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In Event: Medieval Biblical Exegesis in Context: Navigating the Shoals of Intellectual, Religious, and Social Forces
“O fairest of women” (Song 1:7) should have been a clear statement to readers about the gender of at least one party to the relationship portrayed in Song of Songs. However, ancient and medieval Jewish readers explained the “fairest of women” as the community of Israel, and the community was constructed as a collection of men.
Song of Songs Rabbah presents Song. Ch. 4 as referring to Sinaitic revelation. The woman’s breasts symbolize Moses and Aaron. The ewes represent the (male) angels descending from the heavens. The tower’s shields refer to Moses, David, and Ezra, who in overcoming the evil inclination could protect Israel. The paper focusses on medieval readings of this chapter to see how they interpret its female imagery.
For Rashi, ch. 4 describes women’s features but each is taken to represent men. Similarly, the ZOHAR explains the tower in 4:4 refers to the Temple which the [male] King David built and where “all men turn their gaze when they open their mouths to offer prayer…” For Gersonides, the Song was an allegory about God’s love for individual souls and their need to be rejoined. While Gersonides regularly notes the descriptions of a woman’s beauty, they symbolize the faculties of the human intellect. The person with these faculties is male.
In the various Jewish commentaries details vary as metaphors reappear and are given new meanings. However, how they understood the female beloved has much to say about the attitudes of men about women and equally, how they understood men and the contributions they make to community. These interpretations were shaped by varying intellectual, religious, and social milieus, and the depiction of both men and women was much shaped by the encounters of the interpreters with their respective environment. The Song of Songs provides a worthwhile case study for exploring Jewish men’s notions of female beauty and the desire to appropriate its markers for themselves. The ability to birth, nourish, and raise the next generation, perceived as granted biologically to women, was appropriated by men to symbolize military prowess, and, when power was lost, study, learning, and teaching.