We might think that the question "What is love?" has an obvious answer and need not be asked, but love in Jewish tradition is not what it is in modern, secular society, and so the question bears asking. We might wonder whether love is an emotion, a physical attraction, or a relationship characterized by either feelings or attraction. Jewish tradition teaches something altogether different.

The foundation of Jewish thinking on love is found in two biblical texts:

  1. Deuteronomy 6:4- Ve'ahavta Adonai elohecha bechol levavcha uvechol nafshecha u-bechol me-odecha... You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your might. (We recite these words and the paragraph which follows twice each day, morning and night. They tell us that loving God means engaging in certain acts: making God's commandments central to our lives so that we are constantly engaged in thinking about them, passing them along to our children, and using them to guide our lives at every moment. Loving God requires complete and total engagement.)
  2. Lev. 19:18 Ve'ahavta le'rayecha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) contained in the Torah, this is #243 according to Sefer HaKhinukh. It requires to consider others in all our most fundamental undertakings.)

The first commandment speaks of our relationship with God; the second speaks of relationships between people. The Torah teaches through these commandments that we humans do best when we use the ideal of a relationship with God as our paradigm for human love relationships. This notion is not romantic, sexual or physical, but it has great depth and sticking power.

The salient features of a loving relationship as the Torah knows it are:

  1. Loyalty -- an exclusive relationship (In biblical terms, the idolatry is seen as the opposite: The prophets rail against Israel's acts of idolatry, comparing it to a spouse who engages in extramarital affairs.)
  2. Commitment -- a willingness to be there for the duration, during good times and bad.
  3. Submission -- being prepared to compromise and not always have your way because the other party's will is important.

The Torah speaks of the relationship between God and the People Israel in term of a covenant (contract) and indeed, we use the same term to describe a marriage because it entails the same features: loyalty, commitment, compromise.

This notion of love leads Jews to consider their role in the world with respect to other people: Our understanding of love informs not only our personal relationships, but also our manner of relating to the world. Jonathan Wittenberg, Three Pillars of Judaism, wrote:

"When something is a human issue it is my issue. Deeper than my definition of my self as a member of my family is my definition of myself as a member of my people; deeper than my definition of myself as a member of my people is my definition of myself as a human being. It is a truism that I hurt in the same way as you hurt."

R. Moshe Lieb of Sassov learned about love from a conversation he overheard:

"Tell me, my friend, do you truly love me?"

"I love you deeply."

"Tell me, do you know what hurts me?"

"How can I know what causes you pain?"

"If you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me?"


The Sassover rebbe understood well the meaning of this conversation and explained to his students, "If you do not know what truly pains someone, you cannot say you love that person."

The Talmud teaches that "Any love that depends upon something else, when that something else disappears, the love disappears; but if it does not depend upon something else, it will never disappear. What is an example of love that depends upon something else? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And what is the love that does not depend upon something else? An example is the love of David and Jonathan." (Pirke Avot 5:19)

II Samuel 13 tells the story of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon and Tamar half-siblings, the son and daughter of King David, who had many, many wives, and therefore, many, many children, who were half-siblings of one another. Amnon developed a great longing for Tamar, and the Bible makes clear that it was a physical attraction the gave rise to this longing. And so Amnon schemed with his friend Yonadav to have Tamar come to his room to prepare food for him while he, Amnon, pretended to be ill. When Tamar arrived, he attempted to seduce her. Tamar refused his advances because their relationship as half-siblings forbid it. But Amnon, driven by his physical attraction was relentless. He raped Tamar, and no sooner had he done this than, as the Bible tell us, he hated her with "a hatred that was greater than the love with which he had previously love her." Amnon's "love" depended upon physical attraction. It was not TAMAR he loved, but his image of her.

The Talmud asks us to contrast that with the story of Jonathan and David. Jonathan was the son of King Saul, the first king of Israel. David, a young shepherd, had become Saul's rival for the affections and loyalty of the Israelites because he proved himself a brave warrior in his conflict with the Philistine giant Goliath, whom he slew, and because he was enormously successful in battle against the Philistines. He was probably charismatic, as well. However, between Jonathan and David, there grew a friendship marked by genuine love: loyalty, commitment, and compromise. They cared deeply for one another, and thus when Saul sought to kill his young rival, David, Jonathan who was caught between his love and loyalty to his father, King Saul, and his love and loyalty to his best friend, David, responded in a way that only genuine love can beget. He saved his friend's life without compromising his father's dignity. When Saul and Jonathan were killed in battled, David eulogized him with these words:

I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan,

You were most dear to me,

Your love was wonderful to me,

More than the love of women. (II Samuel 1:17-27)


Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 11th century) writes about three loves:

  1. those who love for advantage (eg. business partners, a king and his army)
  2. those who love for comfort (eg. for pleasure or security)
  3. those who love for virtue (eg. those who desire to do something good)

The third is the highest form of love and the only genuine, pure love. Most of us go through the other types in our lives. But it is the truly wise and ultimately the happiest people, who aim for and find the love that the Talmud says "does not depend upon something else" and which Rambam says is "love for the sake of virtue."

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