For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
Those of Scottish descent may prefer to point to the lines by Robert Burns:
‘My love is like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June’, which appear to have had an undue influence on the commercial realities of the date.
But the question I’m usually asked is: ‘Is there a Jewish equivalent?’ The answer is a politically incorrect ‘yes’: Yom Kippur (of all days!) and the 15th of Av, for on these dates
The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.
What would they say? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and consider what to choose.
Don’t set your eyes on beauty but rather on family, “For grace is false and beauty
is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised”. (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)
Judaism believes in abiding romantic love and regards those who find it as blessed and lucky. It has a wonderful vocabulary for such feelings: ahavah, ve’achavah, veshalom ver’ut, – love, togetherness, peace and companionship. Social changes in the modern period have taught us to understand more deeply how such feelings can only flourish with the equality and freedom of women as well as men. More recently, growing insight has taught society to show the same respect for the fostering of relationships rooted in the same feelings and values between people who are gay. (Judaism is also realistic about the fact that, with the best will in the world, relationships don’t always work out, and well aware that at any time life may take from us those we love most.)
But for Judaism the ideal of love is not simply what happens between two lucky people in a lonely world. Romantic love is set within the enduring context of chesed, faithful loving-kindness, a bond which should embrace us all in a collective brit or covenant of mutual care. This begins with family, extends to community, and ultimately encompasses all life, God’s creation entrusted to our care. Such chesed, or faithful kindness, is the power with which Judaism opposes indifference, be it the amorality of nature, or the callousness of cruel people. It is the practice of chesed which turns us into a community of responsibility, respect, and compassionate concern.
This takes me back to where I was going to begin my letter, – until it struck me that it would be mean-spirited to ignore Valentine’s Day, which most people regard as at worst harmless and at best a happy way to tell the person they love how deeply they hold them in their soul.
On a day about heart and hearth, thousands of people’s homes are under water, with more storms to come. Last week I wrote to the Bishop of Taunton; yesterday I spoke to Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue. Both appreciated the gesture of solidarity, neither sought practical help at present. But please tell me if you do know what we might do to assist.
Ultimately, if Valentine’s Day has something to teach us in such circumstances, it is that we must not leave anyone to feel alone and abandoned, ever.