Is Romantic Love a Jewish Value?

By Ben Greenfield
Friday, August 3, 2012

Today is the happiest day in the Hebrew calendar.  According to the Mishnah, Tu b’Av (the 15th of the month of Av) was a joyous occasion on which the unmarried women of ancient Jerusalem would dance in the vineyards, hoping to find a match.  In modern Israel, Tu b'Av has been revived as a holiday of romantic love, the sabras’ Valentine's Day.

But is it “Jewish” to celebrate romantic love?  It is one thing to encourage singles to marry, but quite another to endorse the kind of rapturous lust that saturates Western culture.  And yet, there is no better record of vivid—torrid, even—romance than the Bible's Song of Songs:

"Oh, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine . . . You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride! You have ravished my heart with but one of your eyes, with but one bead from your necklace! . . . I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine."

But it is this very passion that the rabbis seem to erase from the work.  Across the Talmud and Midrash, they read the Song of Songs’ amorous verses as an allegory—a figurative representation of God’s relationship to Israel.  Breasts are not breasts, but synagogues; velvet lips are pious deeds; and restless, lovesick nights are the fate of an exiled people.  In other words, a sexual saga is but the vehicle for the expression of God’s love for His people.

By the 19th century, a symbolic reading, and an attendant denigration of romantic love, had gained widespread acceptance.  This was so much the case that a Baghdadi rabbi, Yosef Hayim ben Eliyahu, rebuked a schoolteacher for tasking his pupils with copying the Song of Songs into Arabic, for fear the children would think the text was “erotic verse, God forbid.” 

God forbid indeed—today’s ArtScroll editors have gone one step further, denying that a literal interpretation of the “love story” is even a possibility: “The literal meaning of the words is so far from their meaning that it is false.”  In their mind, allegory rescues the tale from potentially profane misunderstandings: The Bible would never stoop so low as to endorse romance.

On the surface, an allegorical reading of the Song of Songs appears to neutralize its erotic content, bringing it into line with the rest of the canon and confirming an anti-romantic bias.  But as the scholar Jon D. Levenson points out, an allegory points in two directions. By infusing a romantic relationship with aspects of the divine, the rabbis correspondingly infuse the divine with aspects of a romantic relationship: the passion in the Song of Songs may be spiritualized, but the passion between God and Israel is eroticized. 

This potentially surprising notion of Godly romance in fact permeates the works of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Hosea.  Throughout these later prophetic books, God is depicted as a devoted husband to His bride Israel.  Though the entire world may call Israel filthy and despised, God sees her beauty, wrapping her in His cloak and bejeweling her with rings and bracelets.  When Israel betrays Him, using His cloak and jewels in pursuit of different lovers, God is heartbroken, yet cannot restrain His love: “The wife of one's youth—can she ever be spurned?”  One day, He imagines, Israel “will call me Ishi, my Man, and no longer Ba'ali, my Master . . . I will betroth you unto Me forever . . . and you shall know the Lord.”  As many readers will intuit, this “knowledge” is not merely—or not at all—cognitive. 

And this allegory is not merely a rhetorical device or literary flourish.  For the rabbis, like the prophets, it is the very substance of the Jewish story.

Rabbinic glosses of the Song of Songs treat the romantic allegory with utmost seriousness.  The rabbis pine to know which day in Jewish history was akin to lying in the arms of one’s beloved; which part of our Exile can only be understood as a cold and lonely bedroom; in which exact quality lays our irresistible attractiveness to God.  It is through the lens of the romantic that the rabbis finally make sense of the God-Israel relationship—and across an eternity of wilderness the Jewish people carried these love poems, knowing their Beloved was singing them too. 

Ben Greenfield is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University. He recently concluded a Tikvah Post-BA Fellowship.

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