Translated and adapted by Hillel Fendel
Love: Writers have told her story, poets have sung her song, thinkers have pondered over her secret - and still the magic of love retains its mystery. "Love" is just one word, but it stores within it entire worlds. We find it in many contexts in our lives: the love of children for their parents, love between man and woman, man's love for his G-d - these are just some of the ways in which we meet up with the pervasive concept of love.
Love appears many times in the Torah, in different contexts: "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Love Hashem your G-d," "She [Rivkah] became his [Yitzchak's] wife and he loved her," and more. This of course attests to the centrality of love in the world in general, and in our lives in particular. Yet despite the vast preoccupation with love in literature, poetry and the media, it is still quite clear that there is no lack of room to look into and illuminate the approach of Torah philosophy to this very central topic, and how the Torah can help us situate "love" correctly in our modern lives.
A Beit Midrash (Torah Study Hall) for Love
Someone might think that Yeshivot and Torah academies totally oppose what is known as love and strive to choke it. This feeling stems from the approach that absolute freedom and sensual permissiveness are what helps sprout the longed-for love, whereas the Yeshiva just places restrictions and boundaries around man-woman relationships. The Torah thus limits man's pleasures in this area, the thinking goes, and obligations such making sure not to look freely at women or have any inter-gender contact – i.e., the precautions of shmirat einayim (guarding one's eyes) and negiah (physical contact) – get in the way of natural love from fully developing.
This is a grave mistake. As opposed to what we sometimes hear, ridiculously enough, our Torah has absolutely nothing against love. On the contrary, love is a most significant and unique power. The Torah greatly praises one who worships G-d with love, and in fact every Jew is commanded to love his Creator. The connection between the People of Israel and the Holy Blessed One that is so wondrously depicted in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), is replete with descriptions of love. Even love between man and wife is defined as a most lofty ambition and ideal. Our holy forefathers loved their wives; in the seven festive blessings that we recite at weddings and post-wedding meals, we bless the new couple that they be privileged to build a home in which reigns "love, brotherhood, peace, and friendship."
But what about the many prohibitions, restrictions, and commandments in the areas of sexual relations? The answer is that these are actually intended to preserve love, and not, as might be seen from a superficial glance, to stifle it. This is done precisely by ensuring that love be introduced and maintained only where it is appropriate, in the right places and times for it. This point is extremely important, and should not be taken lightly as we seek to clearly and profoundly understand and be enlightened by the prohibitions and restrictions in these areas.
One who engages in Torah study on the topic of love will discover some fascinatingly novel ideas. One of them, a very central one, is the understanding that there are two types of love. There is a love that acts on the person, and another one in which the person is proactive. That is, there are loves in which the person is passive, pulled along, sometimes even blinded - and there are loves that develop and become more complete, in keeping with the actions that the person takes. The Beit Midrash approach emphasizes repeatedly the ability and obligation to develop love, as well as that love of the type that is not worked on comes easily but can crumble and disappear just as quickly.
This distinction is true for love of all types. Love between man and his G-d can be external and mostly emotional, or it can be internal and a result of great effort leading to a type of unity between the two. Similarly, a man can love his nation simply because he was brought up with patriotism and because he's "used to it" – or he can have a true, deep love for every individual and sector of his nation. And certainly, love between man and woman can be external and base, or internal and profound.
Falling in Love
The ideal relationship between a man and a woman is deep and substantial, and has the power to rise up and become a strong soul connection. A connection based on the external/physical does not fully utilize the true potential of the marital relationship, and is therefore unworthy. It will invariably prove to be temporary, often leaving behind feelings of shame and even hatred laden with negative energies.
Despite this, people often have the tendency to develop bonds of this type – and this is because, under the influence of popular culture or purely physical attraction, they allow themselves to "fall in love" in a most passive manner. "Falling in love" implies something that happens as a result of a greater power than oneself, that is not under his control, and that causes him to enter into a relationship that he did not truly choose. This sometimes-blinding "love" is caused by the over-emphasis on only one dimension, that of the physical, which does not allow one to see and understand the entire picture of the relationship.
As such, it is not sufficient merely to love; we must know how to do it correctly. This involves differentiating between real and fake love, and knowing how to build a relationship that will be positive and constructive in the long-run. As in many other areas, the Torah's guidance as taught in the Beit Midrash can accurately serve as our compass – as opposed to relying on TV movies and love songs for this weighty, sensitive topic that has such long-term consequences.
Every generation has its unique spiritual and education challenges. It is quite clear that in our generation, one of the greatest challenges is the stabilization and correct building of love relationships and of our family. We must answer for our generation in a clear and appealing voice: What, really, is love? What is the difference between love and "falling in love?" What is the place and role of the family today? How important is it to have children? Always important, these questions take on greater urgency today in the face of unrelenting societal attack upon concepts that in the past were totally understood and accepted to all. Most especially we find that the institution of "family" is a punching bag for new-fangled ideas of what constitutes freedom, responsibility, and our place in the world.
The challenges of modernity do not make it easier for us to promote the truths that we hold to be self-evident and form the basis for a happy and productive society. In the Beit Midrash, these issues are discussed, analyzed and elucidated with integrity and clarity. For more information, consult your local Yeshiva!
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