Thursday, May 05, 2005

Song of Songs, Sefira, and the question of ascetism

My Chavruta didn't show last night, so I pulled out a few books from the kollel library. Psychotoddler had asked about movies during sefirah, so I found the Shulchan Aruch on that topic, and also the one volume Artscroll Shir HaShirim(song of songs). I previously had criticized artscroll for not printing a real translation in their Chumash, or in their little book of 5 migillot(the ones you would find in synagogue and would be the ones that the listener would follow along with the reader, with the little bouncing ball), so I was curious to find what was printed in the long version.

In the intro, they straight out tell the reader that the book is not to be taken literally, and so a real translation must incude the allegorical meaning. They also do print a leteral translation, although they admit it is "guided by Chazal" and it is only below in the commentary, not the English that faces the Hebrew. And, if I wanted to be picky, the translation of "shtei shadayich" does not include the number "two."

The introduction also includes a story told about the Chofetz Chayim, who lost his son. At the burial, he told the story of a woman who lost a son in a pogrom, and as he lay dying in her arms, she addressed God and said "I used to split my love, with half to You and half to my son, now You will get all my love." The Chofetz Chayim echoed this sentiment. This is obviously a great show of love for God, even in the face of tremendous loss and pain.

With great respect to the Chofetz Chayim, I have a problem with such a statement. The first is that love should not be a zero sum game. When you have a second child, do you love the first one less? If you love your family, do you have less love for God than if you didn't love your family? Secondly, is the love of God a similar and competing love to loving flesh and blood people, or material things/sensations? Obviously love of God can be compared to physical love,(the whole idea behind Song of Songs) but it seems to me that it should be transcendant, not tied to notions of physicality. This very story brings Shir HaShirim back to the physical notions that the allegorical meaning is trying to escape. The story also introduces an element of ascetism, loving God even more, though one is in pain. Are we an ascetic religion? do we value retreat from physicality and enjoyment?

This brings me to Sefira, and Psychotoddler asking about movies. The early sources say that it is Minhag(custom) not to get married and in some places not to get a haircut. Later, it says that everywhere we dont get a haircut. The Mishna Brura says those that get a haircut get fined. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch says it is forbidden to get a haircut. The rationale for the minhag is "lo l'harbot b'simcha" literally, not have too much simcha. It doesn't say to be sad, to be in avelut(mourning)(although there are later references to sefirah being a form of aveilut, but as best as I can tell, this is a later reference, I certainly could be wrong) It says not to overdo the simcha. However, in the present day and age, we seem to have moved to a much more ascetic practice of sefirah than initially practiced.

Obviously, the opposite of asceticism, hedonism, is in contradiction to our values. And certainly there are parts of the community where the scale has unfortunately tipped in that direction. But is the answer codifying a long list of restrictions. Denying love of people? Denying that physical love exists and is not in opposition or competition with love of the Divine?

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