If He Only Weren’t a Saint…

You may have heard some of your Jewish friends say that we do not celebrate Valentine’s Day. Valentine is, after all, a Christian saint. Personally, as with many things in my life, I experience a familiar, cultural guilt and angst every February 14, and those are not necessarily bad or unwelcome feelings for me. In spite of their weighty yoke, guilt about how I behave as a Jew and anxiety about how I behave when interacting with the rest of the world are so much a part of who I am that if I did not have them, I would probably miss them.

Eventually I stow the baggage and relent, ambiguously embracing the holiday by both resigning to it as a matter of course, and being lit up by it as a day of possibility and opportunity.

One way I can rationalize my participation in Valentine’s Day is by observing that it is not the only Christian or Pagan holiday I choose to celebrate with this kind of cognitive dissonance. Holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, even Mardi Gras and New Year’s (Sylvester), are all examples of my ability to suspend the connection between a holiday’s religious (or quasi-religious) meaning and an excuse to party.

Also, I dig love, both the romantic “being-in-it” kind and the platonic “kumbaya” kind. It deserves to be recognized and it is a feeling, in all its textures, that should not be taken for granted. Some of my married friends discovered they are not as excited about Valentine’s Day as they used to be. To them, the challenge of a successful romantic conquest is rendered mute by commitment. But if romance is that easily muted, then what’s the point of seeking it in the first place? At the very least, even for the guys, Valentine’s Day, like your anniversary, is an excuse to be romantic without worrying about looking mushy.

The philosopher and storyteller Martin Buber, in his “Tales of the Hasidim,” relates a story about a rabbi who distinguishes between a Jew’s love of people and a Jew’s love of books (meaning study and contemplation). He concludes that we love the enlightened solitude of books more because we know that outside our library or house of study, there will always be the people whom we love. But when we study, we do not do it for ourselves alone. Without our personal relationships, we cannot get closer to God, no matter how many books we read (or how hard we work to make a living).

Finally, love is as attainable as it is illusory. No matter how many times I have fallen for a woman or been kicked to the curb, I have felt love’s magic. For my wife alone, the magic is worth it, but it is not only my wife whom I love. For only my family and friends, it is worth it, but it is not only my friends and family I love. For only my time alone with my books and my God, it is worth it, but that is not all I love. It is the opportunity to love, the possibility of the experience. We present love on a stage where desire dances our hearts’ designs, flying to our partners, orbiting our friends, leaping to God, and that’s just how it starts.

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