Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Rosh HaShanah 2 2011/5772 - Love - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
My topic this morning is love. And I am in favor of it. For those of you settling in for a little rest, that may be all you need to know.
I have discussed this topic here before. I know that I have acknowledged that talking about love and talking about God in the same conversation always sounds so, well, Christian. And it is especially true if we are talking in English, as most of us do, and use phrases like "God loves you." For reasons hard to explain, those three words make a significant portion of our people look up the phone number of the Anti-Defamation League.
But I am not concerned with whether God loves you this morning. God loves you, and if you don't want to burn a lot of unnecessary emotion, just accept it and enjoy it. What God does is God's business, and for reasons beyond my ability to understand, God loves me and every one of you in spite of the fact that we all showed up today to acknowledge how unlovable we can be.
I am more concerned today with who you love. And more to the point, I am more concerned with what that means. You may attribute my interest in that question to anything you like - the attention I have paid to love over the years of my rabbinate, the exquisite happiness that pervaded my daughter Jennie's marriage to Kevin, the astonishment I feel that my love for Ann has greater depths in our 35th year than in any of the years before. I'll cop to any of it. But what provokes my remarks today is a peculiar little book written by a guy named Ze'ev Mahgen. Professor Mahgen of Bar Ilan University and the Shalem Institute is an American who made aliyah after being marinated in the same culture as you and I. He is unapologetically Jewish, scary smart and very funny. His official field is Middle Eastern Studies, specializing in Islamic culture and focusing on Iran, using his skill in five languages to reach conclusions you may not like, but are very hard to rebut. Defining him by his academic titles does not do justice to the breadth of disciplines he brings to his writings.
The least academic book he has published has a title I could not resist: Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews, a Philosophical Rampage. It is worth reading for more than the section that resulted in this sermon. Here is the premise. Ze'ev is waiting to be picked up at the airport on a visit to Los Angeles. In spite of his best efforts, he is unable to avoid three devotees in saffron robes and bangles who have been trying to foist Vedic texts on uncooperative travelers. To his dismay, they turn out to be three Israeli kids from Ramat Ha-Sharon, each of whom has a reason no longer to be Jewish. The book, which is an artistic appreciation and philosophical decimation of John Lennon and the Beatles, is his response to each of the three.
I was taken as he compared the positions of two scholars in the Talmud on a famous dilemma. Rabbi Akiva and Ben-Petura were asked about the following situation: two friends are walking through the desert, and one of them has enough water to survive. What should he do? Should he drink the water himself and let his friend die, give his friend the water and die himself, or share the water so that they both die? Logically, as I hope is obvious, giving the friend the water only renews the dilemma, so it is eliminated as an option. Ben-Petura teaches that they share the water and perish together. Rabbi Akiva teaches that whichever person is holding the water drinks it himself and allows his friend to die.
If you haven't discussed this story, some day you will. But what Prof. Mahgen adds to the intrigue is the identity of Ben-Petura. He claims, with scholarly evidence, that Ben-Petura is Jesus.
This leads to a discussion of love because both Rabbi Akiva and Jesus identified "Love your neighbor as yourself" as the central verse of Torah. So, says the author, what we know about from both traditions can be illustrated in shorthand by this section of Gemara.
Christian love, universal love, the love that says "my life is no more or less valuable than your life," and therefore, by extension, "my child's life is no more or less valuable than anyone else's life," is what, ironically, John Lennon, an atheist, and the Hare Krishna interlocutor, representing a version of Hinduism, were promoting.
That kind of love, Prof. Mahgen suggests, is not love at all. And the reason is, love is preferential. Listen again. Love is preferential. We'll be back to that notion in a couple of minutes.
Since I have introduced the thoughts of Christians, Hindus and atheists, however briefly, it is worth introducing the ancient Greeks. If the Inuit people have nuanced words for snow, and fashion promoters have a dozen different ways to say "pink" to reassure insecure men, then Greeks have the same approach to love. And just as it may be difficult to distinguish where peach leaves off and salmon begins, the five major terms for love in Greek overlap in lots of ways.
Agape means pure or ideal love. While modern-day Greeks use it to say "I love you," the ancients considered it a soulful love that is bestowed unconditionally and without necessarily being earned by the recipient. God's love for humanity is called agape in Christianity.
Eros is passion and longing. The English word "erotic" comes from this root, though, to be fair, the ancients believed that what begins as physical attraction is simply the superficial recognition of ideal beauty within a person. Still, it is often contrasted with agape as love of body.
Philia is a virtuous love that comes from loyalty to friends, family and community. Aristotle developed this notion, claiming that philia was possible only between equals, and therefore philia is an equalizing love motivated by practical reasons. Sometimes it is considered love of mind.
Storge is mother-love, the natural and one-way affection felt by someone with a sense of almost mystical connectedness to another.
And xenia, with an "x," is most often understood as hospitality, some combination of civil behavior and generosity that on a micro-level is the way a gracious host treats an appreciative guest, and on a macro-level the way Islam instructs its adherents to treat protected minorities.
In my inadequate summation, the Greeks believed love could be selfless, selfish, practical, mystical or constructive. We, those of us who speak English as our primary language, we use one word for all of those things.
I love chocolate. I love my wife. I love being Jewish. I love my country. I love rock and roll. I love you, man.
We use the word love with such abandon that it seems meaningless. The Greek nuances appeal to our heads because they allow us to make a distinction between passion and compassion, between kin and kindness, between taste and desire. But when we speak our hearts, which we usually do without full consulting our heads, we do not say to our children, "when a mommy and daddy want to have a baby, they love each other - that's eros - in a special way so that they get a baby to love - in a storge kind of way, and you get a brother or sister to love - in a philia mode."
I want to acknowledge how useful those distinctions are in explaining the result of love, but not in explaining what love means. For that, those of us who are Jews, which means just about everyone here today, ought to look at how our tradition understands love. I have used Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's definition before: being willing to put the needs and desires of another before your own interests. I like that definition. And I would like to add to it something that comes from our tradition, thanks to Ze'ev Mahgen.
Love has its own word in Hebrew - ahavah - but it emerges from an idea in the Torah I have discussed before with you: kedusha. The word means "holiness," but holiness means "to be designated special" or "to be set apart as unique." Jewishly speaking, when you love someone, you set that person apart from others. That's why we call marriage kiddushin: these two lovers declare that they will prefer each other, set each other apart as unique, designate as special only each other. That is why God declared Shabbat to be kadosh and why we recite Kiddush: this day is a preferred day among the others, unique, special and therefore deeply loved. That is why it makes sense for mourners to say Kaddish: the relationship they remember and the time they set apart to do that remembering has a claim over all other concerns for people who were special in their lives and whose absence creates a uniquely empty space.
In fact, when God declares to the Israelites v'h'yitem kedoshim ki kadosh ani, "You shall be holy because I am holy" (Lev 11:44) the midrashic commentary Sifra (Sh'mini 12) understands it as k'shem she'ani parush ken atem p'rushim, "Just as I am set apart, so are you set apart."
Love, real love, genuine love, values one over another, this over that, mine over yours. Anyone who says, "I love everybody equally" either loves no one at all or does not know the meaning of love.
How powerful does our tradition consider love to be? I want to tell you a story, a story from the midrash. I cannot represent to you whether or not this story is true according to the rules of evidence. And I am also aware that you can't define the length and breadth of Jewish tradition by a single story. But this is a bona fide midrash. You can look it up in the collection called Shir HaShirim Rabbah, chapter 1.
Marriage, as I hope you know, was mostly an arrangement between two families for most of human history. So it came with expectations. It came with expectations of financial support by the husband. It came with expectation of sexual fidelity by the wife so that there would be no question about paternity. It came with the expectation that the couple would behave lovingly with each other. And it came with the expectation that children would be produced. A couple that was childless after ten years was expected to divorce. So here's the story, with my commentary.
It happened that a woman in Sidon, in the north of Israel, lived ten years with her husband without bearing a child. They came before R. Shim'on bar Yochai wanting to divorce each other.
(R. Shim'on bar Yochai, as many of you know, was a famous rabbi who is credited with being the source of the mystical knowledge contained in the Zohar.)
He said to them, "No kidding around, just as you were joined together with great food and drink, so you shall be separated from each other only with great food and drink."
(Back then, people who were serious about their Judaism did what their rabbis told them without question. I`m just saying.)
They went on their way and made themselves a big party with an elaborate meal. And she gave him too much to drink. Since he was feeling pretty mellow, he said to her, "My darling, look around at all the wonderful things in my home and take the one you desire most before you return to your parents' home."
So what did she do? She waited until he fell asleep and conspired with the help. She said to them, "Wrap him up in his bedclothes, pick him up and carry him over to my parents' house."
(Awww, right? But it is not over.)
In the middle of the night, when the effects of the drink wore off, he awakened and said, "Darling, where am I?" She replied, "You are in my parents' house."
(I want you to take notice of two things. First of all, he's not drunk any more, and still calls her "darling." And second, she has been sitting there with him in the dark, watching over him, because she answers as soon as he asks.)
He says to her, "What am I doing in your parents' house?" And she replies, "Didn't you say to me last night, `look around at all the wonderful things in my home and take the one you desire most before you return to your parents' home?' Well, there is no wonderful thing I desire more than you."
(Awww again, right? But wait, there's more.)
They went back to see R. Shim'on bar Yochai. And he stood and prayed over them, and they soon became parents. And this comes to teach you that just as God can make the barren woman capable to bear children [as God did with Sarah], so can righteous people make the barren woman capable to bear children.
Maybe this midrash illustrates the power of love and maybe it doesn't. This couple probably did not meet much before their wedding day, and they were probably a couple of teenagers at the time. But after ten years together, after taking the uniqueness and specialness of the relationship seriously, they discovered in tragedy and frustration a truth about themselves they cannot deny. More than silver or gold, the usual booty of a divorce, more than religious obligation, the motivation for their separation, more even than the child they both yearned to parent, when push came to shove, it was love that mattered. Wealth wouldn't do. Halakhah wouldn't do. Another partner wouldn't do. This sacred relationship was the most treasured thing in their lives, the reason to get up in the morning and the reason to go to bed at night, with all that phrase implies.
Yet the lesson at the end of the story seems to be less about love than about the power of a righteous man's prayer.
So guess what? There's more.
But first, please let me review. Love, real love, honest love, is preferential. Love means lots of things in its application, but at the center of live is kedusha, holiness, a choice to consider one you love unique, special, set apart. Love demands choice. And of course, if love means choosing one person, or one group, it means not choosing another. The love I have for my wife is exclusive, much greater than any love I have for you. The love I have for my children is deeper, more profound and more important to me than any love I have for your children. The love I have for Israel is different to me than any love I have for another place. The love I have for Jews is distinct from any love I have for non-Jews.
Ouch. I know.
But it is a fact. There are things I will do for Jews - even Jews I don't much like - that I will not do for non-Jews - even those I like very much, in fact, care about deeply. I will meet their needs and desires against my own particular interests.
Many of you have non-Jews in your families, and so do I, and so I warn you about misrepresenting what I just said. There are lots of reasons to bestow love on someone, to make that person unique and special and worthy of sacrifice. That's genuine love. And it flows from relationship, just like the couple in the story. Jews who are born Jews are born into that kind of relationship with each other. Jews who choose to be Jews choose that kind of relationship with us all. But as individuals in deep relationship, being Jewish is irrelevant.
So here is the end of the story, and with it just about the end of this sermon.
V'harei d'varim kal vachomer, And here is the lesson you can draw from this story: Just as it is the case for a human being who declares to another human being that there is no wonderful thing I desire more than you and that which they long for comes to be, so the people Israel, which waits for the Holy to redeem us every day, saying there is no wonderful thing I desire more than you, how much to more so will that for which we long come to be.
You know the power of love. You have received it and you have given it. You very much want to believe that the love you feel is available to anyone who crosses your path. It isn't. That's not love. That's compassion, good will, blessings, generosity, appreciation, respect or a hundred other things. Love is preferential. Love means choosing. And love means acting on that preference and that choice.
That is the lesson Rabbi Akiva taught in discussing the dilemma of the two people in the desert with only enough water for one. That love means preference. That, unfair as it might appear on the surface, is what real love is all about, and it is what real life is all about. And frankly, it is why I am very glad to be a Jew, which takes nothing away from why someone else might be just as glad to be a Christian, a Hindu, an ancient Greek or an atheist like John Lennon.
So please, my friends, do not deny yourself love. Love your partner, your parents, your children, your friends. Love your people. Love your land. Love your God. Because, as the Doobie Brothers asked, without love, where would you be now? I think the answer is - dying of thirst in the desert.