The reality of Platonic love and the Song of Solomon in a modern key

Do you believe in love after God?

The contention of modernity is that the human mind is an organism exclusively dedicated to survival, which on its positive side (the obverse side from violence) we experience as the pleasures of the sex instinct.

Do you believe in love after God?

The contention of modernity is that the human mind is an organism exclusively dedicated to survival, which on its positive side (the obverse side from violence) we experience as the pleasures of the sex instinct. Hence all romantic and allegorical descriptions of reality must be demythologized and reduced to their most brutal, instinctual elements. Within the context of the Judeo-Christian world, nothing has suffered more form this reductionism than the great shir ha shirim, the Song of Solomon. Today every genius understands that this is nothing but the moaning of a love-sick bumpkin for her polished political patron. In short, it is the slipshod invention of ignorant shepherds sitting around the fire spinning a pulp fiction romance long before the invention of pulp and just a bit after the invention of fiction. Today we call our certainty of this “the Higher Criticism” and it must be accepted on faith in the best scholarly authorities. If you don’t have sufficient faith there is an academic inquisition which has methods to help you understand. It isn’t just that the Almighty doesn’t exist, which renders a dialogue between Him and his people an impossibility, it is that love itself doesn’t exist. Human language, set to the key of romance, is only a subtle ploy for the procreative instinct, similar to a peacock spreading his feathers. See how smart we are now that we know this? Those ignorant shepherds didn’t have a clue.

Not that people today still can’t get a lot of enjoyment out of this type of literature when they set it to music. In the 1970s Ofra Haza strutted bashfully onto a stage dressed as the Queen of Sheba and performed a lively number entitled The Song of Songs…With Fun! It was well received and judged inoffensive since Ms. Haza, as a second generation Israeli and a Temani (Yemenite Jew) was close enough to her own tradition to handle it innocently and with style. Around about this time she was trying her hand out as a kind of pop-tart, notoriously in the cinematic number ani frecha, i.e., “I’m a Bimbo!” which secured her reputation in the Israeli music charts. It would have seemed that Ofra was well on her way to securing the dubious distinction later fashioned for her by American media as “The Madonna of the East.” The intended comparison was to “material girl” Madonna Cicione, not to the mother of the Christian messiah.

However, as time passed and Ofra became better known through the jaded veil of the pop music scene, both in Israel and throughout the world, something very strange began to manifest itself. People began to sense something special, something uncanny, breaking through the seeming frivolity of the secular music. It was as if somehow indeed, the Queen of Sheba, or something even greater, was trying to break through the tender soprano voice of this woman who had begun, and would continue, her career as a profane singer. Certainly Ofra had her ups and downs, but at her best some people were able to sense, to use Otto Rank’s term, the presence of something “numinous” in her songs. Otto Rank gave a book-length explanation of the”numinious” but through experience one might notice it as a chill going down your spine or when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, as if a spirit, hopefully a holy one, had entered the room. In the case of Ofra, perhaps the Blessed One, to allay the rumor of his non-existence, was informing us that he still had at least one pure voice singing his songs (at various levels of inspiration to be sure) on planet Earth.

The man who built the Tabernacle

Dwelling as I do at the other end of the physical and human universe I am in no position to make exaggerated claims about a woman whom I never met during her life. In my enthusiasm, I would be apt to attribute to the Spirit what in fact was, for the most part, a carefully contrived work of art. Ofra didn’t emerge suddenly as a Venus on the the half-shell, in fact she had supportive parents, a generally supportive family, friends, and a back-up team. However of special relevance was her mentor, Bezazel Aloni. The name Bezazel has resonances that those literate in the Hebrew scriptures will quickly recognize. The name means “in the shadow of God” and it reminds us that even today, while we dwell rather in the shadow of a wicked and unbelieving world, we can still see vestiges of the divine breaking out in relationships among human beings. Indeed, we can sometimes see such vestiges in that most contested of all relationships, the relationship between a man and a woman.

The most important thing to understand about Bezazel Aloni is that he was not a lover of Ofra Haza in any profane sense. I realize that in terms of the morals of the modern entertainment industry this is a shocking statement, but I think I am on fairly solid ground in this assertion, since if there had been any hint of impropriety it would have created such a stink that it would have reached even my end of the universe. Aloni seems to have been quite happily married, and Ofra found what she hoped would be marital fulfillment towards the end of her life. None the less, their relationship, as mentor and artist, was in a sense more intimate than that of any profane lover, for indeed he was, if we allow ourselves to take the name literally, the angel placed in charge of building Ofra’s musical and spiritual temple. Of course anyone with a sense of piety can see how this could have gone terribly wrong, but for the most part it seems that this incarnate and practical Bezazel was a sane and stablizing influence. Under his protection Ofra managed to live into her fourties, short for a woman, but long for bearer of divine burdens.

Bearers of divine burdens are particularly vulnerable in the modern world because of what the traditionalist philosopher Rene Guenion called the “pseudo-initiatic” tendency of our era, a zealous counterfeit spirituality which acts as a counterbalance and compensation for gross materialism. In plain language what that means is that, if you have any talents at all, someone is going to approach you and try to make you a into god. Bezazel Aloni had enough common sense and empathy for Ofra not to make her into a god, only an angel, and an angel will do well enough in a pinch for the likes of us mortals. But the danger was always there, and Aloni seems to have been instrumental in seeing that Ofra didn’t get too popular or too Americanized too soon. Under anyone else’s mentoring she would likely have turned into the wrong sort of Madonna.

Those who, unlike myself, have credible knowledge of the matter, would, I think, second the seemingly infatuated narrative that I have sketched. The best testimony that I can recall in the past few years is the beautiful music video which resulted from the collaboration of Aloni and Ofra’s supposed “rival” Yardina Arazi. The touching tribute substantiates the claim that we are still in the midst of trying to form an adequate estimate of who Ofra was and what she accomplished.

So what does all this mean?

I began this brief article by suggesting that there was a connection between the loss of God and the loss of love. God, of course, is impalpable to the senses, since we are circumscribed by his presence in the same way that the creatures of the sea are circumscribed by the ocean. One might venture to say that love, in the sense of Platonic love, was impalpable as well. Sexual love is eminently palpable, we see it both in the flesh and, perhaps too often, in media. Most innocently, we see indirect evidence of sexual love in the existence of children. The modern claim that Platonic love is an impossibility, a metaphysical snark hunt, is based on the claim that it, by contrast, is impalpable.

This isn’t a trivial or merely sentimental issue. Today when men and women are thrown together in almost every situation in life, the kind of metaphysics one believes in has the capability to make one’s situation either a heaven or a hell. If it is believed that all human relations are nothing but iterations or sublimations of the sex-instinct, then one must view all relations, and indeed all actions and emotions with suspicion. One must enter into social intercourse (yes, the latter was once an innocent word!) armed as if for military, or at least legal struggle. Such is the effect of skepticism applied to Platonic love, and I have no strong a priori argument to the contrary.

On the other hand if the Platonists (and other idealists) are right, then love is as real, in fact more real, than the furniture in a well-appointed dwelling. Yet love is not palpable, it’s not directly perceivable as something solid and substantial. The most that we can hope for are indirect vestiges of its existence. Fortunately such vestiges abound for those willing to look for them. The case that I have mentioned comes from the small world of Israeli popular music, albeit the work of a singer and her mentor which briefly gained recognition in the early days of “world music.” It became international, but was not worldly enough to last for long. The world was looking for “pseudo-initiatic” music, music as a portal to the ecstasy of sex and drugs, while Ofra’s music was grounded in genuine tradition, albeit interestingly transformed and adapted.

Fame aside, what remains are the record of human relations and the artifacts of the songs themselves. These are the vestiges, the proofs of the existence of something called “love”…not to be confused with the instinctual drive which happens to be designated by its homonym. We could speak in a similar vein about our seemingly nonexistent Creator in relation to the palpable things which we take too readily as our gods. Armed with such insights, we might even be able to return to Solomon’s song and read it, nay, sing it afresh, with the understanding that it means exactly what the wise said it meant from the beginning.

Written for the 22nd Yarzeit of Ofra Haza, Adar I, 21

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