Gazelle-Like God (Rabbis Read Song of Songs)


About the love between God and Israel, Song of Song Rabbah looks like a miscellany of rabbinic commentary with little to nothing to do with the biblical poem. But I think the rabbis get the leap and bound of the gazelle in their reading of Song of Songs 2:8-9.

Here’s the biblical text: Hark! My beloved/There he comes/Leaping over mountains/ Bounding over hills/My beloved is like a gazelle/Or like a young stag/There he stands behind our wall, Gazing through the window/Peering through the lattice.”

For the rabbis, the Song of Songs portends end times, which they conflate with the exodus from Egypt. God “leaps over calculations and periods and teminuses and in this month you are to be delivered” (Song of Songs Rabbah II.8.1). Over and over Israel asks, can we be redeemed? With no good deeds to our credit, since they are steeped in idolatry, etc. Like a gazelle, God leaps from Egypt to the Red Sea to Sinai to the future redemption (II.9.1). He leaps from one synagogue to another synagogue, from one house of study to another house of study to bless Israel for the merit of Abraham (II.9.2)

Like a young deer, God peers through the lattice work, behind the walls of the synagogues and houses of study, between the shoulders of the priests, and from between their fingers (II.9.2). A God who like a gazelle appears and disappears, he hides behind the Western Wall in Jerusalem, peering through the lattice of the merits of the patriarchs and matriarchs (II.9.3-4).

I think this is as good an image of God as anything, and not a bad reading of the biblical Song of Songs. Its sense of place is extraordinary, the sense of a mountain framing a human and humanized architecture of walls and lattice work that act like a screen for the appearance and disappearance of this gazelle-like animal figure of God.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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