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Romantic Love and the Jewish Concept of Love

Romantic Love and the Jewish Concept of Love

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Romantic Love as an Ideal

With new-found freedom, a wider intergenerational gap, heightened mobility, greater individuality, and expanded opportunities for employment and travel, the fever of romantic love grew contagious and in time became the dominant criterion for choosing a mate. This transition from shadkhan to romance was confusing to many Jews, as illustrated by two songs in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," Tevye's daughter hopes that the shadkhan will bring her a mate who is both suitable to her parents and attractive to herself, while her mother begins to question her own successful twenty-five year marriage when she asks, "Do You Love Me?" Tevye does not understand: he works for his wife, cares for her; for twenty-five years he has helped her raise the children. "If that is not love, what is?" Love, to him, is demonstrated in action. But his wife has caught the fever of romance, and nothing else matters.

Romantic love, passionately experienced by humanity throughout the ages, grew as an ideology in France during the last quarter of the twelfth century. Its theoretical basis was formulated by Andrew Capellanus (the Chaplain), in The Art of Courtly Love, and in the poetry of Chrestien de Troyes. Carried to the countryside by troubadours, the idea of romantic love took hold and spread rapidly throughout Europe—even into the narrow confines of the Jewish world.

Rabbi Judah the Pious comments on this in Sefer Hasidim with the oft-quoted phrase, "as the Christian goes, so goes the Jew."

Romantic love was originally conceived of on two levels: "pure love," which consists of "the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart" but finds no ultimate physical fulfillment; and "mixed love," whose desire has been fulfilled, however infrequently. It is the ideal of pure, unfulfilled love that is celebrated by the poets and acted out in so many of the great dramas—the stories of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Heloise and Abelard are the classic examples.

The void left by the disappearance of the shadkhan has been filled today by an elaborate courtship procedure. While it is true that most people cannot and will not go back to the old days of the cantankerous shadkhan, we need to ask ourselves whether our complicated and frustrating dating game really leads to more marital happiness. In their book Marriage: East and West, David and Vera Mace describe the dating game as "a vast Noah's ark." Perhaps arranged marriages were not terrible as we moderns think—after all, we have inherited only the caricature, not the reality. Surely, they suggest, more intense parental control of mate selection, a sort of parent matchmaker system, would make for more stable and joyful unions than we in a free society achieve.

Other writers declare that the trouble with American marriage is our style of courtship. It is artificial, juvenile, and premature, and emphasizes romance, sex appeal, charm, and affluence to the exclusion of the deeper, more enduring aspects of character. Charles Darwin once observed that men scan with far more scrupulous care the character and pedigree of their horses when they breed them than they do their potential marriage partners.

Denis de Rougemont, a contemporary French scholar, says, "We are in the act of trying out—and failing miserably at it— one of the most pathological experiments that a civilized society has ever imagined, namely, the basing of marriage which is lasting upon romance which is a passing fancy." We must ask ourselves these questions: Are we happier? Do our marriages last longer? Are our children more satisfied with their parents? Will romance ever be able to replace the shadkhan in producing the stable families that characterized Jewish life from its inception?

The Hazards of Romance

Romantic love is often expressed in terms of "sickness": romantic poems repeat endless variations on the theme of "Why so pale and wan, fair lover?" and even the origin of the word "passion" is "suffering." Upon reflection, the irrationality of it all is astounding. People fall "madly" in love, their love is "out of this world," the lover is "moonstruck." It is more than coincidental that the propitious time for passionate love is during the full moon—in primitive society, that was thought to be the time for madmen, lunatics, to be active. Sefer Hasidim in the thirteenth century records the question of how to handle a married man who is `bewitched' and irrationally pursues another woman whom he does not know. (Im adam me'khushaf ve'rodef acharei ishah?) It is assumed that such a man is under a spell, and the object of his adultery is referred to as an "exotic fruit."

Romantic love is also associated with sadness. Like parting, it is sweet sorrow. Denis de Rougemont notes that, "Happy love has no history." The sadness arises from the fact that the lovers cannot fulfill their souls' yearning to "become as one," either because one lover is married to someone else or because they are separated by too great a distance. Romantic love is based on an idealized notion of the other person, which requires remoteness—psychological, physical, or social—to be maintained. Hence the inherent paradox: romantic love desires intimacy, but at the very moment of intimacy, love evaporates.

Pure romantic love is applied only to love outside of marriage. While it is true that romantic love did become a sort of precondition to married life at the end of the sixteenth century, its outlook could never be suitably adapted to this state. The potion of romance must contain an ingredient of secrecy and mystery—the furtive glance, the "stolen waters." The love relationship, therefore, is primarily a premarital or extramarital association. Singers do not often sing of romantic love within marriage, the care for children, on the mutuality of love in old age. Romantic love, by its own definition, is something "beyond," "out of this world," which cannot be contained in the restricting narrow walls of married life.

Love is blind. Cupid's arrows have always been shot indiscriminately, and in the twentieth century his aim is often completely off the mark. Love is not usually altogether blind—but it is nearsighted, able to see only what is agreeable to the five senses, not necessarily to common sense. Burdened with this romantic myopia, the nearsighted lover cannot discriminate between true love and infatuation. A lover chosen in this way may be utterly unfit for marriage. Is a cute smile a qualification for responsible child raising? Are broad shoulders sure-fire indications of integrity? Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, "Keep thy eyes wide open before marriage and half-shut afterwards."

Romance foists upon the world the illusion that a mate must be capable of providing a life of continuous ecstasy. Unfortunately, passion has the tendency to spend itself quickly. Romantic love, by holding out the possibility of perpetual passion, raises unrealistic expectations. When no passion is experienced and the embers have cooled, many people think their marriage has failed and start looking for the exit sign. As Oscar Wilde noted cynically, "One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry."

The religious ethic holds that sex and love must be integrally related; secular ethic that the two may be totally separate phenomena—sex is physical and love is emotional. This classic conflict leads to one of the most dangerous hazards of romantic love in a society with professed religious ideals: the equation of sexual desire with love. Too often the words "I love you" are only a come-on for a physical relationship. We do not allow ourselves to call sex "sex," so we call it love. John Ciardi observes, "Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old."

Most marriages are failures. Not because most marriages end in divorce, but because in most unions one or both partners are miserable. Most of marriage's ills, perhaps, can be traced to faulty selection of a spouse that was precipitated by a glorious moment, a flash of insight, or an uncontrollable passion.

Romance is not known to bring clear perception and a sense of balance in weighing future marriage possibilities. The sickness and the sadness and the "magic" distort the vision and transport the emotions. Selecting a lifelong partner under such heady intoxication is hazardous in the extreme.

"Pure" romantic love is immensely powerful. If the passion of love can hardly be controlled, making life decisions on its basis alone is absurd. It is surely thrilling—the stuff of dreams, the throbbing heart, the quickened pulse—but is it also right?

Judaism on Romantic Love

Judaism treasures the love of husband and wife and surely knows the power and attraction of romantic love. Judaism gave the world the Bible and the Psalms and the Song of Songs. It knew of love and sang of love, but not of the "pure love" that is never consummated—there is no "Romeo and Juliet" in Jewish literature. Judaism is suspicious of powerful drives that cannot be disciplined, regarding "blind" decisions as non-ethical. It considers ecstasy temporary and undependable in terms of long commitment, unless it can be transformed into everyday acts of love.

Does that mean that romantic love plays no part in marriage? (Ernest Van Den Haag has said that love is "a goyish invention.") Of course not. No knowledgeable Jew could agree with such a premise. Judaism considers romantic love and affection in marriage to be very desirable, if it is one of a cluster of values that brings man and woman into the marital partnership, and can reason-ably serve to sustain the union. There is much in our historic character, echoed in the Bible and Talmud that calls for that mysterious, indefinable binding love between man and wife. The qualification is that the romantic component of love must be transposed into complete, fulfilled love. For that to happen romance cannot play an exclusive role in mate selection; other components must enter into the decision-making process.

Judaism understands that the romance of the first year of marriage seems specifically designed to overcome the initial adjustment difficulties, but it does not tolerate the demands of romance to completely control selection of a mate. From its first chapters on the beginnings of human life, the Bible speaks of the sexual relationship as yada (knowing), as in "Adam knew Eve" (Genesis 4:1), "carnal knowledge." When the ideal of marital intimacy is expressed by yada, a root word the Torah also uses for "reason," it implies a profound knowledge of one's beloved that includes both feeling and understanding. Marriage partners must be selected with reason, as well as with the love that "informs" the heart.

The Book of Proverbs ends with a gentle but curious phrase: "Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised" (31:30). This does not imply that Jews believe grace and beauty are evil. Rather, comments Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna: Grace alone is deceitful. Beauty, by itself, is vain. But a woman who has grace and beauty that are coupled with the value system that makes for the fear of G-d, she shall be praised.

The whole world loves a lover, and Judaism does too. In fact, Judaism holds that romantic love, in the proper framework, adds a dimension to life that can come from no other source. But romantic love becomes a very foolish idol when it supplants all other values.

The most poignant illustration of the agony and ecstasy of love within a religious setting is the ancient odyssey of Jacob as he set out to marry Rachel (Genesis 28ff.). Isaac, the first man born a Jew, had his marriage to Rebecca arranged by Eliezer, the servant shadkhan (Genesis 24:1-67). But the romantic Jacob, Isaac's son, finds Rachel himself, thus providing us with a different model of mate selection. In contrast to Eliezer who approaches the new bride with a well-laden entourage, a meticulously planned route, detailed planning and smooth execution, Jacob makes a precipitous and lonely flight on foot from his father's home to that of his bride, arriving empty-handed and unkempt. He finds Rachel and is struck by her beauty—"he kissed Rachel and wept aloud." (Gen. 29:11) But her cunning father keeps the lovers apart for seven years.

The commentaries wondered why the Bible goes out of its way to record that he "wept aloud." Rashi, the classic biblical commentator, notes that at that moment Jacob realized the difference between his approach to Rachel and Eliezer's approach to Rebecca and he wept in consternation at being reduced to penury and at his inability to shower his beloved with gifts.

In contrast, the author of the Biur says that Jacob wept aloud out of the sheer uncontained joy of great love. As a true romantic, he could not repress his feelings and keep them within the bounds of propriety and gentility, but allowed the cry to burst from his throat.

Jacob was willing to spend seven years heroically doing menial work in order to marry his beloved, and he never argued with his father-in-law about the exorbitant cost of that love. The Ramban (Nachmonides) notes that Jacob became a shepherd, though he had never been one in the past, so that he might be close to her.

How, then, does this story differ from the romantic ideal of "pure love?" Jacob could not have acted on his romantic desire if he had not assured himself that he was in the proper milieu, one in which he could be sure that the fundamental bases of ethics and religion were part of the family tradition. He had seen, in his own youth, how his father suffered when his brother, Esau, married women from Canaan, and he understood the necessity of seeking his bride from within his family, just as Abraham before him had sent Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. He knew that if he would choose a girl from his own extended family, she would be heir to the value system of his grandfather Abraham, and could understand the uniqueness, mission, and obligations of the Jew. In this way, he was able to choose a spouse and allow himself to seek romance at the same time.

Jewish tradition consistently stresses that the wise person should examine the nature not only of the chosen mate, but also of the prospective family. Generations of solid family life lend security to a marriage. Of course, there are no guarantees—but romantic love that is combined with this sort of reasonable selection assures us as fully as possible of a successful and stable marriage.

Jewish literature uses powerful symbols of romantic love to portray humanity's love of G-d. In the Song of Songs, the shepherdess pursues her beloved. But when she finally is within reach, he is out of grasp. She believes she sees him, but he is not there. She thinks she hears his voice, but he is elsewhere. In its religious interpretation, the story is a metaphor for our constant search for G-d, Who is ultimately unattainable. At every turn we believe we have communicated with Him, and yet we can never touch His essence. As we reach out for the love of G-d, so do we reach out for a man or woman.

The ideal of love percolates through Jewish literature, life, history, and law. Ecclesiastes (9:9): "Enjoy life with the wife whom thou lovest." The Song of Songs (6:3): "I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me," and (8:7) "Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it." The Prophet Hosea (2:21): "And I (G-d) will betroth you (Israel) to me forever."

So much is the love for a wife assumed in Jewish society that the Bible explicitly commands us to love G-d, to love our neighbor, to love the stranger, but never once does it explicitly demand of man that he love his wife. That is because to love G-d we must relate to the supernatural; to love our neighbor requires the sometimes impossible feat of associating with a disagreeable person, and to love a stranger we must overcome ubiquitous xenophobia. But the love of a wife, as the love of one's homeland, is taken for granted as natural and needing no explicit command. One who perverts that love—except in the normal course of a marriage in the process of dissolution—is beneath contempt. The Rabbis said, "You are called Adam, but an idolater is not called Adam." That is, as man without loyalty to G-d is not truly a man, so man without loyalty to a wife is not truly a man.

The idea that romantic love is desirable when associated with other values is reflected in the practical Halakhah (the body of Jewish law as written in the Talmud and codes). For instance, the law confronts the question of whether a man should marry a woman he loves despite his parents' objection. In a Responsum, Maharik says that if the girl is suitable to the boy in terms of values and piety, the father has no right to reject the girl with whom his son has fallen in love. Considering the enormous value that Judaism placed on the Fifth Commandment, this decision to overrule parental objection in favor of love is astonishing. As further confirmation, the law even permitted a poor woman to sell a Torah scroll in order for her to have sufficient funds to marry; but the law does not grant permission to do something similar in honor of a parent. According to Rabbi Phinehas Halevi Horowitz, there is a lesson to be learned from the Talmud's comment that Jacob, by absenting himself from honoring his father for twenty-two years (because he had to spend that time working in order to marry his Rachel), demonstrates that the ideal of marriage to a good person is greater than the honoring of a father.

If a man wishes to marry a woman he loves, although she is seriously ill, more power to him. The Sages affirm this in reference to the prophetess Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who was called azuvah (abandoned) because all of the young men abandoned her when she became sick. But Caleb, the son of Chezron, did marry her, and because he nursed her during her illness he was considered her "father" (I Chronicles 2:18); and it was accounted a marriage for the sake of heaven and much praised.

The Rabbis in the Talmud extol the virtue of a beautiful woman, but declare that a man who marries an unsavory woman simply because of her beauty will ultimately give birth to unsavory children. The Talmud tells of the daughter of Caleb who was called Achsa, which means anger, because all who saw her went home and quarreled with their less beautiful wives. It is interesting that even Maimonides, who appears to have been influenced in sexual matters by Aristotle —a man who did not greatly value women—considered it perfectly permissible and within the bounds of halakhic and moral propriety, following the Talmud, to look at a woman with amorous intent in order to determine whether she was physically suitable and lovable as a wife. Such looking, he says, would not be considered to be motivated by immoral desires.

Further, in recognition of both the value and power of love, the Sages avoided applying certain rabbinic enactments if these meant disturbing ideal love. The Midrash tells the following story:

"A certain Israelite of Sidon, having been married more than ten years without being blessed with children, determined to be divorced from his wife. With this view he brought her before Rabbi Simeon, bar Yochai. The rabbi, who was unfavorably disposed to divorces, tried to dissuade him from it. However, seeing that the man was not inclined to accept his advice, he said this to the couple: ‘My children, when you were first joined in the holy bond of wedlock, did you not rejoice? Did you not make a feast and entertain your friends? Now, since ye are resolved to be divorced, let your separation be like your union. Go home, make a feast, entertain your friends, and on the morrow come and I will comply with your wishes.’

"So reasonable a request, coming from such an authority, could not, with any degree of propriety, be rejected. Accordingly, they went home and prepared a sumptuous party to which they invited their friends.

"During the entertainment the husband, elated with wine, said to his wife: 'My beloved, we have lived together happily these many, many years; it is only the lack of children which makes me want a divorce. To convince you, however, that I bear you no ill-will, I give you permission to take with you out of my house anything you like best.'

"'Be it so,' rejoined the woman.

"The cup went round and the people were merry. Having drunk rather freely, most of the guests fell asleep, among them the master of the feast. The lady no sooner perceived it, than she ordered him to be carried to her father's house, and to be put into a bed she prepared for just that purpose.

"As the fumes of the wine gradually evaporated, the man awakened. Finding himself in a strange place, he wondered and exclaimed, ‘Where am I? How did I come here? What does this all mean?'

"His wife, who had waited to see the result of her stratagem, stepped from behind a curtain. Begging him not to be alarmed, she told him that he was now in her father's house.

“’In your father's house!’ exclaimed the still astonished husband. ‘How did I come to be in your father's house?’

"’Be patient, my dear husband,’ replied the prudent woman, ‘and I will tell you all. Recollect, did you not tell me last night, I might take out of your house whatever I valued most? Now, believe me, my beloved, among all your treasures there is not one I value so much as I do you; no, there is not a treasure in this world I esteem so much as I do you.’"

Yichud: A Jewish Concept of Love

Yichud, the word most descriptive of the Jewish idea of love, is defined as "together," "alone, with no one else present, in a room or in an enclosure." This one-word concept describes many of the aspects of the love that Judaism proposes. Before we can fully understand yichud, we must clarify what it is not by contrasting it with ahavah, the word traditionally associated with love in general.

In over two hundred references to ahavah in the Torah, there are only a few instances in which ahavah are associated with married love. Most often, it refers to nonromantic relationships—"love" of family, of G-d, of good or of evil, of the neighbor and the stranger, the servant's love of his master, the woman for her mother-in-law. Often it means simply "friendship," as when David laments the death of Jonathan (II Samuel 1:26): "Wonderful was thy love for me, passing the love of women." So too, the Book of Esther (6:13) describes Haman's followers as "Zeresh, his wife and all his ohavav [friends]."

When ahavah is applied to man-woman relationships, the reference is usually to pre-marital or extramarital love. It is often a substitute word for "passion," as in Amnon's "I love Tamar" (II Samuel 13:4), which culminates in sexual assault and the transformation of his love into hate. In Hosea (3:1) and elsewhere, the word is used in a situation where love and adultery alternate thematically, with no relation to stable married love. ahavah is also used in Jeremiah's chastisement (2:25), "There is no hope. No, for I have loved strangers and after them will I go"; and Ezekiel's charge (16:33), "To all harlots gifts are given; but thou hast given thy gifts to all thy lovers."

When ahavah is used in the context of married love, it does not express the uncomplicated Jewish ideal of marital love but only connotes a comparison—the loved one as opposed to the "hated" one, or a new love replacing an old love. For example, "and Jacob loved Rachel" (Genesis 29:18). Surely here was deep, abiding love. But the term ahavah is used in anticipation of the statement 12 verses later (29:30) "and he loved Rachel more than Leah." When Deuteronomy (21:15) uses ahavah in the phrase, "If a man has two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated," this does not indicate love or hatred, but preferred and less preferred. So "Ahasuerus loved Esther above all women" (Esther 2:17), and "Rehoboam loved Maacah above all of his wives" (II Chronicles 11:21). Even Elkanah's magnificent unqualified love for Hannah is not convincingly portrayed by the term ahavah by itself. For here, too, it is comparative: "And he had two wives, the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other was Peninah, and Peninah had children, but Hannah had no children.... But unto Hannah he gave a double portion, ki et Channah ahev, for he loved Hannah" (I Samuel 2:5). The same is true, in a different sense, of Isaac's love for Rebecca after he brought her "into his tent," "and she became his wife; va-ye-ehaveha, and he loved her" (Gen. 24:67). "Love" here is also comparative. It indicates "that he was consoled" for his mother's death. The "love" for Rebecca was a replacement "love" for the vanished "love" of his mother. (For all of the understanding of ahavah as either non-marital or purely erotic, or only as a comparative sentiment, there remains the statement of Kohelet, the wise but embittered, cynical King: "Enjoy life with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity..."[Ecclesiastes 9:9].)

Especially as used in the "Song of Songs," ahavah is connected with the deepest, non-rational level of sentiment, ahavat nefesh, a "soul-love" (Song of Songs 1:7 and elsewhere); or with the sickness characteristic of romance, cholat ahavah; or with such extreme notions as, "If a man would give all his substance for love, he would be utterly contemned." (Song of Songs 8:7). As traditionally interpreted, this is a symbolic tale of the relationship of humanity with G-d in which the striving for union can never find satisfactory culmination.

Thus ahavah almost always connotes a unilateral love that deals with relation-ships requiring an act of faith, such as the love of G-d, or a supreme commitment to justice, as in the love of a stranger or the love of a neighbor as oneself. In these instances, ahavah must be commanded. In contrast, yichud bespeaks an intimacy, a balanced, mutual relationship, and a love that is simpler, more natural, and lasting—such as the love of a spouse. There is no need to formally command yichud.

Values Implied In Yichud

Unlike ahavah, yichud connotes both complete, sustained love and the sex act within the framework of marriage. The Rabbis do not permit yichud before marriage and certainly not outside of marriage. For this reason, it is the name given to the concluding ceremony for establishing the covenant of marriage. yichud is effected by the ceremony after the chuppah when bride and groom close themselves off in one room. Consciously and expressly, with no interruption, the couple joins together and remains briefly alone to show they have chosen each other to the exclusion of everyone else. This is not a random or casual act, but a singling out for the purpose of belonging to one another. The yichud ceremony symbolizes the rule that love is never to be sought outside of the marriage chamber. All future fulfillments must be contained within these walls, and all tender love directed only to one another.

The word le'yached means to select with the specific intention that both become as one. The Torah speaks of basar echad (one flesh) (Genesis 2:24) echad and yichud: one and alone. This expresses the new reality of being alone with someone in order to know him or her fully. The biblical carnal knowledge is possible only in an environment of yichud, where one person focuses only on the other—not to compare or assess relative merits, but to delve profoundly into the soul of the other. Comparisons are always invidious and signify, as the philosopher Santayana says, "A lack of understanding of each in its own uniqueness." This is especially true in marriage, where even a verbal comparison is the intrusion of an outsider into the exclusive precincts of marriage. The Bible's "And he shall cleave unto his wife" (Gen. 2:24) implies that the embrace is meant only for one's wife.

In ancient times, the bride was festively carried on a litter coach followed by a huge retinue through the streets of the town and into the groom's home. The process of leaving one home and entering another was celebrated as chuppah, effecting the yichud love, and she was legally considered to be married. The advocators of this halakhic understanding of chuppah emphasize that the essence of marriage is expressed in the tie to the home. In order to build a home and family, one must come from a home and family—mi-beit avikha le'veit chatunah. Yichud implies this family-centeredness. It is said that beito zu ishto (a man's home is his wife), and it is not by chance that the Jewish people are described as Beit Yaakov, (the House of Jacob), or Beit Yisrael (the House of Israel).

Thus unlike the poetry of romantic love that concerns itself solely with the intimacy of two individuals, yichud implies the designing of an environment in which both love of spouse and love of children can flourish. Although the Bible reports the romantic swoon of Jacob before he married Rachel, prior to that it records a reverse process: Isaac brought Rebecca to his home, and only then did he love her (Genesis 24:67). Yichud is symbolic of that complex of ideas and sentiments that ties love to home, to the efforts of raising a family, and to the daily work required to maintain the ideal of shelom bayit, peace in family living.

While ahavah denotes an emotional relationship, yichud speaks of affection within a cluster of rational values. Leone Ebreo, son of 15th-century biblical commentator Isaac Abrabanel, says, "It is obvious that the love of husband and wife is pleasant, but it must be bound up with good too; which is the reason why a reciprocal love does survive the enjoyment of its delights, and, not only persists, but grows continually, through its participation in the good. Moreover, the good and pleasurable elements in married love are supplemented by that of advantage; for each of the spouses is ever deriving benefit from the other, which greatly contributes to the fostering of their love. Thus, married love, being pleasurable essentially, is preserved by its connections with both advantage and good."

The foregoing interpretations are based on the fact that the ancient chuppah was the couple's new bedchamber. The reenactment of yichud therefore implies total privacy. The couple is not permitted yichud before marriage, precisely because its very privacy may result in immorality. yichud thus makes an unqualified statement: it sets the locus for love indoors, within the home. Love is privacy and secrecy and mystery, and the concern of two people only. No one else may have the key to the bedroom door.

Yichud is the culmination of the ceremony of kiddushin, and so sanctity must be a component of any relationship that is to succeed as a Jewish marriage. This sanctity enables the love of G-d to be couched in the familiar words of the love of man and woman. Since the close of the Bible, monogamy, the bond of one man and one woman, has come to reflect monotheism, the bond of one people and one G-d; yichud is based on achdut ha-borei (the oneness of the Creator). The theme of unity that is so prominent in Jewish mysticism and theology also underlies the structure of the Jewish family. Sanctification means separation. As G-d chose the Jews and thereby sanctified them, we select our spouses and thereby sanctify the relationship. yichud love assures that married life can continue to be imbued with a sense of the sacred.

Lastly and most importantly, yichud means that marriage must provide latitude for relationship modalities other than love.—a variety of nonromantic relationships. These may be a non-sexual intimacy, affection, deep respect, or simply an acceptable partnership arrangement to assure that children are raised in a pleasing and wholesome atmosphere. As long as there is caring, empathy, and closeness between the partners, a community of thought—like a community of feeling—is an altogether proper setting for successful marriage.

To those committed irrevocably to romantic love as the only way, these words may seem heretical. But nonromantic relationships exist in millions of households, Jewish and non-Jewish. The "Playboy Report on American Men," a Louis Harris poll taken in 1979, ranks what people today consider the important qualities of the ideal lover. "Someone to be totally honest and open with" headed the list with fifty-three percent of the 1,990 men surveyed, while only twenty-four percent cited "someone who is sexually exciting."

The halakhic structure of chuppah that expresses this idea is unusual. It says that yichud may be accomplished even if bride and groom were not alone, so long as they were together. How can marriage, which is fundamentally a sexual relationship, be symbolized by a togetherness which cannot be accomplished because of the presence of others? How is that original bedchamber to be represented by a yichud in the company of a crowd? Ran, a medieval commentator, holds that the union must be re'uyah le'bi'ah, potentially to be consummated. But marriage must be able to accommodate more than sensual love. Even if they are not totally alone the couple must live together peacefully under one roof.

Minimally, then, marriage must assume the possibility of living together in friendship, and in that sense satisfy the basic biblical charter for any two humans sharing a life together: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." (Leviticus 19:18) Therefore, every precaution must be taken before marriage to make sure that the boy and the girl not be personally repelled by each other. That is the reason why, according to the Halakhah, even if the marriage was arranged by a matchmaker the couple must also meet face-to-face prior to the marriage. Maimonides rules that if, after the wedding, the husband or wife maintains that the other is personally repulsive, divorce may be granted on those grounds alone.

If parents cannot act decently with one another, they have no right to expect to be able to raise decent children. The Rabbis, in the Talmudic discussion of the "Rebellious Son" (ben sorer umoreh) rule that if parents do not at least have the facility to communicate openly, their child may not be punished as a delinquent. Hence in the law, if there is too great a disparity between parents—in height or in temperament, or if they do not speak the same language, or in a similar tone of voice, or if one is mute or deaf—the son cannot be prosecuted.

One of the frustrations of a marriage based solely on romance is that the smitten lover seeks from romantic love what it may not be able to give. When marriage produces no transcendent purpose or new significance, and the world turns out to be the same ordinary world, marriage undergoes severe strain. Friendship, as a base for love and marriage, contains the seeds for growth in a life of shared commitment.

Yichud and Married Romance

The most painful paradox of romantic love is that the very qualities that characterize "pure love" are those that most commonly evaporate on the first day of marriage. One of the basic tenets of "pure love" is mystery, but there can be little mystery when the conquest has been achieved and the lovers are not only ready, but available. The breathlessness of pursuit cannot be recaptured because there is no longer any pursuit—the unattainable has been attained. Total unavailability and untouchability may be good for romance, but they are certainly contradictory to good marriage.

Interestingly, this sustained love called yichud often encourages the aims of romantic love—ecstasy, desire and pursuit—within marriage. Experience has proved that the Jewish concept of tze'niut (modesty) in all of its varied expressions (such as the veiling of the bride and the covering of the hair and no exposure of the body) unintentionally enhance the exotic motif more than blatant and unadorned exposure of the body. The physical body was a paradox to philosophy and religion because its very physicality somehow did not accord with theoretical modes of thought. The Greek philosophers solved the paradox through aesthetics, and glorified the body by exposing it. Judaism solved the paradox through the concept of kiddushin (sanctity), which calls for withdrawal, hiddenness, covering.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder." The laws of niddah, which demand total physical and sexual withdrawal from one another during twelve days following menstruation, impose a rhythm of passivity and activity, scarcity and availability, passionate fervor and disciplined withdrawal. After this period, there is almost a reenactment of the honeymoon, and the revitalizing of the pursuit and discovery of romantic love.

The Jewish tradition urges that husband and wife design for each other a romantic environment for marital intercourse. The Talmud speaks of using affectionate words (ritzui u'piyyus), and of being on the same physical level during intimate conversations; Maharam of Lublin says that "not intercourse alone is a religious command, but all forms of intimacy (kiruv) by which a man rejoices his wife." This environment has components of the psychic rhythm and the physical rhythm, of words and thoughts that move the couple to blend harmoniously in mind and body.

With these traditions, Judaism tries to domesticate desire and to place romance well within the framework of marriage rather than to have it disappear the moment the veil is lifted.

Authentic yichud love must express a sensitive balance between reason and romance, discipline and spontaneity, dream and realism, aggressiveness and withdrawal, fusion and independence. It must be sustaining throughout life, able to weather the daily prosaic crises that come not only between the lovers, but also between them, the family, and the community. It is not selfish, but it is also not impersonal. It is not shut off from society, but it is also not solely communal. It is not exclusively spiritual, and it is also not exclusively social. It is not wholly an idealistic love, and it certainly is not an exclusively sensual love.

The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Discussion (2)
March 21, 2011
Choice
This is a very sobering article and placed everything which i've experienced to date in context. I come from a catholic up-bringing and never was marriage explained to me in this context, however by no means am i saying that this is not a similar belief toward choosing a partner within catholicism. Very enlightening..I thank you for the rich insights.
S Johnson
Cape Town, South Africa
February 14, 2011
Romantic Love in Judaism
This is an excellent article which I will use to teach my class on love and romance in judaism.
However, as a Fiddler on the Roof afficiado, just a little correction..Tevya was the "romantic" and Golda was the "practical one" in the song "Do you love me!"
Yasher Koach!
Anonymous
Philadelphia, usa

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