Love in the time of the Bible – Tu Be’av and Israeli culture

Its true character speaks not to romance, but to rescuing a portion of the Jewish people from the brink of extinction.

A couple kisses under the ‘Ahava’ (love) sculpture at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A couple kisses under the ‘Ahava’ (love) sculpture at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
E-mailed advertisements arrive festooned with scarlet hearts, and perfumes and gourmet chocolates beckon in malls across the country. Welcome to Tu Be’av, Israel’s answer to Valentine’s Day.
Our holiday of romantic love celebrates the biblical dance of the daughters of Israel in the vineyards abutting the Tribe of Benjamin. On the 15th of Av, the ragtag remnants of Benjamin’s menfolk would sweep down from the hills, choose suitable mates and return to their remote hideaways. Perhaps a bit too Neanderthal, and not much courtship and moonlight. Still, ample cause to pay tribute to love, no? Except that in reality, Tu Be’av had little to do with chemical attraction.
The Book of Judges relates the shocking backdrop to the vineyard frolic: an act of gang rape perpetrated by members of the Tribe of Benjamin against travelers and guests, and in its wake, a concerted attack on the tribe by the rest of Israel.
Reduced to just 600 men after the slaughter, the survivors take to the wilderness; in the meantime, the enraged Israelites vow never to give their daughters in marriage to the men of Benjamin. Time passes, tempers cool, and the awful reality of condemning a tribe of Israel to extinction begins to dawn on the rest of Israel. Yet the vow remains inviolable, and without the daughters of Israel to wed, there will be no next generation of Benjamin.
And then, some 13 centuries before the Talmudic era, the Bible records the first flash of Talmudic reasoning. “True,” offers one inspired lad, “we did say we wouldn’t give our daughters to the men of Benjamin – but we never said they couldn’t take them.” And so they send their daughters out to dance in the vineyards, so the men of Benjamin can take them to wife and repopulate the tribe.
Tu Be’av, then, heralds not love, but salvation. Its true character speaks not to romance, but to rescuing a portion of the Jewish people from the brink of extinction.
Even the selection of Tu Be’av as the date for the dance reverberates with meaning: it is the date – a “holiday of ancient times” – that the Midrash claims the Israelites in the wilderness realized that their 40-year desert exile had run its course. They had shaken free of God’s curse and could finally enter the promised land. Jewish legend, then, casts Tu Be’av as pre-ordained for the repair of physical destruction.
So how should we view the hearts and flowers, the tawdry pinks and reds of our modern celebration of Tu Be’av? Do they ring false, a mere cheapening of a deeper spiritual message? Must we shun the popular expression of this holiday as a betrayal of its underlying biblical meaning? Absolutely not. Culture plays the role of a bloom crowning a plant: gaudy, ephemeral, in some ways distracting from the depth of the roots and the importance of the systems beneath the surface of the soil. Yet we depend on the flower to attract and enchant, to draw people near and hold their attention so that they might, in time, grow to understand and appreciate the plant’s totality – and of course, to allow it to multiply and spread. No nation, despite its religious roots, can thrive without a compelling, vibrant culture. Theology and philosophy may nurture a nation morally and intellectually, yet still fail to fire its imagination and inspire pride. Despite its Talmudic erudition and moral certitude, the world will not flock to the Mir Yeshiva any more than it would to the seminaries of Qoms or to Yale Divinity School.
So, too, in the political sphere.
Israel seeks to impact the globe through its democracy, respect for human rights, biblical history and living Jewish values, but it cannot hope to please and impress without its Eurovision stars, its Olympic champions, the beaches of Eilat and the nightclubs of Tel Aviv.
Religion and culture – root and flower – both play a vital role.
The guardians of our biblical and rabbinic heritage have much to offer as a source of authenticity to enrich and inform those attracted by the delights of modern Israeli culture. Yet they will find their greatest opportunities for success lie through an appeal to interest rather than authority.
The beauty of Israeli culture is that it continues to nourish the Jewish soul and the Jewish experience – even for those who choose not to shoulder the demands of Jewish law. Here in Israel, Jewish religion and culture have forged an environment in which biblical idioms weave their way into the most profane of rock songs, and where Jewish pride emblazons biblical verses on Jewish chests in tattoos forbidden by Jewish law.
Israel offers the spectacle of an entire nation celebrating Jewish occasions by the rhythm of the ancient Hebrew calendar, though some experience those occasions as holy days in the synagogue, while for others, they are holidays to be spent with family in the parks and on the beaches.
So enjoy Tu Be’av, Israel. May the love you share help soothe the myriad devastations and catastrophes, personal and national, that Tu Be’av is meant to repair.
The author is a graduate of Harvard Law School and made aliya in the summer of 2006.