It was 1901, at a summer resort on the Baltic Sea. A young graduate of the Telshe yeshiva, troubled by matters of faith, opened his heart and his questions to the erudite young rabbi of Boisk — Rav Kook — who was vacationing there.
During an excursion to the seashore, their conversation turned to the book of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Rav Kook gave a brilliant exposition on the nature of this poem of love, and in general, the place of romance and love in literature.
The novel ideas vividly stirred the young man. In fact, he entreated Rav Kook to stop. He knew the conversation would continue to other topics, and he feared losing this rare gem. He hurried to retrieve a pen and paper so that the rabbi could write down the ideas he had just expounded on. Rav Kook acceded to his request, and so, after his return with writing implements, the Rav spent the next few minutes perched on a rock by the roaring sea, writing down his thoughts on Shir HaShirim.
Not long after this incident, the editor of the journal Mizrach suggested that Rav Kook submit an article to be included in the next issue. The young man excitedly proposed sending the short essay written on the seashore, and Rav Kook agreed. The essay subsequently made its way into a number of other periodicals, until it was eventually printed in Olat Re’iyah, Rav Kook’s commentary on the prayer book.
The young man later became well-known as a prominent scholar — Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Menashe Lewin, author of the monumental work Otzar HaGaonim.
What is the purpose of Literature, and Art in general?
The purpose of Art, in all its forms, is to give expression to every concept, every emotion, and every thought found in the depths of the human soul. As long as even one quality remains concealed within the soul, it is the responsibility of the artist to reveal it.
Of course, artistic expression is not without boundaries and limits. The artist is duty-bound to create and express as long as his art serves to enrich and ennoble life. Some matters, however, are best left hidden. For such topics, the artist should use his figurative shovel, to bury and cover (cf. Deut. 23:24). Woe to the author who uses his artistic tools for the opposite purpose, to uncover and reveal unseemly matters, thus polluting the general atmosphere.
What about romance and love? How should literature relate to these delicate topics?
The intense emotions that are experienced with regard to love are a significant part of the human condition, and it is natural that literature should expound on them. Great care, however, is required when dealing with this particular subject. The tendency toward intoxication with these emotions can defile the subject’s inherent purity.
It is unfortunate that modern literature concerns itself exclusively with only one form of love — the romantic love between man and woman. If a literary work without some expression of the inner feelings of romantic love is considered incomplete, then it certainly should include some of man’s lofty emotions of love for the Creator of all works, the Source of all good and kindness. Can the depths of this exquisite love be measured? Can it be contained within vast oceans or confined within expansive skies?
The dearth of artistic expression for this sublime love is redressed by the Bible’s lofty song of love: the Song of Songs. As Rabbi Akiva taught:
“All the books of the Bible are holy; but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5).
A soul that is insensitive to feelings of romance cannot relate to the tender sensibilities expressed in songs of love. Such a person will pervert those poetic yearnings, reducing them to the level of his own base desires. Similarly, one who has never ascended the heights of holy contemplation, one who has never experienced the uplifting surge of love for the Rock of all worlds — such a person will fail to grasp how the sublime yearnings of the Song of Songs truly reflect the highest aspirations of the Jewish people. But an insightful person will recognize that the body of literature of this holy nation, whose long history is replete with extraordinary displays of self-sacrifice and martyrdom to sanctify God’s Name, would be incomplete without a suitable expression of their boundless love for God.
As he was cruelly put to death at the hands of the Romans, Rabbi Akiva told his students,
“All my life I have been troubled by this verse, ‘You will love God... with all your soul’ — even if he takes your soul. When will I have the opportunity to fulfill this?”
Rabbi Akiva then recited the Shema, and his soul departed when he reached the word echad, declaring God’s unity (Berachot 61b).
Only a soul as great as Rabbi Akiva could testify that the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies, and that “the entire universe is unworthy of the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel.” In his life, Rabbi Akiva experienced love in all of its levels: the private love for Kalba Savua’s daughter, in its natural purity; the idealistic love for his people, including its fight for independence against Roman occupation; and the lofty love for God, in all of its noble beauty. Thus Rabbi Akiva was eminently qualified to evaluate the true nature of the love so poetically expressed in the Song of Songs.
But those with narrow minds and coarse hearts cannot properly appreciate this precious book. They are like those who crawl at the bottom of a towering castle that stretches high into the clouds. They measure the height of this great edifice according to their limited eyesight. And if they are informed that from the spires of this great castle one may view a dazzling star, breathtaking in its exquisite beauty, they immediately conclude that such a star must be a lowly one indeed.
Such narrow minds, who can only see in Rabbi Akiva a lonely shepherd who fell in love with his employer’s daughter, will certainly fail to comprehend his startling declaration that the Song of Songs is sacred above all other books of the Bible. They only see a simple shepherd and a simple song of private love.
We may appreciate Rabbi Akiva’s greatness of soul from the following story. When a group of scholars saw a fox scampering in the ruins where the holy Temple once stood, they shed tears at this sight of bleak desolation. Rabbi Akiva, however, astounded his companions by laughing. He understood that, just as the prophecies of destruction had come to pass, the prophecies of redemption will also be fulfilled. For this spiritual giant, the distant future was as real and palpable as the present reality. His unshakable faith and vision was rooted in a profound love of God. This love so filled his pure heart that the future was a certain reality, leaving no room to mourn over the disasters of the present. For Rabbi Akiva, the tragedies of the day were but a thin cloud, casting fleeting shadows under the brilliant daytime sun.
Only such a lofty soul could confidently proclaim, “The entire Bible is holy. But the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah, vol. II, pp. 3-4. Historical notes from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, pp. 333-334)