Where is the love Not in this dissection of Song of Songs

The “Song of Songs” is a biblical love poem that could be rated “R” or “NC-17” because of its erotic images. On the surface it is a poem about physical lovemaking using images of cities, rooms in buildings, gardens, vineyards, flora and fauna, the pastoral countryside and people as its context.

Beneath the surface, many commentators believe “Song of Songs” is an allegory for the spiritual love between Israel and God.

Not to worry; this review is suitable for all ages.

Rabbi Leonard S. Kravitz, professor at Hebrew Union College, and Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, have added to the substantial literature on the epic love poem. The press release accompanying the book claims it to be a “treasure for biblical scholars, both professional and hobbyist.” The work is useful for anyone studying “Song of Songs” because each verse is analyzed in a highly structured way, according to this format:

• The Hebrew and the authors’ English translation.

• A paragraph on issues and uncertainties of Hebrew-to-English translation, including suggested emendations by the authors and others.

• One or more paragraphs summarizing commentaries by the Targum (5th century CE translation and commentary from Hebrew to Aramaic); Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century CE); Rashi (11th century CE); and Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon; 14th century CE). The authors also present their own commentary, along with occasional references to Torah and Midrash. The choice of these four ancient commentators for a “modern” commentary among the dozens of historical and contemporary translations and commentaries is not explained.

• At the end of each chapter, short paragraphs on subjects or terms found in the chapter offering further explanations and discussion.

After much flipping back and forth, one wonders if these subjects and terms could have been handled more successfully from the reader’s view with footnotes. By presenting them separately — instead of where first encountered — the book forces the reader to try to remember where the word or passage occurred previously, then flip back through the chapter to find the original reference. In the commentaries, it’s not obvious that some terms will be presented in greater detail later in the chapter. They’re like endnotes, but not referenced with a number.

• Also at the end of each chapter, a “Gleanings” section that includes excerpts from books, journal articles and sermons on related topics.

With this straightforward structure to each verse, the material could be more effectively presented in tabular format with footnotes or endnotes.

The research on translation and commentary summaries is clearly extensive, but often difficult to follow. For each verse, the commentary is frequently focuses on different words or subjects: Targum is summarized, but then Rashi and Ibn Ezra commentaries may be on a completely different word or phrase. Consistency is not much in evidence.

Principal sources are cited in the Introduction, but there is only a two-item bibliography and no index. Other sources are identified in the text informally but in sufficient detail to find the material such as author, title, page number — but not the publisher. Any reference work without footnotes, references, and an index or concordance has limited usefulness.

After plowing through this book verse by verse, the reader is bound to wonder, “What does this all mean?” Sadly, there is little cross-referencing to other verses and other biblical sources, and only a brief discussion of the whole work as literature, either as a celebration of physical love or as an allegory of spiritual love between God and Israel. This occurs in the book’s four-page introduction, which is far less extensive than those of other “Song of Songs” experts, including Robert Gordis, Marcia Falk, Ariel and Chana Bloch and Richard Hess.

Despite Kravitz and Olitskly’s extensive scholarship and analyses, this is not an easy read, even for a dedicated Torah hobbyist.

“Shir Hashirim: A Modern Commentary on the Song of Songs” by Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitsky (127 pages, UR Press, $14.95)