely enriched by interpreting them according to both paradigms simultaneously. I accomplish this by weaving midrashic and other elements of traditional exegesis into the illustrations, which otherwise, and indeed at the same time, follow a literal understanding of the text.
Why try to fuse both approaches? To deny the sensual nature of the poems would be blind. It would also diminish the passion that animates the association of this love imagery with the relationship of God and Israel. To dismiss the religious metaphor would be to eliminate an expression of the Jewish sense of identity which has pervaded aspects of liturgy and culture far beyond the few pages of the Song of Songs itself. Moreover, as I have observed above, it was the religious interpretation that enabled the canonization of the poem cycle and the ritualizing of its public and private reading. These two acts not merely preserved this difficult, but profoundly beautiful verse, but guaranteed it a place in the forefront of Jewish popular consciousness.
At no point in this visual interpretation do I allow the allegory to overrule the literal sense of the words. However, the literal meaning does not challenge the symbolic interpretation. The poems may, and I believe should be read at two levels simultaneously. The allegorical commentaries present little continuous logical or narrative flow; each thought stands on its own, usually unconnected to the one before or the one after. The allegory draws its power from the constant comparison the reader has to make between the literal text and the allegorical text. Thus, the exegesis behind the allegory achieves its own coherence and springs to life. In the light of a prophetic heritage wherein the stormy relationship of God and Israel is often compared to a difficult marriage, in the light of Kabbalistic custom wherein the Sabbath is greeted as a bride, the passion inherent in the literal words actually enhances the religious feeling evoked by the symbolic approach. Through the ages, the Jews have developed two distinct approaches to these poems — one oriented to the physical world and one founded on that of the spirit. Within the Jewish tradition, neither can be rightly dismissed. Robert Gordis felicitously concluded his analysis of the poetry’s inclusion in the canon:
Over and beyond its eternal youthfulness and inherent charm, the Song of Songs, precisely because it is within the canon of Scripture, serves to broaden the horizons of religion. It gives expression, in poetic and hence in deathless terms, to the authentic world-view of Judaism, which denies any dichotomy between body and soul, between matter and spirit [my italics] because it recognizes them both as the twin aspects of the great and unending miracle called life.
The Walled Garden
The illluminations herein approach this anthology of love poems as the daydreams of a pair of lovers within a walled garden. This idea has close precedent: Harold Fisch has seen in the poems “the free flow of images and the shifting kaleidosope of a dream,” also blending religious allegory and romantic love. Certainly, the image of the garden, the “gan” or the “pardes,” has a long history in religious art and iconography. The walled garden promises privacy and exclusiveness to those within; thus the image immediately suggests the intimacy of the lovers, as well as the closeness of the relationship of God and Israel when read at the allegorical level. We have, of course, the tradition of the Garden of Eden, that place of complete innocence where man and woman were created, and lived in such close proximity to God that evil could not be tolerated. At the same time, one of the most common of all metaphors found in midrash compares the relationship of God and the world to a king and his palace and gardens. One easily imagines the lines of the poems being whispered or sung within the fragrant confines of a garden retreat. See:
12. “My sister, my bride, is a locked garden, a secured well, a sealed spring.” (4:12),
or the veiled references to lovemaking in 5:1 and 6:2:
1. “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gathered my myrrh with my spices, I ate my honeycomb with my honey, I drank my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink! Become drunk with love.”
“My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the flower beds of spices, to tend sheep in the gardens, and to gather lilies.”
In 8:13, the daughters of Jerusalem greet the girl’s last words in the poems by associating her specifically with a garden:
“She who sits in gardens, friends listen for your voice, sound it for me!”
When I, at least, wander in my garden, the solitude and color and breeze allow me to drift into day-dreams and free association of ideas in a manner the workaday world rarely allows. As the mind wanders, unlikely but often fruitful associations and comparisons of one idea to another can allow just such linking of ideas, such as the melding of romantic and religious imagery that I hope to achieve in the pages below.
Approach to Jewish Iconography
The illuminations before you present a wide array of iconography which is new to Jewish visual art. During my years working in the Jewish manuscript arts, I have continually been struck by the paucity of the contemporary Jewish visual vocabulary. The magen David (Star of David), the flame, the scroll, the Tree of Life, the Menorah, the Tablets –you can name a handful more — these have been the narrow extent of identifiable and acceptable Jewish symbols during my lifetime. Only a few artists involved in the last century’s extraordinary flowering of Jewish fine art have branched out from this vocabulary. Our wonderful heritage of medieval and early modern Jewish art is hardly more varied in its visual interpretation of Jewish thought.
This narrow visual vocabulary is puzzling when you consider that this same people is the very one which has inherited (in the original) all the vivid prose and poetry of Isaiah and Ezekiel, the body of vivid and often erotic mystical literature of the Kabbalah, and all the rest of the teeming ocean of Jewish writings. While the Second Commandment prohibition on visual portrayals of the divine might have inhibited some visual representation throughout history, the wealth of Jewish art, from the imagery described in Solomon’s Temple and palace, to medieval manuscripts, to millenia of synagogue design, to modern painting, both figurative and abstract, presents ample evidence of Jewish artists’ eagerness to present imagery related to Biblical and non-Biblical events and characters. The Dura-Europos synagogue, built, decorated and then almost immediately ruined during the early third century of the Common Era, employed both Biblical and contemporary Hellenistic pagan imagery to construct elaborate Jewish symbolic messages in its murals, albeit that iconography referred only (apart from abstracted pagan imagery) to Biblical sources rather than including the midrashic literature that was burgeoning at the same time in the same region. However, the examples set by the Dura synagogue, lost to the Jewish consciousness so soon after its completion, and a slightly later synagogue in Sepphoris, seem to be part of a contemporary tradition that did not survive the early centuries of the Common Era. In considering Jewish art of recent years, I puzzle over the scarcity of visual imagery abstracted from literary sources and then applied to pictorial (or sculptural) interpretation, which might be used to communicate complex meaning in visual artwork, in a manner similar to the midrashic methods so familiar in Jewish textual interpretation. We live in a period of political and material security, of secular and Jewish educational resources, even of artistic endeavor, rarely, if every really equalled during the past two millenia. In so fertile an environment the limited scope of contemporary Jewish iconography is surprising. In my work I seek to broaden the scope of Jewish iconography and visual midrash , to enrich the expressive depth and subtlety of the visual vocabulary in contemporary Jewish art. I attempt to achieve this enrichment by introducing into my work imagery drawn from throughout the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic legend and archeology from the Biblical period to the present.
I consider it essential that any given scene begins with a representation that we recognize from the world of our own experience. Following Erwin Panofsky’s exposition of “disguised symbolism” in the work of the masters of medieval northern Europe, most notably Van Eyck, I choose and arrange objects in ways that make logical sense in the narrative setting. While the overall painting creates a coherent, easily understood physical reality, parsing the symbolism of individual items within it reveals a more complex world of ideas. Those ideas compose the symbolic meaning of the painting.
The reader may notice a variety of influences in the painting, ranging from first century Judean design, to early Arabic geometric patterns, to Persian miniature style, to fifteenth century Burgundian manuscript motifs, to religious artifacts drawn from the Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis, to ideas drawn from modern physics. This is not accidental. Just as I have included poetry from throughout post-Biblical Jewish history to show the influence of the Song of Songs on later literature, I have sought to allude to the spectrum of visual and intellectual cultures within which the readers of this beloved poetry have lived.
The reader might reasonably wonder about the inclusion of the “honeybee in the garden” in the title of the book. Yes, indeed, honeybees are essential in any healthy garden. Beyond that fact, however, there is a bit of word-play happening here. My Hebrew name, Devorah, translates to “honeybee” in English, and since I present here my own view of The Song of Songs, it seems fair, and indeed traditional within the world of Jewish books, to play on words and images in the book in this small way. A honeybee thus appears in every painting in the book. I beg the reader’s indulgence.
As you may guess from my remarks above, while the illuminations below hopefully make narrative sense, I cannot reasonably expect the reader to look at a painting of a gate and a flower, and extract my full symbolic intent from the physical imagery alone. Consequently, I include a page of explanatory notes corresponding to each illuminated page; these notes may be read while looking at the paintings and papercuts. Each page of notes carries the following information: (a) the Hebrew and full English translation of the verses presented on the page, (b) a brief statement of the narrative content of the painting, (c) a concise explanation of the allegorical meaning of the illustration. Through blending an appreciation of the literal meaning of the words and the allegory of the love of God and Israel, through the combination of text, manuscript arts and iconographic explanation, I hope to arrive at a truly modern Jewish presentation of the Song of Songs.
Notes on Translation
A brief note on translation is appropriate here. Two translations of the verses are presented in the explanatory notes for the illuminated pages [in the published book; the present web-version presents only the second of these two translations]. The first translation presented is the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1962, familiar throughout the English-speaking Jewish community. Along with the JPS, the reader will find an original translation prepared specially to accompany the paintings herein. My goal is to complement the illuminated Hebrew pages with a translation which follows the Hebrew text as literally and gracefully as possible, reflecting the most current understanding of what the words meant to their original author; I am not concerned with rendering the verses more “relevant” or romantic to present-day eyes and ears than the Hebrew itself does. In the context of this book, the illuminations and explanatory notes interpret the intent of the poems with little or no need to change the text of the verse to clarify its literal meaning. The original translation presented here was prepared for this work by David Band with the purpose of preserving the intent of the words, incorporating both fidelity to the Hebrew grammar of the poems and current scholarship, which is, of course, footnoted appropriately. I believe that this translation conveys the meaning of the Hebrew original with as little embroidery or embellishment as possible, in terms emotionally and intellectually accessible to the English- speaker early in the twenty-first century. The emotional complexity and richness of the Hebrew poetry shines in this translation, uncluttered by modern re-interpretation. A section of notes on the translation follows the explanations of the illuminated pages. While I have benefited from the learning of many scholars, of course all the inconsistencies in interpretation are my own, and I hope that I explain my reasoning in these situations.
January 14, 2004, 20 Tevet, 5764