04/10/2012 12:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Supposing Truth Is a Woman': The Song of Songs and Passover's Freedom

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great, if controversial, 19th-century German philosopher, opened his work "Beyond Good and Evil" with the provocative question, "Supposing truth is a woman -- what then?"

Putting aside the gender issues raised by this query, Nietzsche was reminding readers that the search for truth is not a cold analytical exercise, but a passionate undertaking. The word philosophy itself means "love of truth." While philosophy necessarily involves rigorous intellectual reflection, the quest for truth needs to be approached with head and heart; philosophers should be great "lovers," and not simply proficient technicians.

Love, likewise, takes center stage on the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Passover, when in synagogues around the world Jews read the biblical book of Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. The highly eroticized nature of this book made it something of a cause célèbre long before the phrase emerged.

Why, one might ask, do we read a book about passionate love on Passover?

One reason may be that this holiday was long ago dubbed "The Festival of Spring," the time of rebirth when the earth begins to blossom after the dormancy of winter; hence the sexual imagery.

While this reading makes good sense (and carries with it the seeds of important environmental teachings), I want to focus our attention on the holiday's great story of freedom, the redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.

How so? Here I turn to the work of another great philosopher.

Franz Rosenzweig, in his philosophical classic "The Star of Redemption," discusses the Song of Songs at the end of the section of the book dealing with revelation (following many earlier Jewish interpreters). For Rosenzweig, revelation is an act of love through which God enters into relationship with humanity, and it is only by engaging in such a loving relationship that both God and humanity emerge as full selves.

This is true of encounters between human beings and God and between human beings themselves.

According to Rosenzweig, it is God's revelatory act of love that creates our very humanity. It is through love that the human individual emerges as an ethical being. It is only through the affirmation that one finds in a loving relationship that one discovers his or her self worth. By being loved a person becomes more than just another animal put here to survive at the expense of others. One becomes, instead, a being with a life made meaningful through relationship with others.

Contemporary neuroscience bears out this insight. A recent piece in the New York Times put it this way: "All relationships change the brain -- but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape... the self." Loving relationships shape who we are as people.

How though, is that love connected to freedom?

Well, that depends on the sort of freedom one craves. A purely negative freedom, the freedom to do whatever you wish, unbounded by anything at all, seems like a freedom hardly worth having as a human being. It's the freedom of a sociopath.

A freedom that is worthy of the name needs boundaries in order for life to flourish. Not boundaries imposed as a result of one person's wish to dominate the other, but the boundaries that emerge through considering the welfare of the other for whom one wants to curb one's excesses.

The goal in this model is for our primary loving relationships to help lead us to treat others, with whom we do not share this same intimacy, with dignity and consideration.

While traditional Jewish notions of revelation are often caricatured as a yoke of forbidding law, in which the Israelites merely substituted one form of slavery for another, many who participate in this covenantal community feel that it is in this bounded context that they most tangibly feel God's loving embrace.

Relating freedom, love and revelation in this manner also yields a more general point that I find important in our contemporary religious climate.

According to Rosenzweig, without the revelatory relationship of love, both God and the human being would remain isolated from each other. They can only become what they truly are through relating to each other. And just as loving relationships require cultivation, negotiation and commitment; so, too, do our religious lives. Love is uncertain. You know it when you see it, but it is difficult to maintain.

But here is the rub: while we need to make strong commitments to create meaningful religious identities and vibrant communities, love cannot flourish through the dogmatic imposition of one person's view of truth to the exclusion of other perspectives. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder -- and so too, ultimately, is religion.

WATCH Embracing Faith and Music:

The freedom necessary for the practice of different religions (or different forms of the same religion) requires an abiding respect for others, borne out of our experiences of love. Just as we cannot force another person to love us, we cannot impose our religious choices on others. While we can argue passionately for the truths we hold dear, we must never lose sight of the inherent worth of others who make different life choices.

Suppose truth is a woman, said Nietzsche. Well, suppose religion is too...

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