Proving something about the sensual, even arabesque, core at the heart of Maimonidean rationalism by way of proving R. Akiva’s dictum that the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies is some over the top love-sick camp from Maimonides in the laws of repentance (Hilkhot Teshuva) in the Mishneh Torah, that hoary old code of Jewish law.
In the laws of teshuva, you get to the Song of Songs after some little didactic philosophical-ethical foreplay. What is teshuva or repentance (chp.1)? What constitutes complete teshuva (chp.2). People being a mix of good and bad qualities, who have and who does not have a portion in the world-to-come (chp.3) and what are the severe kinds of sin that damage this capacity to repent of them (chp.4)? We learn about free will and how this squares with Scripture (chp.5-6). These discussions represent standard Maimonides. Very important matters, they are more or less interesting.
But Maimonides has his eye on bigger matters, things like death and love, and these things speak to the imagination precisely because we cannot “know” their precise matter. We can start with this. A man (adam) [sic] should always “see” himself as if on the verge of death, that he might die at any moment (7:1). And he should “imagine” himself not distant from the level of righteous even though he will have sinned and transgressed. He should imagine that he is beloved and desired (ahuv v’nehmad) before the Creator as if he had never sinned. That is the greatness of teshuva, which is that it draws a man (sic) closer to the Shekhinah. The appeal here is to Scripture and to the drama of a speaking God, “Return O’ Israel,” “You have not returned,” Return to Me.” It sounds better in Hebrew: shuva, shavtem, im tashuv, elei tashuv.” The night before he was hated, an abomination, today he is beloved and desired (7:6), clinging now to the divine presence and pleasing to God (7:7).
All this good that is hidden for the righteous is the life of the world to come, which is life with no death, goodness without evil (8:1), full of the joy that the dark humble body (guf ha’afel ha’shafal) cannot know because the body dies (8:3). The Maimonidean discourse of this next life is saturated by images, “mountain of God,” “holy place,” “holy path,” “courtyards of God,” “pleasantness of God, tent of God,” “palace of God,” “house of God,” “gate of God,” and “feast” (8:4), the important point being that the laws of teshuva look past the messianic age, look past reward and punishment in this physical world (8:7, 9:1-2). This is an old ethical chestnut; one serves God not for reward and not because one fears being punished.
Not love of man, love of God is the highest virtue. This too is a familiar theme in Jewish ethical literature. But to what degree is the love of God proper? Less talked about in the Jewish ethical literature, it turns out that Maimonides wants this to a great and exceeding degree, up to the point that one binds one’s soul in this love, obsessed (shogeh) with it always, as if one is sick with the sickness of love (k’ilu choleh chalei ha’ahava). Now he talks about a woman (10:3). Is she the same woman who appears earlier, the woman with whom a man [sic] engaged in illicit sexual relations and some time after they reunite in private and he still loves her and wants her physically, but he [sic] abstains (2:1)? Is she an autobiographical fragment? One’s thought is never diverted from the love of that woman, obsessed with her always, sitting and getting up and eating and drinking. More than this should be the love of God, as if Maimonides wants to say more lovesick than lovesick. This, Maimonides, tells is was what Solomon said in the Song of Songs (Song of Songs 2:5), “I am lovesick,” which informs the parable that is the entirety of the Song of Songs (10:3).
We can be pretty sure that this is what Maimonides, a great rhetor, meant in the opening halakhah when, after delineating the essential elements of the confessional prayer, he went on to add that whoever confesses profusely and at length is worthy of praise (1:1).
A few quick takeaways. Hilkhot Teshuva is not reallly a halakhic text, and certainly not a halakhic miscellany. It has a definite philosophical structure that moves from a halakhic beginning towards a theological conclusion. Indeed, Hilkhot Teshuva shares the same structure as the Guide. First in the opening chapters comes the philosophical discipline (in our case here an ethical-halakhic discipline) the point of which is to perfect the imagination, which turns out to constitute the end telos of the ecstatic structure as a whole that points the soul, ultimately towards death and towards the incorporeal and incomparable perfection that is life in the world to come.