An examination of differing and, at times overlapping, allegorical and literal interpretations of the Song of Songs was the subject of the 37th annual Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference Nov. 11 at the USC Caruso Catholic Center.With women filling the pews of Our Savior Catholic Church, “Song of Songs: The Sacredness of Sexuality” was assessed by the keynote speakers — Rabbi Gail Labovitz, Ph.D., associate professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University in Bel Air, and Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D., associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University.Included in both the Hebrew Bible and Christian versions of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs (also referred to as Song of Solomon or Canticles) is a series of lyrical poems presented as a lengthy dialogue between a young woman and her husband-to-be. A third party, or chorus, occasionally addresses the couple as well.Early Hebrew and Christian scholars described the love story depicted in Song of Songs as an allegory for God’s love of humankind, and/or for the intensity of divine love as experienced by the human heart. In keeping with this interpretation, during the first century the influential Jewish leader Rabbi Akiva maintained that the book was the “Holy of Holies,” thereby securing its place in biblical canon.However, modern-day interpretations typically acknowledge that the book also celebrates the beauty of human love and the mystical quality of erotic desire.“We can be grateful to the early rabbis and church fathers who left us the Song of Songs in their canons, but we also have to recognize that they did so with certain conditions attached — and we are not necessarily abiding by those conditions,” said Rabbi Labovitz. By reading the book as a literal description of human love and sexuality, we are straying from the original key condition — to accept its true meaning as an allegory for God’s love (for Israel, etc.), she explained.Rather than embracing this narrow condition, she continued, the other possibility is “to go in the other direction and be willing to reclaim this text, not as a secular text, but as a holy text about love and sexuality and relationships.”Fullam also stressed the importance of not desexualizing Song of Songs, noting that the allegorical interpretation takes a “richly sexual text” and translates it into something else. Rather, she suggests viewing the book in its entirety as a metaphor for God and Israel or for Christ and the church, while also acknowledging it as “a passionate dance of lovers” that is inherently sacred.“I don’t want to de-spiritualize it, I want to bring it back in touch with its actual subject: human sex,” said Fullam. “Until Vatican II, Catholics were taught that procreation was the primary justification for sex in marriage, [but] the partners in Song of Songs aren’t thinking about procreation; they’re thinking about their passion for each other … [and] we know that marriages are made stronger with great [physical intimacy].”And marriages and “other ordinary human relationships help us to reflect and receive the love of God,” she added. “Jesus left us two commands: love God and love each other. These commands don’t cancel each other out; they’re synergistic.”Following the morning presentations and a question-and-answer period, conference participants exchanged thoughts and opinions during a small-group dialogue session after lunch.Flora Ruiz, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church, Compton, said attending the annual Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference has helped her grow in her own faith and opened her heart to embracing and learning about other religious traditions.“I believe we need to be open of heart and open of mind to really feel comfortable with who we are and what we believe,” Ruiz told The Tidings. “This type of conference allows us to ask questions and have a discussion; it teaches us respect. I’m very grateful to God that Pope Francis is advocating this model of interfaith dialogue, and I hope I can continue to be part of that conversation.”For Nancy Teller-Young, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, the conference was a vivid and welcome reminder of her late mother, Joan Teller, a founding member of the Catholic-Jewish women’s dialogue.“My parents probably didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t Jewish until they were in their mid-20s, but later their world became totally interfaith. I grew up with a lot of interfaith dialogue in our home,” she recalled with a smile. “[In recent years] I’ve really become more aware of the weight of my mother’s work and how important it’s been in Los Angeles.”Teller-Young, who runs a non-profit arts program that works locally with the Catholic Education Foundation, said she finds it gratifying to see the Catholic-Jewish women’s dialogue continue its annual conference tradition, which she described as both “wonderful and important.”Dr. Ruth Weisberg, an artist, professor of fine arts and former dean at USC, launched the conference with a cultural presentation, sharing detailed descriptions of the numerous artistic elements inside the Catholic Center’s Our Savior Catholic Church.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/1122/cathjewish/{/gallery}