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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reading and Translating Shir Ha-Shirim

The tension that arises between literal and allegorical approaches to Shir Ha-Shirim (The Song of Songs, henceforth SHS) occupied our greatest exegetical minds.  Rashi is a fascinating example.  We are very fortunate that Rashi spelled out his hybrid methodology with great clarity in the introduction to his commentary on SHS.  This text should be required reading for any traditional Bible student.

In the introductory paragraphs to SHS in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash (pp. 1263ff.), Rashi's introduction is quoted at length.  But the citation is partial -- Rashi's words have been truncated.  The opening and most critical lines of the text were omitted by the editor, apparently for ideological reasons.

The omission is glaring and surprisingly brazen, considering that unedited versions of Rashi's introduction are widely available to anyone with a basic Jewish home library or an internet connection.  The original text can be found in standard editions of Chumash Mikraot Gedolot, at the back of the Vayikra volume. 

Here is my translation of the "missing" portion of Rashi's introduction:
"God has spoken once; twice have I heard it (Ps. 62:12):  This means that a single verse of Scripture may have multiple interpretations" (Sanhedrin 34a).  After all is said and done, there is no verse in Scripture whose interpretation may deviate completely from its simple and literal meaning.  Although the prophets spoke allegorically, one must interpret their allegories according to the structure of the text and the sequence of the verses, one following another . . . I have endeavored to preserve the literal meaning of the text and to interpret the verses in sequence.  I shall also cite the midrashim of our Sages, each in its appropriate place . . .
Based on these words alone, no scholar with integrity would claim that Rashi's commitment to the simple, contextual meaning is any weaker than his interest in the midrashic interpretation.

Throughout the commentary, Rashi consistently carries out his exegetical strategy.  For example, on the verse below (2:12), he first provides a completely literal commentary, only then followed by midrashic exegesis.

הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ


Below is my translation of the literal portion of Rashi's commentary on this verse:

הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ -- Spring is arriving, when trees blossom and travelers delight in seeing them.

עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ -- The birds sing, providing travelers with pleasing sounds.

וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר -- Read this literally . . . birds sing and chirp in the spring.


Compare Rashi's literal commentary to the ArtScroll Stone translation of this verse:
The righteous blossoms are seen in the land, the time of your song has arrived, and the voice of your guide is heard in the land (emphasis added).

Now, the Stone translation purports to be "allegorical, based on Rashi's commentary."  But that description is inaccurate and misleading.  If the translator were honest, he would have written instead, "based on the allegorical layer of Rashi's commentary."  It is abundantly clear that whatever other merits they may have, ArtScroll's translation and commentary are unfaithful to Rashi's program.  ArtScroll ignored the critical thrust of Rashi's method and omitted -- deliberately, in all likelihood -- a key passage from their summary of Rashi's introduction.

I further believe that had Rashi himself translated SHS into Old French, he would have based it on the literal thread of his commentary.

This is not to say that for Rashi, the peshat and derash layers of the text are equivalent or interchangeable. The peshat, no doubt, is the means to the deeper level of derash. Yet Rashi insists on a precise mastery of the literal text as a necessary first step in the search for the book's ultimate meaning.  Perhaps ArtScroll dismisses peshat as irrelevant or even sacrilegious in the context of SHS.  But for Rashi, here and in all his biblical commentaries, peshat is the very foundation of proper exegesis without which the higher structure of derash cannot stand.

Like Rashi, the editor of the Stone Chumash justifies his methodology:
. . .The Song is an allegory. It is a duet of love between God and Israel. Its verses are so saturated with meaning that nearly every one of the major commentators finds new themes in its beautiful but cryptic words. All agree, however, that the true and simple meaning of Shir HaShirim is the allegorical meaning. The literal meaning of the words is so far from their meaning that it is false. . . . Has it been misinterpreted by fools and twisted by scoundrels? Most assuredly Yes! . . .
-- R. Nosson Scherman, The Chumash, ArtScroll Series, Stone Edition, (Mesorah, Brooklyn, 1998), pp. 1263-1267. The last sentence appears verbatim in the "Overview" of the original ArtScroll edition; see R. Nosson Scherman, Shir haShirim, (Mesorah, New York, 1977), p. lxvi. This edition also includes the truncated version of Rashi's introduction, on p. 67.
But that statement is simply incorrect. "All" do not agree -- certainly Rashi would not -- "that the true and simple meaning of Shir HaShirim is the allegorical meaning." The literal meaning is not "false"; it is part of a "true" reading of SHS (I am working with ArtScroll's terminology -- "true" and "false" are, of course, inappropriate categories in this context).

There is no doubt that the literal layer of meaning in SHS was critically important to Rashi, as it should be to us. And if those who have "misinterpreted and twisted" SHS (presumably, those who have interpreted it literally) are "fools and scoundrels" then, has ve-shalom, the second-century tanna Rabbi Yonatan is one as well. R. Yonatan appears to have read SHS this way, calling the book divre zemer (poetry or song) and attributing it to a young Solomon.  As stated in Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba (1:10):

ר׳ יונתן אמר שה״ש כתב תחלה ואח״כ משלי ואח״כ קהלת. ומייתי לה ר׳ יונתן מדרך ארץ. כשאדם נער אומר דברי זמר, הגדיל אומר דברי משלות, הזקין אומר דברי הבלים

For an approach that is much more faithful to the spirit of Rashi's method, but in a contemporary format, students of SHS should see the introduction and commentary of Amos Hakham, part of Mossad Harav Kook's Da'at Mikra series. The rest is commentary (and translation). Go and learn.

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