Academic journal article Shofar

Akharekha Na-Rutsa (It Is You We Pursue)

Academic journal article Shofar

Akharekha Na-Rutsa (It Is You We Pursue)

Article excerpt

Akharekha Na-Rutsa (It Is You We Pursue), by Yuval Sherlo. Tel Aviv, Yediot Aharonot, 2003. 510 pp.

Yuval Sherlo's book It Is You We Pursue is more than just a commentary on the Song of Songs, although it is certainly that too. Of the 510 pages in this book, the actual text of the Song of Songs along with its four (page by page) commentaries comprises only 57 pages, a bit more than 10 percent of the whole book. The rest of the book consists of an introduction, more than 300 (!) pages long, some 60 more pages of explanation, and an epilogue entitled "The Song of Songs' Significance for the Faith of Contemporary Man," itself approximately 90 pages.

It is this last section, a most unusual essay, that we will focus on. Yuval Sherlo is a rabbi who is both within and outside of the rabbinical establishment in Israel. He has never removed himself from its confines. He is orthodox and committed to observance as it is understood by the Israeli orthodox rabbinate. And yet he is one of the rare contemporary orthodox rabbis who does not wax nostalgic when he speaks of the pre-War rabbinic establishment in Europe. What's more, he is conversant with Western philosophy. He has read enough of Kant to be able to trace Kant's influence on philosophical thought in Western philosophy in general, and on Jewish thought in particular. He is willing to admit that the observant Jewish world is in the throes of a great crisis, and he believes that the Song of Songs can furnish a blueprint for those whose spirit cannot embrace belief of the old sort.

Sherlo divides this epilogue into two sections: the first is a historical overview of the Jewish understanding of belief. The second section is his plea for a contemporary espousal of the Song of Songs as a paradigm for belief in our times.

The Historical Survey. Sherlo points out that some Jewish thinkers have suggested that all of the Torah, even its laws and legal debates, are a metaphor whose lessons are teachings about God and His ways. The very earliest Jewish thinkers, the rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era (the tannaim and amoraim) did not produce works of philosophy or theology for this very reason. They felt no such need. Their preoccupation with their teaching was itself a reaching out to God and a use of the divine dialogue.

Things changed in the Middle Ages. In this era Jewish thinkers were no longer content to deal with the metaphoric extensions of a divine language. They wanted to be able to translate this divine language into the concepts of rationalist philosophy. For philosophers like Maimonides, Sherlo says, this was not so much importation of foreign concepts into the Jewish world as it was an attempt to show that Judaism and Jewish concepts were fully consonant with the most exalted notions known to the human spirit. It was in this era that the question of cause and effect entered Jewish debate. So, too, did the question of whether the words of the Torah could be understood as symbols, signs which pointed to a reality outside themselves, or whether they were meant to be understood as the re-telling of events that actually took place. For all its (apparent) success, rationalist philosophy was, Sherlo says, necessarily flawed. The scientific method (with its talk of cause and effect) cannot be expected to do something for which it is not fit: if cannot translate concepts of the infinite into its own finite universe of discourse.

What's more, says Sherlo, in purely rationalist terms one cannot rightly argue with God's justice: after all, His understanding is infinite, while ours is limited. …

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