Law as Love-Song


Laura S. Lieber

By the 6th century CE, Christianity was a religion of empire that produced significant codices of imperial law, many of which regulated Jewish practice. Even so, however, Christian polemics against Jewish “legalism” and the perceived burden of the Mosaic-Pharisaic law were commonplace. According to foundational Christian writings, Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection had brought freedom from that burden to humanity, and ongoing Jewish adherence to Jewish law (what would come to be known as halakhah) baffled or even offended Christian onlookers, particularly as Christianity became increasingly estranged from its Jewish roots. Jewish Scriptures, superseded by the Christian witness, became “The Old Testament,” as stated in Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews: “By calling this covenant ‘new’ (Jer. 31:31), he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebr. 8:13). Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 CE), Tertullian (c. 155-240 CE) and Augustine (354-430 CE), argued explicitly for the replacement of Torah by Christ, even as they rejected Marcionism, a heresy that advocated Christian rejection of the Jewish Bible entirely. The persistence of Jewish adherence to traditional Jewish halakhah served as a reminder of the Jewish rejection of Christianity’s truth, and became one topic through which Christian thinkers articulated their ambivalence and anxiety about the ongoing existence of Jews even after the fulfillment of their own scriptural traditions. Jews, like their laws, were obsolete and should have disappeared, and yet they persisted. It was a theological vexation that in some communities even today continues to persist.

“With Me from Lebanon” from Machzor Levy (ca. 1350, Germany)
(Cod. Levy 37, f. 169r) / Hamburg State and University Library CC-BY-SA 4.0

Widespread as this understanding of Jewish law became in early Christianity, it manifestly represented an outsider’s view of Torah. Far from seeing the Torah as something cruel, oppressive, and outmoded, Jewish sources describe the Torah as evidence of God’s love for Israel. Rabbinic writings compare Scripture to a ketubah — a traditional Jewish wedding contract — between God and the people Israel, and the Sinai revelation to a wedding. The law indicates not only covenant but mutuality and reciprocity, a dynamic of giving and receiving infused with affection and commitment.

Jewish sources from the second century CE articulate, or even assume, an association between erotic love and revelation. This figurative language is rooted in Scripture itself, particularly the fierce passion and yearning of the Song of Songs, the seductive personification of Wisdom in Proverbs (especially Prov. 1-9), and the metaphor of marriage to describe the covenant — problematic as it may be from a modern perspective — that colors much of prophetic literature (e.g., Jeremiah 2, Ezekiel 16, and Hosea 2). Such interpretations of sacred texts occurred frequently in texts written by rabbis for fellow sages, notably the exegetical compendia known as midrash, but they were hardly limited to elite venues. Love language, especially phrases and images from the Song of Songs, found its way into the popular Jewish liturgical poetry of Late Antiquity, a genre of writing known in Hebrew as piyyut.

The Song of Songs functions as a key intertext in one of the earliest piyyutim, the 4th century CE Rosh Hashanah hymn, “Let Me Flee to My Helper,” by the poet Yose ben Yose. The great biblical love song also became a touchstone in poetry celebrating the holiday of Passover; read during the Passover ceremony, the Song casts the exodus from Egypt as an elopement between the two lovers God and Israel. The Song also developed an association with the festival of Shavuot, a day which celebrates the revelation of Torah at Sinai, rooted in the idea that Sinai was the marriage that followed the elopement, and the Torah formed the marriage contract given by the Husband to His nation-wife. This interweaving of the marriage metaphor, Jewish law, and the Song of Songs finds its fullest expression in the “Shavuot Ketubah” by the kabbalistic poet Israel ben Moses Najara of Safed (ca. 1550-1625).

Illumination of “With Me from Lebanon” piyyut, Depiction of Marriage Ceremony / Worms Machzor (1272 CE, Germany)

Evocation of the Song of Songs, and expressions of a romantic understanding of the law and its revelation, was hardly limited to holidays and festivals, however. One of the boldest expressions of law-as-love, and revelation-as-marriage, occurs in a composition by the great poet Yannai (ca. 6th c. CE, Galilee), composed for a routine Sabbath morning when the weekly Torah portion began with Exodus 19:6. The lectionary determined that the poet would address the topic of the Torah’s revelation; the poet decided to read Sinai through the lens of the Song of Songs.

Most of Yannai’s poetry belongs to the genre known as the Qedushta, one of the most important varieties of piyyut in Late Antiquity. A qedushta embellishes the first three blessings of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy; the poems culminate in the communal recitation of the Qedushah (“Holy”), which itself comes from Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is filled with His glory!” A full qedushta consists of nine poetic units, which weave together the language of the Amidah with the language of the weekly Torah readings and other related scriptural texts (notably the prophetic complement, the haftarah). These poems reveal a synagogue in which the liturgy itself was predictable but not fixed: the scaffolding of the blessings and the lectionary would be predetermined, and some conventions of form were stable from week to week, but the specific content of the poem was dynamic and new.

While a complete qedushta consists of nine distinct poetic units, we will examine two poems from this composition: Poem 1, which embeds the first half of the Hebrew alphabet (alef to lamed) as an acrostic, prefaces the first blessing of the Amidah and introduces the first verse of the Torah portion (here, Exod. 19:6); and Poem 5, known as an ‘Asiriyyah (from the word ‘eser, “ten”) because it always contains ten lines (and embeds an alphabetical acrostic from alef to yod), but with no predetermined exegetical or liturgical content.

Yannai, Piyyut on Exodus 19:61 Exodus 19:6, the first verse of the week’s Torah portion, states: “‘And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’: these are the words you shall speak to the children of Israel.” The poem has not been preserved in its entirety; the critical edition of the extant portions can be found in Z.M. Rabinowitz, The Liturgical Poetry of Rabbi Yannai, 2 vols.(Jerusalem: Bialik, 1985-1987), 1:318–321. Poem 1 is on pp. 318-319 and Poem 5 on pp. 319-320.
(Poem 1)

“My sister, my bride,” she whom You desired
With kisses of (Your) mouth You kissed (her)
The hills and mountains that You measured out
You invited to dance for joy with her
The mountain that You chose for her, You summoned
And with words You enticed and encouraged
“This” sevenfold for her You engraved
With wedding vows You were joined to her
He decreed, “Hear, and you shall live”
Those who cleave to You, You shall make gods
All the Nations shall be as though they had never been
Mine you were and shall you be
As it is written: “‘And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’:
these are the words you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Exod. 19:6)
And as it is said: “I Myself said, ‘You are gods and you are children of the
Most High, all of you’” (Ps. 82:6)
And as it is said: “Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth, for Your lovemaking is better than wine” (Song 1:2)
Blessed are You, O Eternal One, Shield of Abraham

Mosaic of David-as-Orpheus / Gaza Synagogue Floor (ca. 500-520 CE)

The first lines of the poem evoke the Song of Songs: God calls Israel “my sister, my bride” (Song 4:9, 10, 12; and 5:1) and then kisses her (as in Song 1:2, an intertext that the poet quotes at the end of the unit, where key verses are presented in full). The poet makes the marital conceit explicit and in doing so transforms the language of Exodus (e.g., Exod. 19:5, “You will be Mine,” quoted in the final line) into a kind of wedding vow. The setting, however, is clearly “legal”: the mountain that God summons is Sinai, and Torah is the text of the wedding vows, conveyed (as made clear in early interpretations of Song 1:2) by divine kisses, one for the Written Torah and one for the Oral Torah. Much as marriage changes the legal status of a woman in Jewish law, revelation fundamentally alters Israel’s ontological nature. God’s kiss — the gift of the divine word — elevates the Jews to (near) divinity.

The poet’s language picks up on Psalm 82:6, quoted among the intertexts for the work; the Psalm suggests Israel’s fitness as a partner for God — she is the child of the Most High — but Yannai recasts the Psalmist’s phrasing to shift the metaphor from kinship to marriage; the language of “cleave” here suggests Gen. 2:24, the biblical etiology of marriage. Sinai does not merely change the status of Israel in relationship to God. Rather, the covenant elevates the nation over other peoples. The theophany imposes a burden on the Jews in the same way that a crown burdens a queen.

The poet does not suggest the apotheosis of the people in a furtive manner. He revisits it and amplifies it in Poem 5. The text of this unit is as follows:

(Poem 5)

“You are gods” You said to us // with the strength with which we affirmed You, You affirmed us
At the sea we crowned You / at Sinai, You crowned us // before we hallowed You / You made us holy
You drew us after You in love / You led us forth with loyalty // You watched over us with diligence / You covered us with silver
[Ten] utterances You bestowed upon us / with liberty, emancipation, You graced us // graven (harut) on the tablets /—“freedom” (herut) was upon the tablets
From Sinai You granted us eternal life / for an eternal kingdom / and eternal priesthood
But when we sinned, we were rejected / and death for us was decreed // we were diminished from kingship / and reduced from priesthood
(All) this because of the greatness of love with which You loved us // and because of the might of the desire with which You desired us
The treasure of kingship prized / and priesthood precious: // from us, every root / was not uprooted
We sullied our priesthood / and rebelled against our kingship // impure ones enslaved us / and slaves ruled over us
Yah, as King over the priestly kingdom // make all of us kings and all of us priests!
O God, may You be revered forever!

In this poem, the poet revisits the image of Israel deified and stresses the reciprocity of the relationship: each party affirms the other, hallows the other, and — as in marriage rites from antiquity and, among Orthodox Christian communities, to the present — crowns the other. For Israel, however, the transformation in status proves conditional: transgression diminishes status. And yet, Yannai describes the loss of status and the trauma of demotion in the past tense, stressing even in the midst of negativity God’s love and desire for Israel (“us”). The framing of the poem indicates Yannai’s confidence in the transience of shame and the restoration of exaltation. The unit begins and ends in glory, and in the middle, the poet affirms the gifts of eternal life, kingship, priesthood, and freedom. All of this is expressed in, and effected through, the words of Torah. Yannai does not see power in his imperial oppressors: despite appearances and assertions to the contrary, Israel’s antagonists are slaves and impure ones, whose authority is temporary.

Much as marriage changes the legal status of a woman in Jewish law, revelation fundamentally alters Israel’s ontological nature. God’s kiss — the gift of the divine word — elevates the Jews to (near) divinity.

In this poem embellishing Exodus 19, Yannai sees the Torah as a gift of love and a symbol of covenantal commitment, as is common in Jewish writings (poetry and prose) from Late Antiquity. The daily liturgy (specifically in the evening prayer Ahavat Olam and its morning equivalent, Ahavah Rabbah) equates love with revelation. This is the metaphor that the liturgical poets found inspiring in Late Antiquity and for many centuries thereafter. The Song of Songs, alongside other texts, read through the lenses of an exegetical imagination shaped by a conviction of divine love and commitment, ensured that Torah was approached as a treasure; halakhah is “weighty” in the same way as majesty (to pun on the Hebrew root k-b-d that means both “heavy” and “honor”). Law was not a burden to be escaped, nor an imposition to be replaced. Rather, as in the Song of Songs, hostile parties may strive to keep the lovers apart, to mislead them about each other’s truth and intentions, but these antagonists would do so because they covet the lovers’ intimacy, envy their reciprocal joy, and are hostile to the freedom and power experienced in the sacred space carved out by the covenant.

The daily reality of Jewish life in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, enforced by imperial laws and ecclesial policies, manifested the diminished status of Jews in their long exile. But appearance is not always the truth; the present moment is transient. The Torah, like the Song of Songs, is an enduring lyric of love. We see the complexity of the Jewish understanding of reality reflected in the illustration of the piyyut from the medieval Machzor Levy (above), where the personified Jewish people — playing on the medieval visual symbolism of Synagoga and Ekklesia — wears the blindfold of anti-Jewish Christian artistic convention but also proudly displays her queenly crown, even as she and her love (the Messiah? God?) reach out toward each other. This same sense of pride and mutuality colors the poetry itself. ♦


Laura Lieber is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, where she also directs the Center for Jewish Studies. Her research focuses on Judaism in Late Antiquity, particularly the literatures of the early synagogue.