When Divine sparks fly

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Love "bends the line," says the Talmud. Translation: It turns even the most rational, even-minded of us into blithering fools.

Read all the modern relationship how-tos you want — they may only echo ancient Judaism's observations on love, made back when Samson and Delilah were making googly eyes.

Rabbis then taught love was more than red wine and getaways to moonlit caves on the shores of the Dead Sea. It had to be based on compatibility, respect, honor and generosity, they said. And it could grow with time.

Such old-fashioned wisdom is still apropos for today's love seekers, says counselor Rachel Biale.

"The overly simplified notion of love is that love is something that drips on you from the sky," notes the senior clinician of Jewish Family and Children's Services in the East Bay. "I think it has led a lot of people astray in terms of making marital choices."

And while the "love can grow" theory may appear less relevant now than in the days of arranged marriages, when love often wasn't even a consideration, Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco contends the idea still has significance today.

"As a rabbi who officiates at weddings, I see couples who have fallen head over heels for each other but don't really understand what will make it possible to sustain the relationship," says the rabbi, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology. "The first moment they have adversity, they're ready to dump everything."

Adversity comes in all forms, of course. Pearce points out that couples can "do battle over virtually everything — money, sex, career, child-rearing. I've seen couples fight about the same things forever."

What many of them need, he says, are the skills or willingness to resolve conflicts.

"The ability to solve problems is really what makes for a lasting relationship," Pearce adds, urging bickering couples to seek counseling to learn solid conflict-resolution skills.

According to Biale, the more self-awareness and psychological health each partner brings to the table, the better chance a relationship has.

"Some people fall in love [because] of things in themselves that really need work — a sense of incompleteness, a sense of inadequacy," she suggests. "If you're struggling with those underlying feelings, you're much more likely to fall in love easily."

There's no doubt traditional Judaism recognizes the power of love, particularly when it comes to heterosexual unions.

One well-known rabbinic narrative indicates the Hebrew word for man and the Hebrew word for woman have two letters in common — aleph and shin, which together spell the word esh, or fire. Rabbis have interpreted that alphabetic equation to mean that when men and women are kept apart, a flame sears their souls.

But each of those words contains one letter not found in the other: yud in the word for man and hay in the word for woman. When put together, those two letters spell an abbreviated form of the word Yahweh, or God. So rabbis also have said that when man and woman come together, Divine sparks fly.

While rabbis of old encourage men and women to forge lifetime partnerships, they also acknowledge certain differences in the way each approaches the opposite sex.

Call the rabbis' take on the subject "Women Are from Judea; Men Are from Samaria."

The Talmud, for example, states that even if a woman boasts a roster of superb qualities, a man should not marry her without first seeing her.

The same doesn't hold true for women, though. A woman, the Talmud indicates, can marry a man based solely on what she knows of his virtue and success.

To no one's surprise, today's love advisers say men are more likely to let looks — even, perhaps, above virtue and success — sway them when choosing a partner.

"If a man says, `Physical beauty is not so important to me,' he may want to believe that. But the rabbis had a hard time believing" such claims, notes Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

On the other hand, women's needs — including that or sexual gratification — haven't been ignored by the rabbis. Au contraire — they have stressed that if a husband cannot or will not perform sexually, his wife has sufficient grounds to march him into court and demand a hefty settlement.

These days, of course, sexual problems may be easier to rectify. There are sex therapists, sex surrogates and numerous books on the subject. And many people are comfortable talking openly about sex — a relatively new phenomenon.

Even so, as Pearce points out, sex can be a cause for major dissension in a relationship. In extreme cases, it can lead couples to break up.

Traditional Judaism doesn't shy away from the reality that love can change and that men and women may separate, not only because of sex but for a wide variety of reasons.

One Talmudic rabbi notes that when he and his wife first married, their relationship was so harmonious they could have co-existed on the sharp end of a sword. But when time passed and they began arguing, the rabbi says, no house in the world would have been big enough to accommodate them both.

For couples such as those, a whole chapter of the Talmud is devoted to getim — bills of divorce.

"Judaism is realistic enough to recognize that people may not be able to live with each other forever," Pearce says. Although Judaism does not necessarily encourage breaking up, he stresses, "it says, `Look, [doomed relationships are] a reality in the world.'"

While tolerating the fact of divorce, traditional Judaism also accepts the reality of remarriage. At the same time, though, it points out the potential difficulties of second marriages.

The Talmud says that when two divorced people marry, four people inhabit their bed.

Such warnings are insightful, says Biale. "I think the contemporary experience of divorce being perceived as freely accessible tends to make people not realize that, yes, you can end a marriage but you really shlep it with you."

To lessen the chances of that happening, Biale suggests that before remarrying, people work to understand what went wrong in their previous relationship, particularly how they contributed to its downfall. That way they can prevent repeating the same mistakes.

While Judaism has a surprisingly prodigious amount to say about the twists and turns of romantic love, the faith has even more to say about ways in which other types of love — filial love, love between parents and children, and love toward the stranger, for example — can help build a just, compassionate society.

Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph, the second-century mishnaic sage, went so far as to say that the commandment "Love thy neighbor" is the most important of all Jewish principles.

In regard to our parents, Judaism — following its pragmatic view of human relations — doesn't command us to love them but to respect and honor them. "There's no special commandment to love your parents because sometimes it just can't be done," Finkelman explains. "It's such a loaded relationship."

In the final analysis, experts agree, love is by its very nature complex and confusing. But, they say, it can also be wonderful and nourishing. Certainly, few of us could live well without it.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.