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Reflections: The Jewish view of love goes far beyond hearts and flowers

In Western culture today, Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, is a time to celebrate romance and love.  Despite its commercial appeal of candy, Cupid and romantic dinners, its origins are actually much darker. Dating back to the 3rd century CE, on Feb. 14, Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus beheaded at least two Christian martyrs by the name of Valentine, who later became saints. And thus, the holiday of St. Valentine’s Day was born.

As the years passed, however, the holiday morphed into something much sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their writings and handmade cards were exchanged until the 19th century, when the industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards. In 1913, Hallmark Cards began mass-producing Valentine’s cards and February has not been the same since. In fact, in 2018, Valentine’s Day poured approximately $19.6 billion dollars into the American economy according to the National Retail Federation.

Valentine’s Day is definitely not a Jewish holiday but the notion of love most certainly plays a central role in Jewish thought and law. Love, in Judaism, is much more than an ideal or passion. It is a commandment, an obligation, a responsibility, a mitzvah.

As Jews, we are commanded to love three things: God, one another and the stranger. And while we are also commanded to show compassion and kindness, and care for our parents as well as the widow, orphan, sick, poor, and those in need, we are not required to love them.

The central tenet of Judaism is stated in the Shema, which is recited thrice daily: “You shall LOVE the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

The relationship between God and humanity is based, not on fear of punishment or retribution, but on love.

We learn to love God by attempting to know God — through the reading of sacred texts, like the Torah, through the actions (or mitzvot) required of us, and through observing the world and creation around us.

Love in Judaism is not an ephemeral or lofty concept: it requires knowledge and understanding of the beloved, be it God, our neighbor or the stranger.

At the heart of the Torah in Parsha Kedoshim is the Jewish “Golden Rule,” the commandment that prescribes our relationship with and to one another: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)  The Torah commands us to love our neighbor with the highest quality of love we reserve for ourselves. Why? Because each of us is created b’tzelim Elohim, in the image of God. To love our neighbor is tantamount to loving God.

This is not a rule without exceptions, however. Whenever loving a neighbor actually conflicts with loving God or when love for another would be detrimental to one’s legitimate interests or safety, the rabbis teach that we may prioritize our own interests over others. And we are further given guidance on what loving our neighbor should require by Rabbi Hillel who stated in the Talmud: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow.” (Shabbat 31a)

Finally, we are taught, also in Kedoshim: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your own citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

What I find amazing is that over 2,500 years ago Jewish thinking understood the difference between these two types of people: our neighbors who are like us and the stranger, who is different. The distinction is more than a mere categorical one. It is based on the reality that we do not automatically treat a stranger the way we treat our neighbor and, as a result, the Torah commands us to consciously do them no harm.

Practically, there is a moral equation in treating one’s neighbor well that doesn’t exist with the stranger. With our neighbors, we seek reciprocity and hope to be treated well so that we can build a community together from which we all benefit. The stranger is someone whom we do not know or trust and in whom we have no communal investment. Human nature being what it is, there is little incentive to encourage us to include the stranger or help them.

Therefore, the Torah insists that when we encounter a stranger, we transcend self-interest and practice empathy. To accomplish that, we resort to our own experience, that of being strangers without power or land.  This commandment is so important that we are commanded 36 times in the Torah not to oppress the stranger, “for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9).

This idea of “going the extra mile” to love the stranger, to dig deep into feelings of empathy, to rise to a higher level of humanity and to provide protection
and do no wrong, has particular relevance as we continue to struggle with the deeply troubling social
and political policies on immigration that divide our country today.