The Jewish Approach to Love

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Isaac. May it be an aliyah for her

By: Samantha Hulkower

This evening Tu b'Av begins at sunset and ends at Nightfall, July 31. The secular calendar considers Valentine's Day the day of "Love". Unless you live under a rock, or just seclude yourself from all forms of media, it's hard to escape the onslaught of forced 'love' associated with this Hallmark Holiday. One bastion of solace from this juggernaut of Cupid is Israel. Something that I've noticed, having lived here through a number of seasons since my aliyah, is how relaxingly disconnected life here is from the conveyor belt of fabricated holidays I was so used to experiencing in the US. A person in the US who has just woken up from a coma could easily know what time of year it is, simply by walking to their local CVS or other drugstore and seeing what type of seasonal candy is being hocked.  

A friend from the US asked me what I do on V-day. I told her that the traditional Jewish day of Love is Tu B'Av, and the conversation moved to something else. It got me thinking though - what is the Jewish view of love? 

When I was learning in midrasha (essentially Yeshiva for women), love was something we talked about a lot. Most of us had grown up secular and only became observant Jews later in life - after we had been exposed to decades of how the West views love and romance. "Love is a VERB ladies, not a NOUN" is a phrase we heard often. In Western society we use terms like 'falling in love' or being 'swept off my feet'. These are passive terms that make it sounds like love is something that just happens, like waiting for it to rain or your lucky lotto numbers to be drawn. In this paradigm, there is little you can do to make such an event happen - how do you work on yourself in order to finally experience 'love at first sight'? Other than slathering on the makeup, very little. 

So what is the Torah-approach to love? Well, it's a process unlikely to be turned into a Hollywood rom-com any time soon. If love is a verb it's expressed through giving. But not necessarily giving in a way you might expect - through gifts and compliments - but of yourself. It's easy to fall out of love when both you and your partner are only in the relationship for what you get out of it. I've heard time and again from happily married couples, the key to a happy marriage is making your partner's happiness your priority. Also, when you make your partner's happiness a priority, it's just harder for things to get too sour. If you are always actively focused on making sure your partner is happy, then there will be a self-awareness in the relationship that should notify everyone when things are getting off-track. All this talk of action and work is making me tired! All jokes aside, this is the crux of the Jewish approach to love - it's work. No one says work can't be fun, and as the old adage goes, when you find a job you love then it doesn't feel like work can also be applied here. 

At the same time, your love can't be dependent on anything. In Pirkei Avot, the Jewish book of wisdom from our Sages, says "A love that is not dependent on anything never ceases." So, if your happiness in a marriage is predicated on your spouse giving you lots of things, since you married him because he was wealthy, as soon as that money runs out, so do your feelings. A less materialistic view could be found that a husband's happiness is dependent on how much affection his wife showers on him. After a few kids, that amount is sure to decrease somewhat since there will be more competition for attention. In this case, the husband is going to feel angry and resentful he's not getting the same quantity of time. Whereas, if the husband realizes that the dynamic is different and instead values the quality of the time together, that is much easier to keep constant, even with competition priorities. This goes to show that love is also dependent on our abilities to work on ourselves - to think about what is motivating our behavior, if we are being realistic with our expectations of our partner and ourselves, and above all, the abilities to be self-aware and honest. 

There you have it. The Jewish view of love isn't something that can be expressed once a year with chocolate and flowers (although if someone wanted to send me some, I wouldn't complain). It is a life-long process of giving to your partner, of working on your self, and being realistic. It sounds like more work than Hollywood would want you to believe, but it's a lot more satisfying - especially when paired with the occasional box of chocolates.

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