What can Judaism and Jewish tradition teach us about love and intimacy? Our ownSeth Cohen asked Israel-born educator, writer and performer Amichai Lau-Lavie, who talked sex and relationships at Rekindle: A Shabbat Studio last month, to tell us. The founding director of Storahtelling and the founder of Lab/Shul, a New York City-based initiative focused on exploring experimental and progressive ways to create Jewish spiritual community, Lau-Lavie was hailed by Time Out New York as “Super Star of David” and by the New York Jewish Week as “one of the most interesting thinkers in the Jewish world.” A rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Lau-Lavie is a consultant to the Reboot Network and a member of the URJ Faculty Team. He is Abba to Alice, Ezra, and Charlotte-Hallel.
Seth Cohen: Amichai, it can be said that there are multiple ways to look at love within the Jewish context: on one level, there’s romantic love, and then there is also the core concept of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Where does the latter fit into the Jewish perspective on relationships?
Amichai Lau-Lavie: First of all, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a very specific translation of a much more nuanced and complex term. The Hebrew in the Torah is “Ve-ahavta le’reyacha camocha”– love “X” as you love yourself. “X” has been translated as “yourfriend” or “your ally,” but it could also mean “Le-rah-echa”—which means your enemy, your other, your evil. So the deeper way of understanding this golden rule relates to what it means to really love, to be open-hearted and compassionately walking in the shoes of the other in order to be fully alive—whether it’s somebody you’re in love with or whether it’s someone you’re having difficulties with, for whatever reason. I think that’s an important distinction.
Seth: People often talk about the selflessness of love. Is there any wisdom in Jewish history or literature that speaks to that selflessness? What is the balance between selflessness and selfish love?
Amichai: I’m going to have to go to Carl Gustav Jung for this one. He talked about self with a small “s” and self with a large “S,” and about the individual and the collective as two extensions of ourselves. And my sense—and this is a deep Jewish teaching—is that in order to really be present and love someone else, you need to have a certain level of self-love, of self-acceptance. I wouldn’t call it selfishness; rather, it’s investing in your self-care, investing in your self-worth so that you can really love and be a lover of other.
What’s interesting is that in the same breath that we use to say “Ve-ahavta” (you love) your other, you also say “Ve-ahavta” when addressing divinity, God, the spiritual, whatever that is. We use the same word in English, and to an extent in Hebrew, to describe what the Greeks have 84 synonyms for—for me to say that I love fried chicken and I love my striped pajamas is not exactly the same as I love my mother and I love myself and I love my lover, and yet we lump it all together into one word. That is not the smartest.
There are ways to discover nuance and the different hues of what it means to move from love of self, to love of others, to love in general. There are theories of Jewish practice to help you understand this acute tool—or this toolkit, rather. There are prayers that celebrate the body, practices to cultivate gratitude, wonder, generosity and balance. Underneath so many of the Jewish laws and customs are the basic human reminders to be more present, more kind, more loving of life, no matter how messy.
S: Speaking of Jewish customs, at Jewish weddings, you often hear a particular expression of love: “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” Is there a prescription in Jewish life for demonstrating your love for another person?
A: That’s a good question. I think there’s a long list of Jewish ways of loving. The word “philanthropy” comes from the Greek term meaning “the desire to promote the welfare of others.” In Hebrew, this is Hesed—loving kindness. This is a key principle in human relations—whether referring to those in need or those in our intimate circles.
As far as romantic love is concerned, we have to bear in mind that at least until fairly recently, the literature is mostly hetero-normative, so the discussion revolves around what a husband can do to take care of his wife’s pleasure—which is quite a lot, actually. There’s less about what one is supposed to do to satisfy the emotional and intellectual erotic pleasure of “other,” other than those contexts of marital togetherness.
But there’s beautiful evidence in Jewish literature of the yearning for intimate friendship that is not always erotic, or not necessarily about marriage. It’s about soul-friends, about sharing secrets, about safety to bare your soul, about eating together, drinking together, being together in intimacy. Intimacy is the goal.
I want to share with you a mental image of the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple, and therefore the bullseye of Jewish experience for over 1,000 years. There existed this notion that the divine resides on Earth, and there was the Temple, and inside the Temple which was a holy place—the Holy of Holies—and inside the Holy of Holies was the black box that contains divine wisdom. And over this box stood a strange structure, which are these “keruvim,” the cherubim, two gilded creatures looking at each other face to face, eye to eye, and in the place where these two sets of eyes meet, that’s where the divine presence dwells, exactly where eye meets eye.
The Temple is gone, but the ideal of this holiest notion remains.
It’s an old mystical—but very physicalized—notion that our highest ideal of the sacred is intimacy. Really looking someone else in the eye.
S: So, really, yichud—the Jewish wedding ritual where the married couple spends a few moments alone before rejoining the celebration—would that be a manifestation of this idea of sacred intimacy?
A: Well, yichud has become that—whether it’s what happens after a couple gets married or whether it’s what happens when you, in a Kabbalistic way, before every act you do, take on the act with an incantation, “I do this act in order for the yichud, the unification of the masculine and feminine forces in the world.” Ying-yang, shiva-shakti, it’s all about creating that sense of union and re-union within.
S: Let’s talk about sex for a moment, shall we? You recently taught a seminar at our Rekindle: A Shabbat Studio gathering in San Diego, a late-night session about Jewish perspectives on sex. Is it really true that we’re supposed to have sex on Friday nights?
A: Yes, Sabbath sex was introduced for very practical reasons: In Mishnaic and Talmudic times, Friday night was the night for married guys, back home from doing whatever they were doing for business during the week. In later generations, the mystics added to that practical practice and made poetry. They created liturgy and intentions that made Sabbath about Eros. “Wait a minute,” they said, “if Sabbath is the night of the reunification of the masculine and feminine, a night of pleasure and sensuousness, then bring it on.” So in the Middle Ages, all these mystical erotic incantations began to emerge about making Friday night the night when women go to immerse in the mikveh and men come home dressed like kings, and you prepare delicious Shabbat food, put the kids away and go get it on.
That’s in theory. In practice, my ultra-Orthodox friends tell me that it’s usually a nightmare and no one has energy for it because she has been cooking all day, etc. But that’s a separate discussion.
Bottom line: Sabbath definitely became prime time for pleasure in both mystical and in practical rabbinic literature. The more audacious described the spiritual dimensions of sacred sex: the woman becomes the Sabbath queen, the man manifests God, and what you’re really doing is you’re embracing the notion of the divinity within humanity and upgrading sex to sacred sex.
S: Sacred sex—It sounds like a book title. With that in mind, perhaps you can share a sex story that is, shall we say, kosher for our audience?
A: I’ll tell you my favorite Jewish sex story: In the Talmud, there is a rabbi sitting in bed telling stories with his wife—that’s a euphemism for getting it on. There’s another rabbi underneath his bed, hiding. At some point when the rabbi and Mrs. Rabbi are getting it on, the rabbi under the bed is saying out loud, “Wow, Rabbi, one would think you’d never tasted this dish before,” to which the rabbi up in bed responds, “What are you doing here? Get out!” And the rabbi underneath the bed responds, “But Rabbi, this is Torah and I need to learn.”
It’s a four-line story which basically asks the question: where do we go to learn how to make love? And I want to suggest that we need safe places, wise spiritual leadership and our community’s creativity to teach us how to be better lovers. We certainly need lessons in the erotic, sexual sense of love. Who the hell teaches that today? We basically go to porn or experience something awkward in 7th grade and that’s how we learn about sex and love.
There are ways for us to learn how to be lovers and to love life and to love ourselves in deeper ways. Some of them need retrieval.
S: In one sentence, can you give us a piece of relationship or sex advice for the JDate generation of young Jewish adults?
A: Get off the screen and meet in person, as soon as possible.
To learn more about Jewish wisdom on love and sex, check out Amichai’s recommended resources:
ARTICLE: “Blogging The Bible: The Song of Songs” by David Plotz, Slate.com
BOOK: Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America by David Biale