Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Understanding Rabbinic Notions of Love in Tamudic lore.

In Amnon, David, Jonathan, love, Rabbinic friendship, Tamar on February 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm

We are not always in harmony with ourselves. Rabbi Nachman of Breslav would often speak of himself as a microcosm of the universe and its accompanied cosmic eruptions. It was a way of contextualizing his profound unease both with himself and the world around him. He was tormented from without and within.

Paul Simon in perhaps his finest album “Graceland” echoes this sentiment, “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline and sometimes when I’m fallinflyin‘ and tumblin‘ into turmoil, I say whoa, so this is what she means…”

There is no greater culprit than love for the emotional chaos that Simon describes. As for Rav Nahman, the same rings true, but the object of his desire would be the Holy One.

Pirkei Avot, The Values our Fathers, is a potpourri of pithy aphorisms from early Sages that teaches what should truly be important. Love does not get a tremendous amount of attention in this relatively short work, but it does get some–

Any love that is conditional the love will cease when the condition upon which it depended ceases. Love that is unconditional will never cease. What would be considered a love that is conditional? The love of Amnon and Tamar. What is an example of unconditional love? David and Jonathan. Pirkei Avot 5:16
It is interesting to note that Amnon’s desire for his half-sister is considered a conditional love. The condition is his desire for her, and once that longing has been fulfilled by his rape, he not only ceases to love her but despises her.
The presumption of the rabbis–post-modern literary critics notwithstanding–is to see the love between David and Jonathan as pure, with no ulterior, or erotic overtones. Does this mean that all love that has an erotic component is by definition a love that is conditional and therefore, not enduring?
It’s funny that when people speak of Platonic relationships they mean to say it is not serious whereas the definition of a Platonic relationship is “purely spiritual love”, a love that is on a higher plane than erotic love. What one should say, when asked if a relationship is serious, is “No it’s just a sexual relationship.”
If it truly is serious, then the sex would be incidental–if at all, because the relationship would be like David and Jonathan where not only was the sex not the goal, but it was not even a factor in a relationship that was considered spiritual and pure.
David and Jonathan is one of the only friendships described in the entire Bible. The Rabbis take their relationship at face value, and view it as a truly Platonic one, totally apart from the realm of physical attraction.
Except they would never call it a Platonic relationship, but they may have labelled it a Rabbinic one.
According to this understanding of love, it is the conditions that get us into trouble. Once the love is conditional it is in constant jeopardy. “What if the condition isn’t met?” The irony is that as long as the condition is not met, the desire is constant, painful and full of anxiety, but constant.
As soon as the desire is met, it is replaced with either emptiness, or contempt. This is what Paul Simon describes in the song quoted above: “losing love is like a window in your heart. Everyone sees that you’re blown apart.”
The pure spiritual love only ends when life ends and then it is sad for the surviving friend. The Rabbis are idealizing their relationships with their learning partners in this Mishnah, when they say, “All we want from each other is the best understanding we have of the book in front of us. It does not matter who is better, or smarter or stronger, all that matters is that I am there to help you. It never occurs to them that they are to be helped in turn.
Husbands and wives often describe each other as “best friends”, as if that might be unusual. But, in fact, it may be the true definition of enduring love, a friendship beyond the kids, beyond the sex and, of course, beyond the self.
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