Perhaps the notion of a Jewish Valentine’s Day sounds odd. After all, Valentine’s Day combines the cultures of pagan Rome and early Christianity, so where does Judaism fit in? I know, it’s “really” a secular commercial day and even thinking about the day’s religious roots is “silly”. But those roots, be they Pagan, Christian or Jewish, tell a wonderful story about romance, how to find it and how to keep it alive.
Although the story is not entirely clear, in all likelihood, our Valentine’s Day probably combines the Roman dating/mating/fertility festival of Lupercalia and a memorial for an early Christian priest named Valentine, who was martyred in 269. That’s where the story gets interesting.
The central ritual of Lupercalia involved a kind of dating lottery in which people hooked up based on names which they drew out of barrels at public gatherings. While we can’t know how lasting such relationships were, we know that the celebration was based on a notion that romance was a matter of chance or fate.
However weird or scary the notion of martyrdom may be, especially in our world which is soaked in religious violence, martyrs decide what they live and die for. Valentine’s death and the decision to link it to romance, teaches us that our romantic life is not just a matter of fate or chance but something we can do something about.
Frankly, I am more interested in what we live for than celebrating what we die for, but the shift from love as a matter of chance to love as a matter of choice is a definite upgrade. And that is where the Jewish take on Valentine’s Day comes in.
Traditional Jewish life has a kind of Valentine’s Day every week – it’s called Shabbat night. Beginning with the preparations which start on Friday, Jewish couples engage in rituals of romance which are associated with Valentine’s Day.
Like many Jewish men, I bring home flowers for my wife each Friday afternoon – usually roses, but that depends on what is nicest at the florist. We dress nicely for dinner, light candles, open a bottle of wine, eat a lovely meal and even indulge in dessert. No, it’s not always chocolates, but you get the point.
Our cell phones are off, and so is the TV. All external distractions are limited. I even sing to wife before we begin eating. Frankly, I don’t know if that proves how much I love her or, based on her willingness to put up with it, how much she loves me. Either way, it is the stuff of romance which Valentine’s Day reserves for once a year and we do it every week. And then there’s the sex.
Without going into details about my own life, I find it both fascinating and beautiful that Jewish tradition celebrates sexuality on the Sabbath. Most religious traditions have taught that sex undermines the sanctity of the Sabbath. And while there have even been Jewish sects which taught the same thing, that has never been the Jewish norm.
Loving sexuality in the context of a committed relationship is not only commensurate with the sacred; it is one of its highest expressions. According to Rabbi Yaakov Emden, when a husband and wife make love on Friday night, the divine presence, called the Shekhinah, is in bed with them! Is that why people shout “Oh my God”?
So even though I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day once a year, I try to celebrate it once a week. And however any of us chooses to celebrate romance, the idea that it really is up to us and not to fate is a beautiful and powerful teaching.
Whether its next week or every week, take time to follow the practices of Friday night and see what happens. You won’t be disappointed….though I don’t make any promises about the Divine presence!!