A Jewish guide to love

Love is not the rush evoked by cards and gifts, flowers and chocolate. Real love is an enacted emotion. It … Continued

Love is not the rush evoked by cards and gifts, flowers and chocolate. Real love is an enacted emotion. It is not what we feel alone but what we do with what we feel. A capacity for love transcends depth of emotion and includes the recognition, acknowledgement and embrace of the other. To pay attention, to see another, to understand their reality – all this is a prerequisite for love.

Judaism has within it a strain of romantic love but such love is almost always in service of more than poetry and starlight. For love is less cupid’s arrow than Archimedes’ lever – the means by which one can move the world. Love is always between, never solely within; self-love deserves a different name because it is not transactional. What happens between two people must have a practical effect on the lovers and on the world. Love is a broadening emotion, rippling out beyond its source.

When I have the privilege to officiate at a wedding the widening circles are manifest. The couple promises to build a home in Israel, and that promise moves those around them – their families and guests. The tears are not for the honeymoon, but for the promise to posterity.

In Judaism the initial act of love was God’s creation of the world. Therefore love is forever tied to creativity, to an environment where mutuality can flourish. A subtle dialogue in the Jewish prayer service illustrates this theme: First we say ahavat Olam, a prayer declaring God’s “everlasting love.” That enduring love is reflected in the creation of the world as well as the Torah and tradition God gave us. Then comes the Shema, where in the very first paragraph one is adjured to love God.

Valentine’s Day (which is hardly a Jewish holiday in any case) is a day given to the bliss of infatuation. That has its beauty and its place. How cramped and curmudgeonly a soul must one have to deny the enchantment of desire? But the wild excitement is not only for what I might feel but for what we might do. Love is effortful as well as weightless, and not only recognizes the divine in the eyes of another but dreams of building a world together.

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