A few years ago, I spoke to a group of high-schoolers about the Jewish idea of love.
"Someone define love," I said.
"Doesn't anyone want to try?" I asked.
Still no response.
"Tell you what: I'll define it, and you raise your hands if you agree. Okay?"
"Okay. Love is that feeling you get when you meet the right person."
Every hand went up. And I thought, Oy.
This is how many people approach a relationship. Consciously or unconsciously, they believe love is a sensation (based on physical and emotional attraction) that magically, spontaneously generates when Mr. or Ms. Right appears. And just as easily, it can spontaneously degenerate when the magic "just isn't there" anymore. You fall in love, and you can fall out of it.
The key word is passivity. Erich Fromm, in his famous treatise "The Art of Loving," noted the sad consequence of this misconception: "There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love." (That was back in 1956 ― chances are he'd be even more pessimistic today.)
So what is love ― real, lasting love?
Love is the attachment that results from deeply appreciating another's goodness.
Love is the result of appreciating another's goodness.
The word "goodness" may surprise you. After all, most love stories don't feature a couple enraptured with each other's ethics. ("I'm captivated by your values!" he told her passionately. "And I've never met a man with such morals!" she cooed.) But in her study of real-life successful marriages (The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts), Judith Wallerstein reports that "the value these couples placed on the partner's moral qualities was an unexpected finding."
To the Jewish mind, it isn't unexpected at all. What we value most in ourselves, we value most in others. God created us to see ourselves as good (hence our need to either rationalize or regret our wrongdoings). So, too, we seek goodness in others. Nice looks, an engaging personality, intelligence, and talent (all of which count for something) may attract you, but goodness is what moves you to love.
Love is a Choice
If love comes from appreciating goodness, it needn't just happen ― you can make it happen. Love is active. You can create it. Just focus on the good in another person (and everyone has some). If you can do this easily, you'll love easily.
I was once at an intimate concert in which the performer, a deeply spiritual person, gazed warmly at his audience and said, "I want you to know, I love you all." I smiled tolerantly and thought, "Sure." Looking back, though, I realize my cynicism was misplaced. This man naturally saw the good in others, and our being there said enough about us that he could love us. Judaism actually idealizes this universal, unconditional love.
Obviously, there's a huge distance from here to the far more profound, personal love developed over the years, especially in marriage. But seeing goodness is the beginning.
By focusing on the good, you can love almost anyone.
Susan learned about this foundation of love after becoming engaged to David. When she called her parents to tell them the good news, they were elated. At the end of the conversation, her mother said, "Darling, I want you to know we love you, and we love David."
Susan was a bit dubious. "Mom," she said hesitantly, "I really appreciate your feelings, but, in all honesty, how can you say you love someone you've never met?"
"We're choosing to love him," her mother explained, "because love is a choice."
There's no better wisdom Susan's mother could have imparted to her before marriage. By focusing on the good, you can love almost anyone.
Actions Affect Feelings
Now that you're feeling so warmly toward the entire human race, how can you deepen your love for someone? The way God created us, actions affect our feelings most. For example, if you want to become more compassionate, thinking compassionate thoughts may be a start, but giving tzedaka (charity) will get you there. Likewise, the best way to feel loving is to be loving ― and that means giving.
While most people believe love leads to giving, the truth (as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes in his famous discourse on loving kindness) is exactly the opposite: Giving leads to love.
What is giving? When an enthusiastic handyman happily announces to his non- mechanically inclined wife, "Honey, wait till you see what I got you for your birthday ― a triple-decker toolbox!" that's not giving. Neither is a father's forcing violin lessons on his son because he himself always dreamed of being a virtuoso.
True giving, as Erich Fromm points out, is other-oriented, and requires four elements. The first is care, demonstrating active concern for the recipient's life and growth. The second is responsibility, responding to his or her expressed and unexpressed needs (particularly, in an adult relationship, emotional needs). The third is respect, "the ability to see a person as he [or she] is, to be aware of his [or her] unique individuality," and, consequently, wanting that person to "grow and unfold as he [or she] is."
These three components all depend upon the fourth, knowledge. You can care for, respond to, and respect another only as deeply as you know him or her.
Opening Yourself to Others
The effect of genuine, other-oriented giving is profound. It allows you into another person's world and opens you up to perceiving his or her goodness. At the same time, it means investing part of yourself in the other, enabling you to love this person as you love yourself.
The more you give, the more you love.
Many years ago, I met a woman whom I found very unpleasant. So I decided to try out the "giving leads to love" theory. One day I invited her for dinner. A few days later I offered to help her with a personal problem. On another occasion I read something she'd written and offered feedback and praise. Today we have a warm relationship. The more you give, the more you love. This is why your parents (who've given you more than you'll ever know) undoubtedly love you more than you love them, and you, in turn, will love your own children more than they'll love you.
Because deep, intimate love emanates from knowledge and giving, it comes not overnight but over time ― which nearly always means after marriage. The intensity many couples feel before marrying is usually great affection boosted by commonality, chemistry, and anticipation. These may be the seeds of love, but they have yet to sprout. On the wedding day, emotions run high, but true love should be at its lowest, because it will hopefully always be growing, as husband and wife give more and more to each other.
A woman I know once explained why she's been happily married for 25 years. "A relationship has its ups and downs," she told me. "The downs can be really low ― and when you're in one, you have three choices: Leave, stay in a loveless marriage, or choose to love your spouse."
Dr. Jill Murray (author of But I Love Him: Protecting Your Daughter from Controlling, Abusive Dating Relationships) writes that if someone mistreats you while professing to love you, remember: "Love is a behavior." A relationship thrives when partners are committed to behaving lovingly through continual, unconditional giving ― not only saying, "I love you," but showing it.
Reprinted with permission from "HEAD TO HEART" by Gila Manolson.
LICENSE TO WED
by Donna Kelsey, Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin
One summer day in 1957, we headed to the courthouse for a marriage license. My husband-to-be, Steve, asked the clerk for a fishing license. She advised him a fishing license cost $1.50 and a marriage license cost $2.50. With some thought and a smile, he chose the marriage license, and so our life together, later filled with two children, began. Whenever we had a disagreement, I would remind my husband that he could have saved money had he chosen a fishing license, and it would have expired in a year. The extra dollar cost him 53 years of wedded bliss.
by Elana Pate, Palm Bay, Florida
In mythology, humans had four arms, four legs, and two faces. Fearing them, Zeus split them into two, forcing an eternal search for their other half. Zeus failed. When my (now) husband arrived at my house for our first date, I opened the door to my other half, dressed exactly like me, head to toe: aviator Ray-Bans, Levis, Timberland boots, the same yellow ski jacket. After our amazed laughter, he said, “One of us has to change.” I changed my clothes but not my mind. I knew we’d be together forever.
MY SHINING LIGHT
by Deborah Kahn Schreck, Sayville, New York
I volunteered at Ground Zero after hometown firefighters responded but never returned. Lt. Timothy Higgins was one of them. I felt Timmy’s presence during dark moments, guiding me along every path. Working in sight of the burning piles, I met a fire marshal named Steve. I told him I was from Freeport. Steve said he’d been a firefighter with a guy from Freeport. I asked, “Who?” He replied, “Tim Higgins.” I followed this path and married Steve in 2005. I think of Tim every day. He must have been a shining light. Certainly, he was my beacon.
DESTINY AT THE DENTIST
by Kathleen Curran, Canyon Country, California
Having just cemented a new bridge, my dental-assistant mother said to her patient, “Your girlfriend’s going to love your new teeth.” He replied, “I’m between girlfriends right now.” She said, “Don’t go anywhere. I have two daughters, Kathy and Vicky. Let me get their pictures from my wallet.” Dan was still reclined in the dental chair with his bib on and wasn’t going anywhere. Rushing back, she showed him her daughters’ photos, saying, “Here is our phone number. Give Kathy a call—she’s the older one.” He called, and we’ve been happily married for 39 years. Thanks, Mom!
A MUTUAL CALLING
by Lauren Belski, New York, New York
Brian and I have been married three years, but we’ve been together ten. We met as AmeriCorps volunteers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Porcupine, South Dakota—a tucked-away place with a scattered population of 1,000. He taught computers and played guitar. I taught English and wrote poetry. In the volunteer house, we courted each other by making a phone out of tin cans and a string. I still remember his voice in my ear. Automatic goose bumps. A year later, our mothers discovered we were born in the same hospital in New Jersey, 1,600 miles away.
Content continues below ad
A BEAUTIFUL ROMANCE
by Carmen Marden, Campbell, New York
He left a single red rose on my windshield. He wasn’t allowed to send me flowers at work, since my husband had died only six months before. When the time was right, he sent me flowers on my birthday, Valentine’s Day, and eventually every anniversary. The guys at work told him he made them look bad. They were joking, but he wasn’t. He kept sending me flowers. He made me breakfast in bed. But most importantly, he invited my daughter and her three children to move in with us after she split from her then-husband. What’s more romantic than that?
LOVE BOAT REUNION
by Rick Bennette, Tequesta, Florida
The moment I met Denise aboard the Love Boat, I knew she was someone special. She became my first love, but we lived 90 miles apart. After the cruise, we maintained our love affair through handwritten letters. Eventually, geography took its toll. We went on to separate lives, yet I thought about her quite often. Thirty years later, we reunited in Grand Central Station. I hired a violinist to play our love song as we held each other for the first time in three decades. After wishing to be with her all those years apart, we finally married.
HE FOUND ME
by Sandra Dopierala, San Marcos, California
I was thinking I’d be alone forever after a terrible time in my life, when there he was. While I sat soaking in the fresh air after a two-week bout of bronchitis, he stood watching the waves roll in. He asked if he could sit next to me. “Sure, why not?” I said. We people-watched and talked about which dog breed was our favorite. We watched the sunset together. I didn’t know it then, but I’d found my husband—or rather, he had found me. We now return to that spot every year on our anniversary.
THE BEST BAD HAIR DAY
by Saveeta De Alwis, Colombo, Sri Lanka
The air smelled strongly of salt. My boyfriend had asked me to meet him at the beach. I love the beach, but today the sea breeze really wasn’t helping my hair. I grumbled as I made my way to the shore. I saw the light of candles in the distance, but couldn’t make them out, as I’d forgotten my glasses. Why couldn’t he have picked another place for dinner? I walked up to him and was about to open my mouth to complain, when he suddenly got down on his knee and said, “Will you marry me?”
CALL OF DESTINY
by Louis Corio, Mount Airy, Maryland
For most couples, it’s love at first sight. For me and my wife, it was love at first sound. She called my apartment in a huff at 1:00 a.m., looking to tell off my roommate, whom she had just started dating. My roommate wasn’t home, and I happened to be standing by the phone, so she vented to me, the faceless stranger. We ended up talking for two hours, learning a lot about each other, and falling in love. Twenty-seven wonderful years later, her voice is still music to my ears!
Content continues below ad
by Krista Swan, Columbus, Ohio
Our romance began with sparks. But over the years, our passion shape-shifted into smoldering resentment, periodically erupting into fiery altercations. Our two sons were in middle school when I moved us away from the inferno. We settled in my old hometown. My husband wrote me a letter filled with animosity for leaving. Then one day, everything changed. My husband called. “I realize now that nothing in life is more important than family, and I will do everything I can to keep ours together,” he said. “Please come home.” So we did. That day was September 11, 2001.
by Kathy Cornell, Haddam, Connecticut
Sometimes I tend to think about what I don’t have: a house on the ocean, a big career I could use to impress people at my high school reunion. Then I hear his car in the driveway. I think we’ll grill tonight. Later we’ll watch some reruns of sitcoms from a long time ago that remind me of when we were young. He’ll doze off, and it’ll be time for the day to end. We’ll say good night to the cats. We’re all still here, a miracle. When I’m very old, I will wish for a day like this.
by Greg Hajduk, Valparaiso, Indiana
November 26, 1975. I was at a party with friends playing ping-pong. I was 15; she was 16. Her name was Joanne. I ripped a portion from a paper bag and wrote, “Can I kiss you?” She nodded yes. We left the party and went to our hangout spot. It was 6:30 p.m. and already dark, with huge snowflakes falling. I kissed her for the first time and saw fireworks. We married August 4, 1979, and this November 26 will be the 39-year anniversary of that first kiss. I still see fireworks!
by Pat Ferry, Mesa, Arizona
I was flying with C-130 cargo planes for several months, moving cargo all over the world. I would be gone for two to three weeks, home one day, then gone again for several weeks. Upon returning home late one night, I knocked on our front door. “Who is it?” My wife called out. “Pat,” I answered. “Pat who?” she snarled. I got her point and applied for a desk job the next day.
More: Love StoriesLove & Romance, Valentine's Day