the Wisdom of Love

    April 2009 Passover Edition            
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Love in the Canonical Literature: Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance

By Naftali Rothenberg

Love between the sexes is a central and recurring theme in all of the Jewish canonical sources. The Bible, the Talmuds, the halakhic and midrashic literature, as well as mystical works such as the Zohar, devote considerable attention to the concept of love in all its manifestations, treating both the spiritual and physical aspects of love without inhibition or complexes of any kind. Surprisingly, the centrality and pervasiveness of love in the canonical writings, and particularly love between the sexes, has been largely ignored, even by those familiar with this corpus - as if their minds had filtered, censored or reinterpreted what their eyes had read. There is thus a considerable discrepancy between what people believe or expect the Bible and other canonical works to say on the subject of love, and the ideas that they actually express.

Wisdom of Love: Man, Woman & God in Jewish Canonical Literature strives to challenge this discrepancy between the way in which source texts relate to love and the way in which they are perceived to do so, introducing readers to the extensive, profound and significant treatment of love in the Jewish canon. It addresses some of the questions and dilemmas raised by this discrepancy, while disregarding others. There is no exhaustive discussion, for example, of the reasons behind the phenomenon. My intention was to challenge the discrepancy rather than analyse it. In other words, this is a book about love, not its repression; an opportunity to study the wisdom of love, not those who lack such wisdom and are unlikely to ever acquire it.

In dealing with the dissonance between the canonical sources and the way in which they are generally perceived, I have employed the following strategies:

  1. Presenting one of the main reasons for the phenomenon and demonstrating its incongruousness with the content of the canon.
  2. Offering an extensive and systematic review of canonical sources that run counter to prevailing views of biblical and other texts on the subject of love.

In terms of methodology, I have borrowed from a number of disciplines, including hermeneutics and, infrequently - where I felt it would contribute significantly to understanding or heightening an idea – comparative philology. Wisdom of Love: : Man, Woman & God in Jewish Canonical Literature comprises five studies, each focusing on a different facet of love in the canonical sources, although touching upon many of the same questions and issues throughout. All five studies employ the above strategies in addressing the discrepancy between the canon and perceptions of it.


The discussion of the dichotomous approach employs the first strategy. One of the reasons that readers are unaware of Scripture's extensive treatment of the subject of love between the sexes is that they simply do not expect it. They expect Scripture to address the sublime and the spiritual, not the base and the physical, and to their minds, love between the sexes belongs squarely in the latter category.

According to the dichotomous approach, spiritual development is contingent upon detachment from materialism and corporeality. Couple relationships are seen as an impediment to spiritual and intellectual growth - widely believed to require a commensurate renunciation of physical pursuits. At higher levels of spirituality one is expected to limit such activities to the minimum necessary to sustain the body and the soul it harbours within. One physical need that can be denied without jeopardising physical existence is the need for sex. This view is deeply entrenched in human consciousness in general and western culture, shaped by Christianity, in particular. The positions that derive from the dichotomous approach are addressed at length in a variety of Jewish sources. In this book you will find Jewish views supporting the dichotomous approach, as well as the prevailing belief in Judaism, that love between the sexes, spiritual development, holiness and prophecy are entirely compatible. This prevailing view in fact aspires to harmony between physical love and spirituality, as we shall see below.


The harmonious approach thus appears as a counterweight to the dichotomous view. The general lack of awareness regarding the centrality of love in the canonical writings is easily addressed by introducing readers to things they would not expect to find in Scripture, certainly not to such an extent, while freely discussing and analysing them, without inhibitions or complexes that might interfere with a clear and direct understanding of the texts. My intention however, was not to provide an anthology of traditional sources on the subject of love, for readers to judge for themselves. The selection here is far from exhaustive, and many sources were intentionally left out. The goal of the present work is to study the systematic association between these sources, to explore prevailing views on love in the canonical sources and the important questions the Rabbis sought to answer.

The harmonious approach to love between man and woman, which pervades the entire book, is a clear example of this systematic association. Most people are familiar with two possible approaches to love: the puritanical, which they ascribe to religion, Scripture and "spirituality"; and the permissive – generally considered materialistic and anti-spiritual, even in the eyes of its own exponents. In other words, whether one adopts a puritanical or permissive approach or lifestyle, one subscribes to a worldview based on the dichotomy between "spirit" and "matter", merely aligning oneself with one or the other side of the equation. The harmonious approach on the other hand – shown here to be the prevailing view on love in the canonical sources - rejects both puritanism and permissiveness. Love exists within the harmony of spirit and matter, mind and body. The sources seek to promote just such a relationship between man and woman - on the cognitive-intellectual, spiritual-emotional and physical planes. Accordingly, the repudiation of any of these three elements is seen to undermine and even abolish the love bond. Love's survival depends upon the constant effort to maintain harmony between mind, spirit and body.

The present study posits the existence of a systematic harmonious approach to love in the canonical sources. I would point out however, that to speak of "the thought of the Sages of the Talmud" is somewhat imprecise, due to the difficulty in establishing a comprehensive rabbinic position on most of the central philosophical issues. Among the reasons for this difficulty is the fact that the sages of that era were concerned primarily with matters of Halakhah, to which they devoted the greater part of their work, from which we may, in turn, extrapolate their views on philosophical matters. Ideological, ethical, philosophical and other, non-halakhic ideas are expressed, for the most part, in the form of legends and homilies - later compilations of which, constitute the bulk of extant sources on such matters. Furthermore, we cannot reconstruct a comprehensive, philosophical system to which the Sages themselves never pretended. We lack sufficient knowledge of the historical context of many of the Rabbis' statements, and generally speaking, we have no idea of the specific circumstances in which they were made: to whom they were addressed, why, and what they actually meant at the time. The statements included in what is known as "Aggadah", that is the non-halakhic literature of the Talmud and Midrash, are thus extremely malleable and in a perpetual process of interpretation and reinterpretation. The sources themselves are generally fragmented, comprising only a few words or sentences rather than ordered and coherent paragraphs, not to mention chapters or longer works, which simply do not exist. There is thus no real substance that can be termed a "philosophical system". I have dwelt on the difficulty in ascribing a comprehensive philosophical system to the Sages of the Talmud in most areas of thought; in order highlight the very different situation with regard to the subject of love, as I hope to show in the chapters that follow. The fact is that sources from the mishnaic and Talmudic periods afford a surprisingly broad and stable foundation for a comprehensive system one might call the "position of the Sages" on the subject of love between the sexes. The harmonious approach, as noted above, lies at the heart of this philosophical method.


The second strategy in dealing with the dissonance between canonical sources on love and the way in which they are perceived pertains to the establishment of love as an independent discipline, a branch of wisdom to which all – or at least those who seek wisdom - must aspire. Wisdom of Love offers readers an introduction to the wisdom of love, including discussions of the following topics:

  1. The difficulties, dilemmas and even absurdities that lovers may encounter.
  2. Different expressions and manifestations of love, such as love of God, love of one's fellow, love of wisdom - and the relationship between these and love between man and woman.
  3. The various components of love between the sexes and the relationship between its intellectual, emotional and physical aspects.
  4. The philosophy and character of the sage of love, as found in the figures of Rabbi Akiva (from the Jewish canon) and Socrates (from the world of Greek philosophy).

This approach strives to bring about not only a change in perception – recognising the existence of the wisdom of love per se - but also the realisation, based on the following premises, that this wisdom is the very foundation of religious wisdom as a whole, rather than a peripheral branch of it:

  1. All love derives from a single source: love between man and woman. It is from this source that all other manifestations of love, such as love of God, love of wisdom, love of one's fellow, draw their meaning.
  2. The love and harmony between partners in a love relationship are the foundation upon which all morality, divine service and efforts to "repair" the world are built.
  3. In the Kabbalah, human love relationships, desire and matchmaking are the concepts from which descriptions of the relationship between the divine world and the world of action are drawn, and as such are the very basis of mystical theology.

The above premises offer some explanation of how love became such a broad, comprehensive and central theme in the canonical sources.


The book comprises five sections – five separate studies that can, in theory, be read independently of one another. Together however, they create an overall picture of the wisdom of love and its many different facets. The main feature of this overall picture - stressed repeatedly throughout the book - is the harmonious approach to love relations between the sexes. In emphasising a single, central approach, I have neither ignored the existence of alternative views nor implied that this approach is without difficulties or lacunae. The scholarship in each of the sections attempts to address the difficulties, dilemmas and lacunae posed by the harmonious method, or to present positions based upon the rival, dichotomous approach.

The harmonious approach is constructed like a philosophical, moral or ideological system, based on a number of key elements. The most important of these is the androgyne myth, which in its Greek source actually represents an anti-harmonious approach. In Plato's Symposium, the androgynous attachment between male and female is a negative one that leads to rebellion against the gods, who represent perfection and harmony. Rabbinic sources adopted the androgyne myth as a founding myth, representing the ideal of the whole that derives from the unity of its two parts, man and woman. In the process, the Jewish canon reversed the story's anti-harmonious meaning.


A study of love in the canonical sources cannot be confined to the philosophical or the theological, but must explore practical aspects as well. The wisdom of love in the canon draws its strength from the way in which legend, myth and philosophy converge with halakhic practice in the daily lives of men and women. This connection between the realm of thought and imagination on the one hand, and practical behaviour on the other, produces a winning formula; one that is virtually impossible to reject or ignore. Legends, myths and theories are constantly contradicted, rejected and even forgotten over time, while principles applied to everyday existence – in love as in other matters - give substance to the abstract and make ideas solid facts of life.

The wisdom of love is universal, and although it is addressed here from a Jewish perspective, it is by no means limited to any one culture. Specific cultural context offers far greater insight into a given phenomenon than its universalisation. I have therefore chosen to discuss the wisdom of love with people of all backgrounds through the medium of Jewish culture and its sources. The androgyne myth, which came to Judaism from ancient Greece, can be found in other mythologies as well - some quite removed from one another. At first glance, the figure of the sage of love, represented here by Rabbi Akiva, appears to be a specifically Jewish phenomenon, until a comparison with Socrates places it in a different cultural context. Philo – the literary creation of the Jewish sage Leone Ebreo or Judah Abravanel – is emblematic of the universality of the wisdom and the sage of love. It is my sincere hope that readers of all backgrounds will come to see this book as a guide to the wisdom of love. Whether or not they accept the conclusions I have reached in the studies presented here, may they continue to grapple with the questions that should trouble all who do not take love for granted.

From the Introduction to the book: The Wisdom of Love: Man, Woman & God in Jewish Canonical Literature, by Naftali Rothenberg, Academic Studies Press, Boston 2009 The author is a senior research fellow and Jewish Culture and Identity chair at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He also serves as the Rabbi of Har Adar, Israel. He has authored and edited ten books.

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from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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