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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reading and Translating Shir Ha-Shirim

How to resolve the tension between literal and allegorical readings of Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs, henceforth SHS) was a problem that occupied our greatest exegetical minds.  Rashi is a prime and fascinating example.  Fortunately for us, Rashi spelled out his methodology with great clarity in the introduction to his commentary on SHS, a text that should be required reading for any student of Jewish biblical exegesis.  It will be obvious to anyone who reads the full text of Rashi's introduction that his approach is a deliberate hybrid of contextual, plain-sense interpretation and midrashic embellishment.

The introductory paragraphs to SHS in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash (pp. 1263ff.) quote Rashi's introduction at length.  Even so, the citation is partial -- Rashi's words have been truncated.  In an apparent act of ideological censorship, the opening and most critical lines of the text were omitted by the editor.

Such editorial tampering 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 browser.  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):  A single verse of Scripture may bear multiple interpretations" (Sanhedrin 34a).  After all is said and done, no scriptural verse may be interpreted in a way that deviates completely from the simple, literal meaning.  While the prophets spoke allegorically, one must interpret their allegories according to the structure of the text and the sequence of the verses, one following the next . . . 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 one in its appropriate place . . .
Based on these words alone, no honest scholar would claim that Rashi's commitment to the simple, contextual meaning is fundamentally weaker than his interest in the midrashic interpretation.

Rashi implements his exegetical strategy, if somewhat inconsistently, throughout the commentary.  For example, on the verse below (2:12), he first offers a completely literal commentary, which is only subsequently 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 this literal commentary to the ArtScroll Stone translation:
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 -- the translator should have written, "based on the allegorical layer of Rashi's commentary."  It is abundantly clear that whatever merits they have, ArtScroll's translation and commentary are unfaithful to Rashi's program.  The editors ignored the critical thrust of Rashi's method and excised -- deliberately, in all likelihood -- a key passage from their summary of Rashi's introduction.

Had Rashi himself translated SHS into his native Old French, I have little doubt 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 -- far from it. The peshat, no doubt, is a means to the deeper, more penetrating derash. Yet the means are indispensable and certainly not invalid.  Rashi insists on a precise mastery of the literal text as a requisite first step in the search for the book's ultimate meaning.   While ArtScroll may dismiss peshat as an illegitimate and even nefarious approach to SHS, it is historically inaccurate and intellectually dishonest to project such an ideology onto Rashi.  Here especially, but also generally in Rashi's biblical commentaries, peshat is the very foundation of proper exegesis.  Without peshat, 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.
This statement is quite 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, to use ArtScroll's simplistic labeling, "false"; in fact, it is the starting point of a "true" reading of SHS ("true" and "false" are, of course, the wrong categories for this subject).

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 just 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 faithful to the spirit of Rashi's method, but in a updated, contemporary format, see the Amos Hakham's introduction and commentary, in Mossad Harav Kook's Da'at Mikra series.

The rest is commentary (and translation). Go and learn.

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