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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.