September 20, 2019

Torah portion: Loving your spouse as yourself?

The imperative to “love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is so lofty, so sublime, that thinkers of many different ages doubted that it could actually be accomplished. 

Sigmund Freud objected to this biblical command, asking, “Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. Indeed I should be wrong to do so, for my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of my preferring them, and it is an injustice to them if I put a stranger on a par with them.”

Centuries earlier, Nachmanides, too, doubted that the command could be fulfilled — or even meant — literally (and in the process, pointed out that Rabbi Akiva had preceded him in this opinion). “Love your fellow as yourself is an exaggeration,” Nachmanides wrote, “for a person’s heart is not capable of loving his friend as he loves his own life. In addition to which, Rabbi Akiva has already taught that a person must insure his own life before saving the life of another.”

Perhaps with these very doubts and questions in mind, the sages of the Talmud largely redirected this most well-known of mitzvot toward one very specific human relationship, where they felt that it could indeed be fulfilled in its pristine literal form. In Tractate Kiddushin, after acknowledging that in pure legal terms, a man and woman could become betrothed to marry without ever meeting each other face to face, the talmudic sages then proceeded to forbid this practice, lest the blindly betrothing couple later discover they detest each other, and would then be in violation of “love your fellow as yourself”! 

The application of this mitzvah specifically to the marital bond continues in the Talmud’s formulation of the “Seven Blessings” that we recite beneath the chuppah. Using the exact (and rare) biblical word for “fellow” (rey-ah) that is used in the famous mitzvah, the wedding blessing proclaims, “Greatly rejoice beloved fellows (rey-im)!” And a third point in the pattern comes in the foundational rabbinic instruction — an obvious paraphrase of the biblical mitzvah — that “a man should love his wife as himself, and honor her more than himself.” The talmudic sages believed that within at least one human relationship — the marital relationship — this lofty, sublime, but oh-so-difficult mitzvah could find literal fulfillment. 

Loving one’s spouse as oneself can, of course, express itself in a variety of different ways. The most obvious is in the spousal willingness to sacrifice for the other, to forfeit the fulfillment of personal desires in order to facilitate the fulfillment of the other’s. (Though, as I always counsel couples that I will soon be marrying, each spouse also bears the responsibility to know and understand what sacrifice his or her spouse must not be allowed to make, no matter how lovingly it is offered, for that particular sacrifice would damage the very core of that spouse’s identity.) 

A less obvious but no less important way of loving one’s spouse as oneself can be borrowed from the way Nachmanides ultimately understands the biblical verse’s intention. Nachmanides posits that what the Torah is actually asking us to do is to fully rejoice in the other’s good fortune. To genuinely desire the very best of everything for our fellow, to not hold back in terms of what we hope he will achieve, or of what blessings she will attain. To not be impeded by any kind of secret desire that her blessings fall, at least a little bit, shy of our own. This is the meaning, realistically, of “love the other as yourself.” 

But when we broaden Nachmanides’ idea of complete emotional investment in the other to encompass other aspects of the human emotional experience, his instruction becomes extraordinarily important to a healthy marriage and constitutes an incredibly wise piece of marital advice. For a spouse can — and needs to — not only fully rejoice when his spouse is rejoicing, but also to feel the frustration when his spouse is frustrated. A spouse can — and needs to — experience excitement when her spouse is feeling excited about something and mournful when her spouse is feeling a sense of loss. 

This is not always easy, as people who are married don’t always readily understand their spouse’s emotional reaction to particular events or developments. Yet the commitment to love one’s spouse in the way that you would yourself like to be loved requires making a maximal effort to understand, to emotionally participate, to be in position to empathize.  

“Rejoice greatly beloved friends,” we say to every couple as they stand beneath their chuppah. For marriage requires that husband and wife be the very best of friends — the kind that can realistically fulfill the imperative to love each other just as they love themselves. 

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.