Monday, August 13, 2007

Marriage and Creativity

In Sotah(17a), Rabbi Akiva teaches that if a man and woman are virtuous, the divine presence will abide with them. If not, fire will consume their relationship. Rashi explains that the man (איש) and woman (אשה), each bring part of God's name into the marriage. If they cultivate that Godliness, the י and ה permeate their union. If not, the only thing that remains is אש (fire).

What is so special about the relationship between a man and woman that warrants such strong extremes?

In Yadayim (3:5), Rabbi Akiva defends the canonization of Shir HaShirim. He states that, all the other books are holy, but the Song of Solomon is קדש קדשים, the holiest of holies. Rabbi Kook, among others, explains why. It is quite easy to see the holiness in books like Iyov or Yirmiyahu. Books that openly teach us to focus on the spiritual and find Godly meaning in our lives are obviously holy. However, the true task that humans are charged with in this world is not to eschew the profane. We are not to neglect the world in which we live. Rather, we are to utilize it in our worship of God. Even the source of the most lowly impurity can be used for service of the divine.

Shir HaShirim is written in allegory. On the surface, it is a representation of the activity and thoughts which, while important in this world, do not lend themselves to spiritual pursuit. It is only when this book is studied with an eye towards depth and creative allegory that it becomes a parable to the relationship between God and Man. Indeed, the book itself is an example of the highest form of serving God, by transforming the mundane through holiness. Thus, beauty, poetry, and love are tools for encountering the divine.

God placed us in a physical world with concrete realities. We are not to rebel against them, and try to shake them off. On the contrary, קדש קדשים is reached by using these forces for holiness, and uplifting them. This is the special place of Shir HaShirim. In an Aristotelian moment pointed out in Marc Shapiro’s Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy, both Rav Kook and Rabbi Weinberg (author of the S’ridei Eish) view the relationship between secular and holy as one of form and matter. The form is the abstract concept, while the matter is that which is acted upon and molded to reflect the form in concrete reality. For example, a plaster cast of a tooth cannot replace the tooth. It does, however, reflect the form of the tooth perfectly. Therefore, when one takes enamel (the matter) and fills the cast with it, the enamel realizes the form, and a reflection of the abstract is now realized. Thus it is with Torah and our world. The Torah is the abstract concept. Every object, being, thought and emotion is part of the matter that makes up our world. We use the Torah’s form to mold the diverse mundanities of our world into a holy reflection of the ideals of Torah. This is how we sanctify the profane.

This was, according to Rabbi Hirsch, the symbolism of the burning bush that introduced Moshe to Hashem. The סנה is the lowliest bush, a representation of physicality with no redeeming spiritual characteristics. However, when used to further God's plans in this world, it became united with the fire of God in order to deliver a message to Moshe. It was not consumed, to teach that even the lowest creature can earn immortality by heeding the call to advance God's purpose in creation.

Humanity is special amongst creations in that we are fashioned in God's image. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes this as the ability to create, change and mold the world we live in. When a man and woman marry, they take part in this creative activity. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) states that a man and a woman actually partner with God when they bear a child. However, if they do not utilize the world as a receptacle for spirituality, they are left only with fire. This is the consuming fire of God's anger, as it were, אש אכלה. It destroys that which is not used for its true calling.

But when a couple infuses their relationship and life with Godliness, they take part in the creation process with God. They permeate their world and the world around them with holiness, elevating the mundane to holy. In this capacity, they are proper bearers of the shechina. They bring the letters of God's name together, create completeness, and acquire immortality, like the סנה.