March 08

Love and the Bible: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans

Mordecai Drache

In a series of six conversations and an epilogue recently published in book form under the title of Love and Language (Yale University Press, with Verónica Albin), Ilan Stavans explores a wide spectrum of cultural views towards love through language, literature, poetry and visual art. Drawing on his education as a Mexican Jew; his studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University; and his lifetime of incisive, influential scholarship on Jewish subjects cross culturally, Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, effectively illustrates how one human emotion can be interpreted so differently depending on time and place. He continues to develop our understanding of love and sex in the conversation that follows.

Ilan Stavans is also the author of, among other books, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (Penguin) and Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (Graywolf). He edited the three-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories (Library of America). His next book is Resurrecting Hebrew (Schocken/Nextbook), due out in September.

Zeek: Is the Jewish relationship to God like that of a stubborn child towards a strict tough-love parent, or does it take an erotic cast as when we sing Lecha dodi , welcoming the Sabbath as a bride, yearning for the Shechina ? Or is it sometimes a bit of both?

Stavans: I don’t believe it’s appropriate to portray Israel as a child. In other words, even though the national cycle chronicled in The Five Books of Moses goes from a spontaneous, unforeseen start (Abraham being chosen by God), to the rise and collapse of the Davidic dynasty, onward to the debacle—internal and external—the various prophets go through as carriers of the divine message, I must caution that this cycle isn’t the equivalent of a person’s life from infancy to old age but, instead, the encounter between responsible partners who, in the span of their relationship, experience all sorts of contradictory feelings toward each other.

The relationship between God and His people, Jacob’s descendants, is one of the most tortured love stories ever told. For what is the Bible if not a romance that alternates between terms of endearment and explosions of hate, oscillating from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, as in an intense romantic relationship? That relationship includes moments of erotic attraction, described in the biblical narrative in concrete as well as in metaphorical ways, but also moments of rational engagement.

Zeek: What about love between biblical characters?

Stavans: In the Torah, most sexual encounters are about “knowledge.” From the story of Adam and Eve onward, to engage in sex is to physically know your partner, unless the reference is to fornication, in which case the text chooses a more demeaning terminology. In any case, the modern conception of love not as legally binding but as a turbulent romantic encounter between two people is a later cultural development. Not that it wasn’t experienced in biblical times. It just isn't represented textually the way it would be in Abelard and Heloise’s correspondence (think of Historia Calamitatum ), Romeo and Juliet , and the Romantic poets, for instance.

As I state in Love and Language , romantic love is a fairly recent concept. Etymologically, it is linked to Romanticism, the nineteenth-century aesthetic movement that stressed the connection between the individual and nature, the vulnerability of human personality, and the capriciousness of human relationships. But its roots date back to medieval troubadour poetry, chivalry novels, and Petrarch’s oeuvre. In other words, the concept is alien to the Bible and Plato’s idea of love, neither of which viewed love as a teleological quest for personal fulfillment.

The only exception, as I’ve suggested to you, is the relationship between God and the people of Israel.

I’m not saying, of course, that a man and a woman aren’t suddenly attracted to one another in the biblical narrative.

Zeek: What purpose then do you think the overtly erotic and playful nature of the Song of Songs has in the Bible, given the absence of the concept of romantic love and the wide range of sexual prohibitions on sexual “knowledge”?

Stavans: The Song of Song s continues to puzzle biblical exegetes and lay readers precisely because of the risqué tenor of its content and its celebration of eroticism when compared to other sections of the Bible. Also, it chants to individuality (physical and personal pleasure) in a way that disturbs the rest of the narrative. Had the manuscript of the Tanakh , unpublished, made it to the desk of a New York editor, it would surely have undergone dramatic changes and, I have no doubt in my mind, the Song of Songs would have been extricated, which is too bad because what makes the Bible endurable is its polyphony—its inconsistencies, if you wish. As I suggest in Love and Language , the Song of Songs is closer to the Kama Sutra than to the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, not to say any portion of the Five Books of Moses . Needless to say, it is one of my favorite portions of the narrative. Its views on love might be discordant, belonging to another age and sensibility, but they are ours…

Zeek: Speaking of another age, I now want to move away from the Bible and talk about modes of love. Let’s talk first about Sephardic love. You edited The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature . There’s an emblematic Ladino love song, “Adio Quedida ,” known in English as “Last Goodbye,” I’ve always found perplexing. Here is the Ladino original, translated by Nili Glazer:

Tu madre cuando te pario,
Y te quito al mundo,
Corason ella no te dio
Para amar segundo.

Chorus :
Adio, Adio querida,
No quero la vida
Me l’amargates tu.

Va, buxcate otro amor,
Aharva otras puertas,
Aspera otro ardor,
Que para mi sos muerta.

And the English translation by :
Your mother when she bore you,
And gave you to the world,
She gave you no heart
To love anyone else.

Chorus :
Good-bye, Good-bye my love,
I don't want life
Since you have embittered it.

Go, look for another love,
Go knock on other doors,
Wait for another burning love,
As for me you are dead.

The lyrics show such a deliciously bitchy double-curse, on the lover who has no heart, and his mother who apparently didn’t give him one during pregnancy. I’m fond of the version of “Adio Querida ” in the soundtrack to The Governess , as sampled by Edward Schearmur and the immortal Ofra Haza, although I’ve also heard it in its more folksy original version.

Do you think Sephardi Jews traditionally had ideas about romantic love and marital relations that differed from Ashkenazim?

Stavans: As I suggest in the introduction, “Unity and Dispersion,” of The Shocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature , the temptation at the present time, when approaching Sephardic civilization, is to analyze it through what from Maimonides to Karl Popper has been described in philosophy as “negative attributes”: Sephardim are what Ashkenazim are not. This, precisely, is the approach Abraham Joshua Heschel took in a famous essay on Sephardi civilization: Sephardim are precise, calculating, even arithmetical in their approach to the emotional world, Heschel says. They were doctors, mathematicians, and scientists. The poetry they wrote (think of the lineage that goes from Shmuel Hanaguid to the Dutch conversos ) follows strict metrical standards. The apex of this weltanschauung , again, is Spinoza.

Nothing is further from the truth, and “Adio Querida ” is proof of it. Is there a more neurotic song about a mother-child relationship? Philip Roth should have used it as an epigraph to Portnoy’s Complaint . Civilizations aren’t monolithic. While it is certain that essential psychological ingredients from Muslim and Christian Spain filtered into the Jewish character at the time of La convivencia , Sephardi Jews are as cosmopolitan and angst-driven as the Ashkenazim. And vice versa. Aren’t American Jews doctors, mathematicians, and scientists?

Having said that, I have no doubt in my mind that Latin love is more tormented and abrasive than its counterpart in the Anglo-Saxon world. I know because I grew up with telenovelas . My family life was, in and of itself, one of them.

Zeek: I want you to talk about another poem, not Sephardic but Mizrahi: “The Seduction of Shalom,” written by an anonymous Yemenite poet (and translated here by T. Carmi) sometime between the thirteenth and sixteenth century:

Shalom, I swear by you; by your life, I say, it’s only you I desire.
Come to my house, Shalom.

Come drink wine from my cup, eat bread from my dish, and breathe in my fragrance. You will sleep in joy, Shalom.

You will sleep upon the bed which I have perfumed with burning sticks of myrrh. I have sprinkled the choicest spices on the bed of my beloved, Shalom.

O, my friend, embrace this girl who shines with a brightness like the sun’s. Come close and feel her lips. Let me revel in you, Shalom.

Take pleasure in my bosom, cling to me, have my fill of fresh wine.
Cling to me and give me my due. Taste the flowing honey
which awaits you in my mouth, Shalom.

Come my friend, give me to drink. Let me have my fill of fresh wine.
By your life, my love, revive me. Kiss my lips, Shalom.

My husband is gone away, gone on a journey. He has taken gold with him.
He will not be back by tomorrow. You may rest assured, Shalom.

When I lay my eyes upon you, I bow low and prostrate myself.
O I have no love in this world by my beloved, Shalom.

The repetition of Shalom —a word related, I believe, to shalem , wholeness--lends the poem several layers. With the name Shalom, a traditional masculine name, it could just be a straight seduction song. On another level, it seems to suggest that wholeness and the peace comes with erotic fulfillment.

The version I’ve quoted appears in The Penguin Book of Hebrew Poetry , edited by T. Carmi. According to Carmi, stanzas three and eight were deleted because they allude to the adulteress in Psalm 7, not that it takes in any way from the theme of adultery. The last stanza is a clear reference to fellatio, traditionally taboo among Jews. So its exclusion is telling on many levels.

Stavans: The poem is decisively erotic, although you might be reading too much into it. It addresses the longing for an adulterous lover. Echoes of the psalmist rhetoric are everywhere, which proves—yet again—that eroticism is at the core of Jewish life. In my view, the message, at its core, is about the restfulness, physical and spiritual, that comes with, and after, sexual intercourse.

What response does the author expect from the reader? Is he attempting to recreate, through poetic description, the lover’s longing for her companion (the first-person is obviously a female, though the author was undoubtedly male, as Yemeni Jewish women were traditionally illiterate)? If that is the case, the poem is merely descriptive. But there’s a metaphorical quality to it that reaches beyond the author’s experience. He wants the reader to be aroused, to fantasize his own erotic encounter. In that sense, the poem is religious: the encounter between lovers is delivered along the lines of the relationship between God and man.

In short, I read the poem as prayer.

Zeek: Finally, a third song, widely known throughout the Jewish world and about which you’ve talked before: “Lecha dodi .” It was written by Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz. Herein the first two sections in a transliterated Hebrew version, with an interspersed English translation:

Lecha dodi likrat kalah, p'nei Shabbat nekablah
Come my Beloved to greet the bride—the Sabbath presence let us welcome!

Shamor v'zachor b'dibur echad, hishmi-anu Kel hamyuchad, Hashem echad ushmo echad, l'shem ultiferet v'lit-hilah
Safeguard and Remember—in a single utterance the One and Only G-d made us hear. Hashem is One and His Name is One, for renown for splendor, and for praise.

Lecha dodi likrat kalah, p'nei Shabbat nekablah
Come my Beloved to greet the bride—the Sabbath presence let us welcome!

Likrat Shabbat l'chu v'nel'chah, ki hi m'kor hab'rachah, merosh mikedem n'suchah, sof ma-aseh, b'machashavah t'chilah
To welcome the Sabbath, come let us go, for it is the source of blessing; from the beginning, from antiquity she was honored, last in deed, but first in thought.

Outside of the chorus, most of the lyrics are about redemption and the Messiah. The Sabbath is welcomed through song.

Somehow, despite all my twenty-first-century queer rights and sympathies, I’ve never stopped loving “Lecha dodi .” While I may accept the amending of genders in most Jewish prayers and songs, I would never—ever—do the same to “Lecha dodi .” Can you talk about the erotic imagery of the poem? Also, despite contemporary ideas about gender and sexual orientation, why the song has such lasting appeal?

Stavans: The love affair between God and man has cosmic implications. The Jewish calendar is evidence of it. With the destruction of the Second Temple, the male and female sides of the divine were separated. The female side, the Shekhina , follows the people of Israel in their diaspora; it will only be reunited with its male counterpart when the Messiah comes and the world is redeemed.

Lecha dodi celebrates love in temporal terms. Its message switches from the perspective I suggested before (God and man in a convulsed relationship) to a family-oriented picture of husband, bridge, and child. In Genesis 1 and 2, time itself is a divine attribute: God not only creates everything but He creates it chronologically. The twenty-four-hour cycle is the unit chosen by God to mark the passing of time. And the seventh day is the holiest (etymologically, the word Shabbat comes from “seven,” shevah ). Not only the holiest every week but in the entire yearlong calendar. Indeed, the Sabbath is the most precious of all Jewish holidays—holier even that Yom Kippur. That it comes with such regularity, at the beginning of each week, is an opportunity to sanctify God and His creation in a constant way, to show that the universe entire is a magisterial act of love: God is the husband, the Sabbath is the bride; and man is their byproduct, but also the bridge between them.

Zeek: To return to our discussion on love in the Bible, how do you think this “romance” between Jews and God sits with Christians? Christians view Christ’s love as unconditional. That unconditional love gives rise to the saying “Hate the sinner, love the sin.” That very theme runs through the Tanakh : God’s love for the Jewish people is unconditional, even while He punishes them severely. Proof of His love comes in the form of the admonition from various prophets, sent to preach to the Israelites to change their misguided ways. How is unconditional love expressed and manifested in Judaism?

Stavans: Unconditional love as a value is at the core of the three major Western religions, but only Judaism turns it into an invitation for improvement. The adjective is clear: unconditional is a synonym of complete, absolute, without reservations. In other words, the love of God for His creation acknowledges the fallibility of the world in general, and of humans in particular. The idea, in my view, is astonishing. Perfection is only possible on one side of the relationship: in God. Yet part of the love He gives them is based on the expectation that through morality they’ll at least strive toward perfection. The attempt will be fruitless, yet it will be deemed enough by God. Don’t be perfect, He says. Simply follow the ethical code: do good!

Clearly, this unconditional component is at the core of monotheism and stands as a refutation of idolatry. It suggests that there’s only one God and that God is capable of all the love that’s needed. In antiquity, idols were embraced because of the particular functioned they were performed: rain, fertility, war. In monotheism, all those attributed are concentrated in a single omnipotent entity. God gives and God takes; and, more important, God loves. No idol before was capable of this reciprocal function: loving His creatures in return. In fact, that love became the main sustenance of monotheism, where the relationship between God and His creatures is two-directional.

You’ve talked about sin. Not inconsequentially, in Jewish theology sin isn’t at center stage. What matters is the desire to satisfy God’s unconditional love by attempting, at every turn, to defeat evil and embrace good. Think of a parent’s love for a child. It follows a similar premise: unconditionality. In the parent’s heart, the child is loved for who he is. The parent knows the child isn’t perfect, yet he loves him all the same. The parent does tell the child: if you behave well, I’ll love. Instead, the parent says: I love and, through my love, I expect you to behave well. What does that love do to the child? It nurtures him; it gives him strength, conviction, and confidence.

I said before that the Five Books of Moses should not be read through the prism of a parent/child relationship. Of course, even our adult love relationships are often modeled on the experience we had growing up. After all, that seems the hardest relationship to get away from! But let’s not infantilize Israel and overreach when interpreting God’s behavior in the biblical narrative. Their liaison is about choice, not about obligation.


Images: Maya Carrying Maya, Tallit Rebozo (detail) and Selling Tallit Rebozo by Maya Escobar.


Mordecai Drache is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Zeek. He is currently working on a novel called Dreams of a Gazelle, on the symbiosis of Jewish and Arabic symbolism in Hebrew homoerotic poetry and its power for a mizrahi gay man exploring his Iraqi Jewish roots.