Friday, February 12, 2010

All You Need is Love

(Spoiler Alert: I will be using some of this material in my remarks tomorrow at Shabbat morning services.)

I know: Jews aren't "officially" supposed to mark the occasion.  But come it really all that terrible to take one day out of the year to tell your significant other (or someone else that's special in your life) that you love them?

LOVE IS IMPORTANT.  According to the Beatles, "all you need is love."  Check out the video from the debut of that song below (you get extra points if you can spot a 24 year old Mick Jagger in the background):

There is an interesting story behind the song, and how it came to be recorded.  It seems that the Beatles had been approached by the BBC to represent the UK in the first worldwide live television broadcast.  400 million people tuned in on June 25, 1967.  And: that number would have been much higher, had the Soviets and their allies not pulled out at the last minute - in protest of the West's support of Israel during the Six Day War, which had just recently ended.   

BEATLES HISTORY FOOTNOTE: This was apparently the final time that the Beatles appeared together on live television.  (This is separate from the final live but non-televised performance that the Beatles did on the roof of the Apple Records building in London on January 30, 1969.  Watch video footage of that here.)

"All you need is love" is also a perfectly apt title for us this week, as we use the excuse of Valentine's Day to consider what Judaism has to say about...LOVE.

As it turns out, Judaism has quite a lot to say about the subject!  We'll only have the chance to touch on a few aspects of the subject in this posting; we'll save the rest for next Valentine's Day (or, if you can't wait that long, then maybe we can discuss it on Tu B'Av.)

We should begin, of course, with this week's Torah portion: Parshat Mishpatim.  Two verses from the parsha basically summarize the Biblical approach to love.  Prepare yourselves:

When a man seduces a woman, and lies with her, for the marrying-price he is to marry her, as his wife.  If her father refuses to give her to him, silver is to be weighed out…(Exodus 22:15-16)

Here we have the classical Jewish approach: LOVE AS A COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION.  

In ancient times women were objects of (financial) value.  They were "owned" by their fathers, until their future husbands came along and "bought" them!

This particular passage deals addresses the problem of when a guy comes along and seduces a woman without her father's permission or knowledge.  In biblical times we would have called that a SCANDAL.

Look....obviously we don't treat women as commodities in the same sense today.  (THANK GOODNESS!)  But this text is still useful because it suggests that one Jewish way of expressing love for your partner is by paying up.  

Think about the way that Valentine's Day in its least inspiring form is a Hallmark holiday.  Some of us just go thru the motions for Valentine's Day - we buy a card and a (lame?) gift - just to get credit for a partner or loved one that we 'remembered them' on the holiday, even if there was nothing very significant (and not too much effort or meaning) behind whatever it is that was purchased.

Just like the Torah portion: love is expressed by way of money spent.  A commercial transaction.

Thank goodness that there are other expressions of love in our tradition.  

Like lovey-dovey romantic love!

Consider this poem, from the medieval Jewish poet par-excellance, Judah ha-Levi (1075-1141, Spain).  He wrote:

My sweetheart's dainty lips are red,
With ruby's crimson overspread;
Her teeth are like a string of pearls;
Down her neck her clustering curls
In ebony hue vie with the night,
And over her features dances light.
The twinkling stars enthroned above
Are sisters to my dearest love.
We men should count it joy complete
To lay our service at her feet.
But oh what rapture is her kiss!
A forecast 'tis of heavenly bliss!

Now that is some good stuff!

The term "romance" typically refers to chivalric love....where one partner extols the virtues of the other, and reveals the depths of their feelings...perhaps making promises of fidelity for all time.
I love this poem (pun intended) because ha-Levi uses this incredible language to praise the one that he loves.  (My one criticism: he praises his lover's physical attributes....Surely we live in a day and age where we understand that beauty and attraction is more than skin deep?)

No offense to any of you out there that just go thru the motions of Valentine's Day, but don't you think that ha-Levi's expression of love is so much deeper and more meaningful than a simple box of chocolates?  Using Valentine's Day to tell our partners how we feel about them, and what they mean to us - that seems to me to be an incredibly Jewish thing to do. 

(By the way: ha-Levi is also responsible for giving us the notion of LOVE AS AN EXPRESSION OF ZIONISM, thanks to his incredible poem "My Heart is in the East," which you can find here.  More on this some other time...)

My romantic Valentine's Day gift to you: listen to the Radiolab clip here.  If you have a partner that appreciates a little lovey-dovey romance, you should listen to it with them!  :o)

All of that being said: our tradition also has the notion that love is something even BIGGER than an emotion that exists between two loving partners, or between parent and child, or between two close friends.  Judaism also believes that love is something that describes the relationship between us and God.

Thus, a third expression of love in Judaism is LOVE AS AN EXPRESSION OF THEOLOGY.

The authors of the Bible (I'm thinking here specifically of the Song of Songs) use romantic love between two partners as a deeply profound metaphor for the love that exists between God and the Jewish people.

Dr. Avivah Zornberg, the noted Israeli Bible scholar, commentator, and critic, picks up on this, when she writes:

Powerfully, the Israelites’ choice to receive the Torah is portrayed as a personal, almost an eccentric moment of desire.  Objectively, Sinai offers the human being little of what he naturally seeks in […] life...  Unaccountably, however, the Israelites are drawn to the imagination of Sinai which, to them, offers substantial shade and sweet fruit. 

Echoing the Bible, Zornberg compares the relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people to a relationship between lovers.  

Sometimes, in a relationship, love seems like an unlikely thing.  We have expressions like "opposites attract" to concretize this.

Why is that person attracted to that person?

Our rabbis projected that others might have asked the same thing about God and the Jewish people.  Why, some must have wondered, would the Jewish people ever agree to believe in one mysterious, invisible God?  And why would they agree to follow so many difficult rules and commandments?  (No stealing and murdering?  Where's the fun in that, they must have wondered.)

Zornberg, quoting the rabbis, answers that the only thing that could possibly explain the attraction between these opposite and unlikely partners is the existence of a profound and enduring love.  A deeply held and understood awareness of destiny - that we are "meant" for each other on some level....that God is the only one that can get or understand us....and similarly that we Jews have a unique way of understanding and appreciating God.  Thus, for us, as Zornberg put it - Sinai offers us "substantial shade and sweet fruit."

Love as theology.  What an amazing, and specifically Jewish notion, of thinking about love on this Valentine's Day weekend.

So....wishing all of you a weekend filled with love, whether you find it by purchasing or receiving a box of chocolates; or whether you celebrate or discover romance in your life; or whether, most significantly, you become newly aware of the loving presence of God in our world, and in your midst.

Shabbat Shalom.


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