Thursday, January 17, 2008

Amor Vincit Omnia?

The notion of romantic love seems to be missing from the culture of Judaism, and I am trying to figure out whether it is something that was there and was expunged from our cultural record or something that was never really there...

Of course I am not talking love itself. Obviously, like all people, Jews fell in love, rejoiced, suffered, pined. And I am not talking about sex, since in many ways, until the liberalization of sexual mores in the last century or so, Jewish sexual values were not much different from the prevailing cultures. What I am talking about is, that it seems to me that aside from some folktales and some medieval sephardic poetry, the concept of romantic love as an ideal is missing from Judaism. The notion of two people who love one another so much that they will overcome any obstacles to be together, that they would suffer and die for their love seems to be absent. There is no Helen of Troy, no Romeo and Juliet. No Byron, no Pushkin. At least not that I can think of.

Is this intentional or accidental? And in either of these cases, how did it come to pass and what does it signify?

(this thought triggered by Tobie's post)


Blogger Shoshana said...

But does Judaism offer any purely emotional aspects of life as values to uphold? It seems that a lot of romantic stories such as the ones you offer are tragic romances - surely Judaism would attempt to rise above that. And do you think other religions offer romantic love as such an ideal? (I can't really think of any that so offhand.)

January 17, 2008 8:03 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Shoshana, in this case I am not thinking of Judaism purely as a religion, but more of a culture, which of course includes a strong religious component. So, no, neither Islam nor Christianity as religions offer romantic love as an ideal, but certainly the corresponding civilizations do.

It is true that many stories of romantic love are tragedies, but certainly not all. In many stories there is a strong component of suffering for love, but in the end "they live happily ever after".

January 17, 2008 8:32 AM  
Blogger Izgad said...

"aside from some folktales and some medieval sephardic poetry"

And medieval sephardic poetry is not part of the Jewish tradition? Just because medieval Sephard does not fit into the Haredi worldview it does not mean that they are not a legitimate part of the Jewish tradition.
I am reminded of Christians I have met who have told me that Christianity is not really against homosexuality; Paul might have denounced it, but you will not find Jesus saying anything about the issue. Last I checked, even Mormons believe that Paul is part of the Christian tradition.

January 17, 2008 8:57 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


My point is not that it isn't part of the Jewish tradition, but that it just a sidenote. How many Jews can recite Ibn Gabirol? Are there major works of Jewish literature that focus on romantic love that have endured the way they have in non-Jewish culture?

January 17, 2008 9:09 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

what on earth do you think shir hashirim is?!

THeres a reason why shir hashirim is called kadosh hakadoshim, and it aint just because it is also an alegory for the relationship of the jews and hashem.

judaism in many, many sources idealizes the faithful loving relationship in many, many places.

Not in the same sense as western society, but it still does so.

We don't beleive in love conqures all and that kind of silliness, because in all honesty it doesn't, but love is still a tremendously important value.

January 17, 2008 9:19 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Yes, I would have brought up shir ha-shirim, except that I could almost argue the other way and say that the sages and rabbis were so uncomfortable with it that they allegorized the crap out of it. Artscoll won't even translate it literally.

January 17, 2008 9:40 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

thats because artscroll are a bunch of athiest kofrim.


but seriously, I don't think that you can posit such a thing when there was once an aggada about a rabbi who was talking to a roman matron, and the woman told him "I know your secret, your children are mamzerim!"

and so the rabbi asked how, and the woman said that you're to fat to sire a child (if he and one other man had put their bellies together a young cow could have passed between them without difficulty) and so he said "when there is love one always finds a way"

There are all kinds of lurid and explicit references in the gemorah and midrashim, and its like, I don't think that you can rationaly posit that the rabbis were uncomfortable about the subject.

Jews have never believed that sex was bad in any sense in any time, and honest examination of the aggadatas and the mefarshim would prove that point amply.

Christians did, but we did not.

and then came cheredi'ism and its itenerat kafira about such things.

I mean, rabbis discussed things in unbelievably explicit terms all the time.

January 17, 2008 10:42 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I am not talking about sex now, I am talking about the ideal of romantic love...

January 17, 2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

1) The Bible has some pretty decent love stories. Boiled down and given somewhat blandly, but they're still there: Ya'akov and Rachel, Michal and David (from her perspective, at least). The Tanach says that they love each other, and they will do moderately selfless things for that love, although it usually ends pretty badly, and not in a Tristan-Isolde sort of way either.

2) My roommate suggests "The torah never tells us how to feel, just how to act." most of the torah is a lot more concerned with the more practical and plot-related aspects than the emotions of the characters. Could it just be a question of different focus?

January 17, 2008 10:59 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


1) Yes the Bible has people that love one another, but it definitely does not have a "idealistic", romantic quality to it. Regardless, and this was really my main point, it is not something that was ever elevated or emphasized in Jewish culture. Not religion, but culture, civilization...

2) "Could it just be a question of different focus?" That is exactly the question that I posed in the last sentence of my post. Why, unlike most cultures I can think of, is there such paucity of it in ours?

January 17, 2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger -suitepotato- said...

This has nothing to do with being Jewish or Christian or anything like that. It has to do with the gulf between who we tend to be and who we could be.

Ramat Bet Shemesh is known of late for what? And what was the Baal Shem Tov known for? What the heck happened to chesed? Chesed is a great concept, but we humans don't default to chesed. We default to anger, judgment, righteousness, arrogance, hatred.

That is why good is good and prized. If it were every day, then some other newer higher rarer standard to strive for would need to be set.

Similarly, we don't default to shared embrace of the ideal of romantic love because of a number of things which amount to our natures. We could do better, we just don't tend to.

It is a great redeeming value of humans that we can feel lonely, lost, unloved, and yet not surrender to those feelings and strive to negate them with their opposites. Our crime is only that we so rarely stop to recognize it and consciously choose to do better.

Now that you know it, you can't in conscience turn your back on it. So if the stories were not filled with romantic love then, make sure that when the future looks back on us that the stories we will have given them are filled with it. Set the ideals and agenda of people who aren't even born yet, this we can do today.

January 17, 2008 12:15 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


You make some good points, though I think my post was more retrospective and you are taking a more prescriptive tack.

January 17, 2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I have to second Tobie's point and to strengthen it by adding more examples; Yaakov and Rochel is the obvious example, along with Dovid and Michal; but also Dovid and Avigail (come on, a Prince rescuing a heroine from her evil husband? that has no romantic sensibilities for anyone?) also Dovid and Batsheva (the whole he saw her from afar and it was love at first sight thing) plus, of course, Elkanah and Chana; a little less conventionally, I have to admit there's a bit of romance (admittedly doomed) even in the whole Dinah and Shchem story. Plus, as long as we're talking culture and not strict text, the Osnat and Yosef story is pretty good. Oh, and the whole Moshe and Tzipporah story. At least in the beginning. Not to mention Esther - with Mordechai, and also a bit with Achashveirosh. The other Avot also have pretty good stories.

I'm sorry, I'm going to interrupt myself for a moment - maybe I only see this bc I'm the only one who took a class on relationships in Tanach? Which way does that skew things here? That there needs to be a class bc otherwise you wouldn't see it, or it must be there bc there's enough to base a class on? (It was a pretty good class, honestly.)

I think my point is unclear.I think (and always have) that there's a lot of romance and love in Jewish culture - it's just less obvious. In my opinion, as long as we're talking about culture, which includes medrash, there's a lot of the implied romantic sensibilities, even if they're not that in-your-face. And honestly, I kind of like that approach - the fact that we take our romance seriously enough to be subtle about it. I appreciate that more than over the top Disney style kind of love.

January 17, 2008 2:44 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 17, 2008 2:44 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Miri, once again, my point is not that no Jewish people in history have ever loved one another passionately, but that it doesn't seem to be a major focus of our culture.

January 17, 2008 3:03 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

I second miri.


We (jews) like to keep our loving relationships private thank you.

its rather not anyone elses buisiness that what we're doing together.

January 17, 2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger Miri said...


"it doesn't seem to be a major focus of our culture."

it isn't the main focus. But I think that's probably true of any religous culture. So what?

January 17, 2008 3:21 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>We (jews) like to keep our loving relationships private thank you.

HNC, I am talking about the ideal of romantic love. Romeo and Juliet or Helen of Troy were fictional. I am not talking about what your neighbor is doing in his bedroom.

>it isn't the main focus. But I think that's probably true of any religous culture. So what?

Elizabethan society was not really less religious than Jewish society of the same time period.

January 17, 2008 8:26 PM  
Blogger Miri said...


"Elizabethan society was not really less religious than Jewish society of the same time period.

Fine. Again, so what?

That particular argument doesn't make a differnce bc I was comparing us to other religous communities. Do Catholics have a strong culture of Romantic Love? What about Muslims? Or Buddhists? Or Hindus? It's possible that I'm wrong, but in my limited experience with these cultures, i did not get the impression that they do.

January 17, 2008 10:52 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

I think I'm sort of saying the same thing as Miri: Judaism isn't all that big on love, but religions in general aren't all that into them. Once you are willing to move beyond the religion to Jewish culture, I'm not sure which sources we would examine. The midrashim have some pretty crazy love-related stories in them (Shlomo's daughter in her tower thing occurs to me) and I think that that's the closest record we have to more ancient Jewish folk-consciousness. Things like Helen and Romeo and Juliet are works of literature created in an ambient culture- Judaism has relatively little 'secular' literature, so the paucity of love stories says less about the value of love than it does about the sorts of things that we were creating.

January 18, 2008 1:26 AM  
Blogger Miri said...


I misread the sentence of yours that I quoted earlier, so I'd like to apologize for that. The fact of the matter is, I am no expert on the Elizabethan era, and the paltry research I have done didn't tell me anything about common religous practice, other than to say there was very little religous warring under her reign, and a lot less witch-burning than in other European societies at the time. With that paucity of information, I cannot argue that particular point. So I'm standing by Tobie's bc that's what I was trying to say anyway.

January 18, 2008 1:51 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Miri, no need to apologize. In any case, I feel like commenters are getting more defensive than I would have imagined. My point was not to denigrate anything about Judaism as a religion or a culture. I was merely pointing out what I thought was a curious fact.

I think a couple of points in my original post may have derailed the discussion, so I will attempt to regroup:

1) Is it really the case that Jewish culture (and I definitely don't mean religion) doesn't seem to have much in the way of the idea of romantic love? By this I am not saying that there were not characters in Judaism that showed aspects of romantic love, but come on - when someone thinks of King David, is the first thing they think of his relationship with his wives? Or Moses - do we think of his love for Tzipporah? But it is not even an issue of literature. My point was that in general, the notion that a young man can fall in love with a woman or vice versa to such a degree that they would overcome any obstacles to be with one another is not really a value in jewish culture that I can think of. Nothing to do with sex, or halacha - I am just talking about falling head over heels in love. It doesn't matter if you are Danish or Chinese or Indian or African, these stories are usually part of the culture.

2) Assuming this is the case, what happened to Jews that this seemingly universal motif has become supressed or eradicated altogether?

Do these questions hold any water?

January 18, 2008 7:08 AM  
Blogger -suitepotato- said...

For me the past points the way to the future as we are in many ways a summation of what went before for us. If we want to leave a past to the future, and that past is now, then we need to do now what we want to have been then. So prescriptive follows for me from retrospective as without recognition on going, then it is all academic. Best to incorporate whatever you figure about the past into how you do things ongoing.

Your mileage may vary.

Anyhow, I don't think it means anything. Christian Europe wasn't always big on romantic literature either. Some have taken it so wrong that in some American schools it is taught that romantic love didn't exist at all before the modern times which is clearly silly.

The religious side being so much more dominant with Jews than Christians I think the lack of romantic love in religion tends to overshadow anything else naturally. A bit of romantic love does have to do with animal lust and passion which religion isn't big on except maybe thousands of years ago for going after Amalek but that's neither here nor there.

For me, lust and passion governed by intellect and spirit is nothing wrong at all and I find no shame in saying I love my wife and want no other. I want to grow old with her, raise a family with her, and a lot more with her.

Maybe if we taught people to be proud of the passion in their commitment to their spouses, they might realize how strong it can be and maybe cut the divorce rate a bit.

January 18, 2008 12:46 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

y'know ekvetcher, there is a yiddish saying that ammounts to "when a man falls in love, prayers and blessings don't count"

likewise there are numerous citations about the dangers and beauty of love, one of them being that a man will sell everything he has for it.

additionaly the very first thing in torah that is declared "not good" is loneliness, ie lacking a wife, and further the very first thing that torah refrains from declaring good is the seperation of things which should be together (alagory to husband and wife i'm guessing.)

theres also the comment about "love finds a way" made by that one rabbi, and while I can't name them, there are many many coments made in torah on the subject.

Probably the first thing we think of when we think of yaakov is his love for rochel to the point where he drove all of his children to hate rochel's oldest, and to the point where he drove leah to bitterness by neglecting her emotionaly, and further to the point where he labored seven years as if they were but days so great was his love for her (rashi).

And certainly there are hundreds of yiddish sayings about the dangerous power of love, especialy for young boys.

additionaly in the fabric of halacha there is a rule that one should not eat non-jewish private bread. Why? because the young girl would often sell it and if you sent your son to buy it (which would probably happen from time to time) he might meet her, fall in love and marry her even though she is not jewish.

January 18, 2008 12:50 PM  
Blogger Miri said...


"My point was that in general, the notion that a young man can fall in love with a woman or vice versa to such a degree that they would overcome any obstacles to be with one another is not really a value in jewish culture that I can think of."

No. It isn't. (Disregarding that one story about the chuldah and the pit; at least on the woman's side.) Personally, I don't really have a problem with that.

"Assuming this is the case, what happened to Jews that this seemingly universal motif has become supressed or eradicated altogether?

I don't think anything happened to us. And I don't know how universal this motif really is. It doesn't seem to be a value in pre-Biblical Mesopatamian literature; Biblical literature is clearly arguable; Greek literature is mostly about lust and using "romance" as a pawn for political aims (specifically Helen of Troy.) I think there might be some argument to support the theory that Suiteotatoe so clearly disdains that romance was not a value at all prior to the middle ages.

One more point; you can't really separate Jewish culture from the Jewish religion until the 18th century or later. Prior to that, there was no Jewish culture that was not religous. (Maybe in the sephardic areas a bit more, but even that is doubtful.)

January 18, 2008 1:41 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


"romance was not a value at all prior to the middle ages."

Even stipulating this, this still gives us at least 700 years of culture.

"One more point; you can't really separate Jewish culture from the Jewish religion until the 18th century or later."

True, and of course the same can be said of both Christianity and Islam.

January 19, 2008 6:54 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I wasn't aware that there is Christian or Islamic culture that is separated from religion. That's interesting to know.

"Even stipulating this, this still gives us at least 700 years of culture.

yes but it is 700 years post Jews having already more or less defined what their culture is. Why should it be a surprise if we don't suddenly co-opt the values of the world outside that culture?

January 20, 2008 11:06 AM  

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