My Perfect One

Typology and Early Rabbinic Interpretation of Song of Songs

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Jonathan Kaplan
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2015.
     248 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199359332.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Discussing the authorship of the letter to the Hebrews, Origen is said to have quipped that “only God knows” who its author was. When attempting to come up with a consensus interpretation of the Song of Songs, this epithet can be applied just as easily. How shall we interpret the canticle? Only God knows. In attempting to give us another angle on the topic, Jonathan Kaplan has done us a service in his new monograph on the early rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs.

Confining his investigation to the corpus known as the Tannaitic literature—inclusive of such texts as the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the tannaitic midrashim—Kaplan undertakes an investigation of the many and various ways in which the early rabbis read and understood this mysterious Hebrew text. Conscious of the difficulty of his task, Kaplan concedes that the choice of texts is a relatively charged one: unable to focus on a text which deals specifically and exclusively with the canticle (as none exists in this genre of literature), Kaplan acknowledges that he has in some fashion compiled “a new corpus of rabbinic literature” (9) in his choice of source material. Gathered from among the various works of his genre of choice, his investigation approaches each with care to respect their individual context and concerns while questioning them on his own terms. In the mind of this reviewer, Kaplan has generally succeeded and provides the reader with a careful and sympathetic analysis.

Chapter 1 discusses the general manner in which the early rabbinic literature addresses the book, arguing that the language of typology and figural interpretation better fits their interpretation of the work than does the language of allegory or mashal (a riddle or parable). Unfortunately, Kaplan tends to collapse various forms of allegory and sets up his view in opposition to it, placing figures such as Origen and Philo together as though their allegorization were of the same kind (cf. 15-21). This is an unfortunate characterization: Philo’s allegorism is largely philosophical in nature (which Kaplan notes), while that of Origen is not, being based primarily on biblical (Pauline) categories rather than philosophical ones, a distinction which Kaplan fails to note. Chapter 2 presents the rabbinic reading of the canticle as one which encapsulates Israel’s national narrative, connecting the Song of Songs to the events of the Exodus, Sinai, and the wilderness period (56). Some interpretations also tend to be eschatological in nature, referring the canticle instead to the expected future in which a new exodus and new spousal relationship between God and Israel would be inaugurated (65).

Chapter 3 engages the topic of feminine beauty, focusing on the female figure of the canticle and her relationship to historical Israel. While some unfortunate anachronisms are present, such as the mention of various “constructions of gender” in an early rabbinic context (105), the chapter is persuasive in presenting an interpretive tradition that is comfortable using notions of love, affection, and even sensuality when referring to God and his relation with Israel. Chapter 4 continues the discussion by shifting focus to the male figure. While noting the relative lack of physical self-description coming from the male figure (cf. 135), the importance of the masculine presence is nevertheless crucial to the rabbis’ interpretation; in many ways it is the gift of Torah that embodies God’s love for Israel, especially along the lines of thought that will later connect the Law with Lady Wisdom. Finally, in chapter 5, the author addresses the leitmotif of absence found throughout the canticle. The early rabbinic tradition “transformed exile and foreign subjugation from being experiences of punishment and divine abandonment into opportunities for Israel to renew her relationship with God in ways analogous to Israel’s experience with God following the exodus and the Sinai theophany” (159). As a persuasive interpretation, Kaplan presents the argument favorably and with force.

In his conclusion, Kaplan notes that the early rabbinic interpretation laid the foundation for what would become a profound “theology of intimacy” (183), a claim with which I very much agree. Curiously, however, the author also claims that the rabbinic interpretation gave birth to an interpretive tradition that was not in “contestation with emerging Christianity” (187). It is hard to see how this would be possible with Christianity becoming an ever greater movement, and in light of such early Christian texts as that of Justin Martyr, for example. I agree with Kaplan that it does not seem that the interpretation of the canticle in early rabbinic literature expressly competes with Christian readings of it (at least as is presented in the present book), but I think perhaps Kaplan overstates his case. Highly focused and erudite, Kaplan’s work is to be commended for providing insight into a heretofore underdeveloped area of research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Madden is an independent scholar in Biblical Theology.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Kaplan is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously he was a Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Postdoctoral Associate in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale University.

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