On the subject of love ...
My thanks to everyone who helped our Pesach celebrations be so wonderful. We go again, with Yom Tov services beginning Sunday night and through Monday and Tuesday (when we will have a Yizkor service). If there are members who can take this opportunity to support the praying community of the Synagogue at this time I would be grateful.
Each of the festivals in the Jewish year is associated with a Megillah. For Pesach it is the Song of Songs and we will be reading Chapter 5 as part of our Shabbat services this week.
The Song of Songs – and chapter 5 most explicitly – is almost uncomfortably erotic, deeply sensual and laden with sexuality. It’s read, in the Rabbinic tradition, as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel. God is the heroic male lover, ‘radiant and ruddy, his locks are wavy and black as a raven... His arms are rods of gold set with beryl, his body polished ivory adorned with sapphires...’ Israel is the blushing female, ‘I am asleep, but my heart is awake. Listen I hear my beloved knocking.’ It’s a tale of youthful passion, full of lust and anticipation. What I want to do in this note is read the classic allegory slightly differently, less as a generalised relationship between Israel and God, and more as the Pesach-related moment in Biblical time, when God takes Israel out of Mitzrayim with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
Pesach – and the first moments of journey into the Midbar - can certainly be read as an intense tale of youthful passion; there is heat aplenty, God leaps into action to defend the honour of his abused lover, showering the maiden with gifts and mighty demonstrations of His own prowess and might – wiping out Egypt, splitting the sea and so on. But this kind of love is the beginning of the relationship, not the end. In fact the relationship sours. Israel’s attention wanders off in search of sparkly golden idols and God becomes angry, violent and destructive. The relationship never settles into maturity. Jack Miles, in his wonderful ‘God: A Biography’ tells the story of God as the protagonist of the Bible, so hot-headed that, unable to accept the failures in His chosen lover, that He would rather simply retreat than stick around as a cuckolded – the Bible ends with God increasingly aloof and apart.
The psychologist and author Eric Fromm talks about the relationship between falling in love, which he derisorily labels ‘lust’ and being in love – which is deems far more significant. Fromm rejects that love is magical and mysterious and promotes, instead a love which is hard fought for through respect, taking responsibility, humility and discipline. It requires a certain self-love and self-knowledge and the commitment to accept the other in everything which they represent. It’s harder work, less immediate, less full of bright heat and more full of warmth.
Love takes work, whether it be God’s love of us or our love of God, whether it be our relationship with those we love, or their relationship with love. The passion and heat of the Song of Songs makes for great poetry, but not necessarily a life of commitment, mutual support and intimacy.