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How Jews Fell in Love With Love – Long After Christians Invented It

On Valentine's Day, it's worth remembering that romantic love between a man and a woman is a relatively late invention, made possible thanks to the Christian Bible

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A few months ago, I found myself in the audience of a play being performed for young people at a school in central Israel. In the final scene, dulcet tones wafted from the stage as the actors sang a song about love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels; / but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The music played on, the words flowed to its melody: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, / but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Some in the audience wiped away a tear, others swayed back and forth and joined in the singing. But probably few of them – either on stage or in the audience – realized that these words were not written by the playwright or by singer-songwriter Avraham Tal, who set the words to music. The text is from the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (13:1-3), usually referred to as 1 Corinthians, in the New Testament.

Jews unfamiliar with the sacred texts of Christianity may identify the New Testament with the story of Jesus’ life and crucifixion alone. To most of us, verses like, “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love,” sound like something from a song by Shotei Hanevuah (the Israeli band Fools of Prophecy). But it comes from the First Epistle of John (1 John 4:8).

Christianity turned the cult of love into a central element of culture, and of the human experience as such. St. Augustine, Christianity’s most important theologian, relates in his “Confessions” how he fell in love with love itself. In large measure, that description is apt for Christianity as a whole. The realm of concepts concerning love, in the form familiar to us, is primarily Christian in origin.

In recent centuries, Christian adoration of the ideal of love strayed from the religious universe and became a kind of principle of faith of Western culture as a whole. As the philosopher Simon May notes, the equation “God is love” was gradually replaced by another equation: “Love is God.” Love became a universal creed, something that is rarely called into question.

Historians write that the concept of romantic love, with its range of expressions, sprang up in the court culture of European nobility. In the 12th century, troubadours in Provençe began to create a vision of heterosexual love as a sublime ideal, differentiated from desire or from lust of the flesh, which were considered earthly and steeped in sin. These court poets “converted” Christian religious love into love aimed at a gentlewoman, whom they longed for and whom they praised and glorified. In most cases, the love they described was symbolic and remained unfulfilled. About this time, the familiar icon of the heart became the symbol of romantic love. It, too, was reinforced by Catholic ritual, which sanctified Jesus’ heart.

But much more than poetry and art were inspired by this love ideal. So, too, were forms of behavior that today can hardly be distinguished from that ideal: courtship rituals, romantic breast-beating, agonies of rejection. This development represented a revolutionary innovation – until then, love for a woman wasn’t considered an emotion to boast about openly. The philosophical ideal of erotic love, originating in the writings of Plato, had extolled love between an older man and a young man.

In the centuries that followed, relationships centering around romantic love were confined largely to the courts of the nobility. It wasn’t until the 19th century, under the influence of the Romantic literary movement, that heterosexual love was adopted as a bourgeois ideal. The Romantics developed a nostalgia for the Middle Ages and sought to revive the courtly troubadour culture in the modern world. Fictional figures such as Werther, Goethe’s tormented protagonist, made the search for love a trend. Romantic poets such as the German Novalis and England’s Lord Byron posited a model of a cultural hero for whom love is the center of life.

Some of the earlier versions of modern love would be considered quite twisted today: Novalis fell in love with a girl of 12, and when she died, he closeted himself in her room. The character of Byron the lover, on the other hand, was bound up with a story about an affair with his half-sister. Apparently Byron himself spread the story, in order to conceal the fact that he slept with boys.

‘Spare us your sighs’

Thus, in the 19th century, the idea that human life is not complete without love between a man and a woman became an accepted assumption in Western societies. But all these developments occurred within Christendom. The Jews weren’t there when romantic love was invented. True, love exists in the Jewish sources, too – the Song of Songs gives colorful expression to love and passion between a pair of paramours, and the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature are replete with stories revolving around love: Jacob and Rachel, David and Jonathan, Rabbi Akiva’s love for the daughter of Kalba Savua.

Still, romantic love did not play a central role in Jewish culture in either East or West, and there was no place for the development of rites of courtship and adoration for a beloved of either gender. This was acutely discerned by the scholar Moshe Leib Lilienblum, who wrote, at the end of the 19th century, “Among us there never was a cult of women, and we never had knights or noblemen. As for love, although it also is a natural feeling, we never valued it more than any of the other human feelings, including the feeling of hunger and so on, or the feeling of love for children.”

Jews discovered romantic love at some point in the 19th century, a moment that is captured by Naomi Seidman in her 2016 book “The Marriage Plot: or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature.” She argues that the turning point in the attitude of Eastern European Jews toward romantic love came almost at once, in 1848. The winds of liberalism and liberation blowing across Europe that year brought about a shift in the customs of the Jewish bourgeoisie: For the first time, a girl was allowed to meet with the boy she was to marry – by means of their parents’ matchmaking. The matchmaker became a new symbol in the decaying traditional society, which was based on artificial arrangements and stymied natural emotions.

In practice, though, the young Jews who discovered love needed European literature in order to learn how to live it. For example, the Jewish writer Pauline Wengeroff recalled in her memoirs about life in late 19th-century Russia how she learned the craft of courtship under the influence of the works of the poet Friedrich Schiller.

The romantic ethos gradually seeped into Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Many, though, took a dim view of this development. Lilienblum, for example, urged lovers to keep their feelings to themselves. “Love is a natural feeling, and every person is entitled to ease his heart’s burden and express himself,” he wrote, but added, “Let them not forget that the reading public has no connection with their sighs and longings.”

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, saccharine greeting cards, photographs and clips appear, showing birds, rabbits and kittens engaged in cute courtship games – all of which serve to disseminate heterosexual ideology: Emotional love between a man and woman, we’re told, is the most natural thing in the world. Yet, there is really nothing at all natural in these expressions of romantic love. They are a Christian invention, created in a particular historical context. It’s not only that birds and kittens don’t play romantic games; the Jews, too, have only recently begun to engage in them.