No Holds Barred: Jewish lust versus Christian love

Interestingly, whereas Christianity believes that marriages should be based on love and friendship, Judaism believes they should be based on lust and desire.

Couple getting married dontuse 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Couple getting married dontuse 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
What happened to love? It doesn’t seem to work that well today. People fall in love and expect to be happy but find themselves a little while later not as excited and not as engaged. We all aspire to fall in love and stay in love. Yet we struggle to find examples of people who’ve actually found the happiness they seek. Sure, many married couples seem stable and comfortable. But not necessarily that excited. Here is the reason: Love was never meant to serve as the glue that keeps couples romantically together. Love simply is not strong enough to do that.
Essentially, you’ve been lied to throughout your life about relationships. Every time you saw a couple in a movie fall in love and then, fast forward, marrying and living happily ever after, you were misled. Not because that couple could not remain in love forever.
Of course they could. But rather because you were not shown the practical life to which they were reduced where passion and excitement were lost. They did not show you the couple gradually losing the passionate adhesive that kept them longing for each other.
Interestingly, whereas Christianity believes that marriages should be based on love and friendship, Judaism believes they should be based on lust and desire. That’s why the Ten Commandments say you should not covet your neighbor’s wife, which means by direct implication you sure as heck ought to be coveting your own.
Covetousness in marriage is a divine commandment. Likewise, the Song of Solomon, which the Talmud says is the holiest book of the Torah, is about the erotic desire of a man for a woman, something that is celebrated in Judaism.
So how did we get it so wrong? How did love come to trump lust? Why have we, for centuries, based marriages on the weaker link of love instead of the nuclear bond of erotic desire? To many this would seem a crazy question. Love is everything, right? Even G-d is love? But who said these things and why do we just take it for granted? The source for G-d being love and for marriages being based on love rather than lust is Christianity. Its source is not the Hebrew Bible but The New Testament: “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). It’s repeated again a few verses later: “And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).
Judaism never posits a G-d that is so monolithic as to be described as love. Do you really want a G-d who is all love when it comes to punishing the Nazis for cremating children? Do you want a G-d who is all love when it comes to stopping an al-Qaida terrorist from planting a bomb that will blow up an airplane? Or do you want, at that moment, a just G-d who will cause that terrorist to have a car accident on the way to the plane so he can’t plant his bomb.
G-d is not love. Rather, He is utterly beyond any emotion or description. At times He is loving and at times He is jealous and punitive, as when he punishes the Egyptians at sea for enslaving and slaughtering an innocent nation. It was Paul of Tarsus, in the New Testament, who famously said, “Love is patient, love is kind... Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). What an excellent description of the virtue of love – and its limitations! This is the perfect description of love as companionship and friendship. And if anyone wants to have a romantic relationship based on these warm and cuddly attributes, that’s fine. But while love is warm, lust is passionate. While love seeks to share, lust seeks to acquire. While love can be satisfied, lust is utterly insatiable. The average wife today may feel loved. But what she really wants is to feel desired, which explains why women are reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their millions. Wives want the erotic experience of lust but they’re mostly not finding it in their marriages.
While Christianity posits love as the foundation of a relationship, Judaism has always emphasized desire in its place. The principal reason for the breakdown of marriages and relationships is that in modern times they are built not on lust but love. Several times a week I counsel couples in crisis. They come with the usual panoply of issues that surround broken marriages: an absence of communication, lack of intimacy, fighting below the belt, financial pressures, and responsibilities of child-rearing that have overtaken their lives. But underlying all these problems is the elephant in the room: a loss of desire. They love each other, but they no longer long for each other. Their marriages are now built on the softer, more comfortable emotion of love rather than passionate, more explosive and nuclear bond of lust.
Why is lust disappearing? There are many reasons. First, we are such a physical and material generation that we don’t understand lust. So we denigrate it as something sleazy. Lust, we think, is something pornographic.
Lust is what a man feels for a colleague at work, while love is what he feels for his wife. Lust is what a wife experiences for a stranger with whom she flirts while love is what she feels when has dinner with her husband at a restaurant. Lust has been lost from our lives because we think it something of the body rather than of the soul, something generated by hormones rather than a spiritual energy. A visceral emotion demonstrating more our kinship with animals than anything uniquely human.
And because we don’t understand lust we have never focused on understanding its rules and the conditions through which it is maintained. Also, we believe love to be eternal while lust is so utterly ephemeral. We de-emphasize lust in relationships because we believe it’s bound to disappoint us and let us down. We don’t believe that lust can be sustained. It is a flimsy foundation upon which to build a relationship and should be made secondary to the solid firmament of love.
But who said that love and lust can’t be maintained simultaneously? Are we really so monolithic as to be incapable of sustaining two emotions at once? Can husbands and wives really not be both lovers (lust) and best friends (love) at the same time? And isn’t that, the confluence of both, what men and women most aspire to in their relationships?
The writer is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and is currently writing a new book on relationships entitled Kosher Lust. Next month he will publish The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.