Rabbi Karen Citrin
February 14, 2014
“What’s love got to do with it” sang the pop star singer, Tina Turner. “I just called to say I love you,” sang Stevie Wonder. “Love, love, me do,” sang the Beatles. Countless love songs give voice to the deep seated emotion of love, the passion and life force that is often so beyond what words alone can express.
But well before hundreds of pop songs were recorded, the Bible recorded divinely inspired human expressions of love. For Jews, love is not a yearly act of cards, flowers, and chocolate (not that these things are bad), but rather, a daily, weekly, and eternal commitment. Love is a big idea. What is love really all about? Are there different kinds of love? How much of love is about yourself and how much is about others? And what does Judaism have to say about it?
Despite the fact that the first commandment in the Torah is “pru u’rvu – be fruitful and multiply,” an act that speaks to pro-creation, but not necessarily love, Torah does have a lot to say on the topic. While Judaism affirms the physical sensuality of love, you will need to attend a separate class that your rabbis like to offer to adults and especially teens entitled, “Sex and the Texts,” to learn more about these perspectives. This Shabbat, we will explore three core Jewish notions about love – Love as a verb, Love as Covenant, and Love as Partnership.
Given all of the meaningless, hate-filled actions in the world, love is an important antidote. Contrary to what some may think about the Bible, God being a God of fire, brimstone, and vengeance, our tradition emphasizes God’s loving attributes. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of stone and proclaims, “Adonai, Adonai, God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, forgiving transgression.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Love is a verb, a concrete action. “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha – Love Adonai your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) Rabbi Akiva, the great sage of the 2nd century, famously taught that Judaism can be boiled down to just one mitzvah, one commandment – “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your fellow human being as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Yes, love is a feeling, but it is sometimes hard to know that feelings are really there. It is often easier to describe love through concrete actions. For example, if you ask a child how he or she knows that their parent loves them, they probably won’t say, because I feel their love. They probably will say, “Because he plays with me. Or, she takes care of me. Or, he makes me macaroni and cheese, my favorite food. Or, she takes me to the zoo. He helps me with my homework. Or, they tuck me in at night.” The list can go on and on, all the different ways that parents show our love for our children.” This is a model that is very close to us. Each of us is someone’s child.
And this model extends to adult relationships. The ketubah, the 2,000 year old marriage document still used today, includes the promise between bride and groom, “I will serve, honor, support and sustain you….” What it doesn’t say is “I will love you.” Is the ketubah a loveless text? Hardly. The wisdom of the ketubah is how it defines love – its promise to serve, honor, support, and sustain. That’s what Judaism calls love. Under the chuppah, we don’t promise to feel a certain way about each other. Instead, we promise devotion, action, concrete signs of our commitment.
It is like the story in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. He tells the story of a man who approached him after one of his seminars. The man says, “Stephen, I’m really worried about my marriage. My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?” “The feeling isn’t there anymore?” Covey asks. “That’s right,” the man replies, “and we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest I do?” “Love her,” says Covey. “But I told you,” the man responds, “the feeling just isn’t there anymore.” “Love her.” “You don’t understand, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.” “Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.” “But how do you love when you don’t love?” replies the man. “My friend, love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is a fruit of love the verb. So love her, serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her.”
Our tradition understands love as a verb. And this goes beyond just marital relations. It goes beyond our families, too. It’s a global obligation. The Torah commands us to love our neighbor and the stranger, near and far we are called to serve, support, and sustain.
Love is Covenant. Judaism embraces the idea of covenant, the promise of sacred relationship and devotion. The notion of Brit, or Covenant, is established between Abraham and God, the model monotheistic relationship between the father of the Israelite people and their one God. And there is the well-known passage from our Shabbat service and this week’s Torah portion, “V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et ha’Shabbat, la’asot et ha’Shabbat l’dorotam brit olam – The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time, it is a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel.” (Exodus 31:16-17) Shabbat is like a wedding ring for the Jews, an everlasting sign of commitment to the covenant with God.
Later on this image of the holy relationship between God and the Jewish people becomes the metaphor for sacred relationship between people. The prophet Hosea proclaimed, “And I will betroth you forever: I will betroth you with righteousness and justice, with goodness and mercy, and I will betroth you with faithfulness.” (Hosea 2:21-22) And the book of Samuel included the covenantal love between two men, “And Jonathan’s soul was bound up with the soul of David. Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.” (I Samuel 18:3) The covenantal relationship is held up as a model of trusting sacred connection between people. The covenant guides us to see our fellow person not as an object from which to gain, but rather as a holy being to elevate and treasure.
Love is partnership. Love is between mutual partners. Now let’s be honest. Judaism contains plenty of sexist and unequal messages. Take woman being created as an afterthought from man’s rib, a helpmate to serve man. Most of us don’t really believe in this version of creation of humankind. But over thousands of years, Judaism has sought new meaning and healing from the imagery of the Garden of Eden. One different portrayal comes from a later part of the bible, the Song of Songs. Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is quintessential biblical love poetry, eight chapters of mutual expressions of love between man to woman and woman to man. If you’ve never read it, I suggest you go home tonight and open your bible. It may surprise you. It is great reading for a night like to tonight. In case you don’t get to it, I will share a few excerpts:
“Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine. Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, your name is like finest oil – therefore do maidens love you. Draw after me, let us run! The king has brought me to his chambers. Let us delight and rejoice in your love… Ah, you are beautiful, my darling, with your dove-like eyes. And you, my beloved, are handsome… I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. Like a lily among thorns, so is my love among the maidens. Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the youths. I delight to sit in his shade… Arise, my darling; my fair one, come away… … Eat, lovers, and drink, drink deep of love… I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Ani l’dodi v’dodi li)… Let me be a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand. For love is strong as death, its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame.”
You can see why verses of Song of Songs are frequently quoted at weddings, why there are so many beautiful artistic interpretations of these passages, and why so many melodies have been composed with these words. If you are looking for romance, turn to the Song of Songs. Dr. Rachel Adler, Jewish theologian and author Engendering Judaism, writes, “The Song of Songs celebrates mutuality… Both male and female are subjects of desire: givers, gazers, and wooers… For the lovers in the Song, desire and power are shared attributes.”
The back and forth dialogue of the Song of Songs exemplifies love as equal partnership, mutual admiration and respect. The Song reminds us that love conquers all, that death and love are equally strong. Shir HaShirim suggests that love is what gives life meaning. Love is what enables us to face our final days. Love is what we leave behind. Love is what is of lasting value. (Rabbi Josh Zweiback)
Love is a verb. Love is Covenant, sacred relationship, and Love is mutual partnership. Love is not something to proclaim once a year. Love is something to strive for each day of our lives. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.