Editor’s note: Tu B’Av (literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av) is marked this weekend, a day that in ancient times was celebrated through matchmaking for unmarried women. It has been revived in modern Israel as a kind of Valentine’s Day, celebrating love.
Are there different kinds of love? Does the emotion change depending on its object?
I love potatoes; you love steaks. We use the word “love” in this context and we mean it. You may love a girl – it is also love. Is there any difference? For many men there may be little difference, if any. That’s the problem with love. Men may love a potato and may love a woman, in almost the same way. This kind of “love” is not real love. What I am really doing is wondering how I can use something – or someone – for my own benefit, to fulfill my own needs.
Love has come to mean, “I’m attracted to…” “I want to…” something. Surely there should be a difference between loving food and loving a person — and between either of those and loving the Torah and God. It is not only different, because the object of love is different. It is also different because it is not exactly the same emotion. They may be similar, but they are not the same.
Most love is egoistic; I want something for myself. There are even those who cannot ever love anybody or anything. They can only utilize things; but they cannot love them. We all know such people.
Can love be completely unselfish?
In one sense, we may define love as, “I want something close to me.” But is that its highest meaning? Imagine a romance in which the boy loves the girl, loves her deeply. But at one point, he comes and declares, “I love you so very much. But I’m not the right person for you, because I will ruin your life. That other fellow will be the right one for you.” That may be a higher level of love, but it is very uncommon.
To take another example: You walk in a field and you see a beautiful flower. You like the flower. You might like it so much that you want to have it for yourself; you pick it and take it home. Alternately, you leave it in the ground to grow and flourish. Which is the higher level of love?
The story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife’s great love is one of the most beautiful in the Talmud. The daughter of one of the country’s richest men, she fell in love with Akiva – a much older man and a widower, completely ignorant and with just a very simple vocation. This was a love that pierced through all the veils.
Who is a great sculptor? A great sculptor sees a stone and sees within it the beautiful sculpture. So it was with Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva. She could see the inner beauty. At great personal cost – and disinherited by her father — she sent him off to study Torah for many years.
From the little bit that we know of their life together, it seems that Rabbi Akiva appreciated Rachel’s sacrifice. He knew that whatever he had was hers.
Eventually, when he could afford it, he bought her a crown of gems and gold. The wife of one of the great men said to her husband, “Why don’t you buy me jewelry as beautiful?” He answered her: “You never did for me what she did for him.”
In this sense of love, there is no desire to own the one we adore. These distinctions between the levels of love are not just a matter of nuance; the differences between them are very great, indeed.
Rabbi Steinsaltz, founder of the Aleph Society to promote Jewish education, is a renowned scholar, philosopher and translator of the Talmud into Hebrew.