“Love me like the Torah says you should.” OK, that expression might not be commonly uttered among adoring lovers, but Jewish tradition actually has some interesting things to say about love. To get a better sense of Jewish perspectives on the subject, we asked a diverse group of rabbis, all of varying denominations, backgrounds and religious philosophies, for their thoughts.
Most of our rabbis immediately brought up the Song of Songs, among the most beautiful love poems in the world, and one of the few sections of the Bible devoted to the elusive emotion. “By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth,” it reads.
Our Chabad rabbi, Shmuley Boteach of Englewood, NJ, points out that the man and woman exchanging loving phrases in the Song of Songs remain unnamed throughout the poem, their relationship a mystery. “This teaches us that love best flourishes when it is both mysterious and sinful,” he says. In order to keep this illicit feeling within marriage which, by definition, sanctions love and removes all the mystery and sin within it, Judaism calls for “a monthly period of sexual separation in which husband and wife are forbidden to each other.” The separation “heightens, in the illicit physical period, the role of conversation in which the inner and ever-deeper layers of human personality are slowly manifest.”
Conservative rabbi Amy Walk Katz, of Temple Beth Elm in Springfield, MA, links the romantic love between two people to the love between the Jewish people and God. “Talmudic rabbis understood the Song of Songs to be an allegory: It used a man and a woman to explain the love between God and the Jewish people and suggests the high regard Judaism has for male-female love and sexuality.” Reform rabbi Laura Novak Winer from Livermore, CA agrees that love is a manifestation of divinity. “A loving relationship is seen as Jewish when the partners acknowledge, value and name that relationship as holy. Two people in love see the divine,” she says.
Furthermore, that divinity extends to everyday acts. In this view, people must project their feelings of love toward improving the world around them. According to Maryland Reconstructionist Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, “The word ‘love’ in Torah is primarily an activist commandment: Love your neighbor and the stranger; love God. Even to love God means we should behave divinely toward others, ‘making God beloved, through us.’”
Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg agrees but takes acts based on love a step further. In his view, good deeds performed with love are analogous to two people coming together in a loving union. “With all of their flaws, God partners with humans to build a perfect world (tikkun olam). We are called to return God’s love….In the Jewish ideal, every person finds the unique one destined for him/her to love totally (body, emotion and mind) to become fully human and together create and nurture more life.”
But what is love? Rabbi Gershon Winkler, an independent rabbi in Thousand Oaks, CA, notes that the Hebrew word for love, ahava, comes from the Aramaic hav which means “give.” Love is related to giving because “it involves not only giving of oneself, but also stepping back to enable the existence and flourishing of the other,” says Rabbi Winkler. “God thus models what love entails: selfless gifting accompanied by withdrawal to enable the other to emerge.”
But not everyone believes in the power of love. On the one hand, Rabbi Boteach says that “love is the gravity that pulls the universe together. Hatred is the anti-matter that rips it apart.” But our Sephardi Rabbi, Joshua Maroof of Rockville, MD reminds us that love has its limitations. Too many people harbor “unrealistic expectations about love that can only lead to disillusionment and frustration,” he says. “Enjoy love for what it is worth, but do not expect it to provide you with more satisfaction or fulfillment than it can. Otherwise, you will inevitably find yourself disappointed.”
Compiled by Niv Elis