Sermon: Laws of Love (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by saying something that might be a little bit controversial.  In fact, what I’m about to say might even offend some people in this room, while others might truly appreciate it.  I’m always a little bit nervous before I say something potentially divisive, but, now that you’ve been forewarned, I might as well just come out with it:  Happy Valentine’s Day.  Some of you might be wondering why wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day might be controversial.  Chocolate, flowers, greeting cards, paper hearts, and professions of love are hardly contentious issues…but, as many of us know, the full name of the day is St. Valentine’s Day, which of course implies Christian roots, and we don’t really make it a habit to observe Christian, or any other faith’s holy days – especially not here inside the Shul…


Now – I know why it doesn’t make sense for Jews to observe Christmas or Easter – despite the pretty tinsel and the delicious chocolate bunnies, since I’m well aware of the true religious nature of these holidays, but unlike Christmas or Easter or any other religious holiday that has secular elements to it, I realized that I don’t really know the religious origins of Valentine’s Day.  So, here is a brief summary of what I found:

  • Valentine’s Day was first instituted by the Pope in 496 C.E. to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Valentine.
  • Scholars know almost nothing about who this St. Valentine was. Most believe that Valentine lived in the late 3rd century C.E. but the name Valentine was so common in the ancient world that no one can be sure who is being referred to.
  • The stories associated with St. Valentine are not historical, but rather originate in a number of legends written during the 6th and 7th centuries.
  •  Some of the legends are more elaborate than others, but the basic idea is that Valentine was a priest who was arrested by the Emperor Claudius. Following a theological debate about the merits of Christianity, Valentine was sentenced to live with a nobleman in a type of house arrest. With the help of God and true faith, say the legends, Valentine miraculously restores the sight of his master’s adopted daughter and, in doing so, converts the nobleman and all of the members of his house. When Emperor Claudius hears of this miracle and the conversions, he has Valentine killed.
  • All of the different iterations of the Valentine legend have a number of factual and stylistic problems that have led scholars to agree that they are not reliable sources of historical information. The clearest example of this is the identity of the emperor, as there is absolutely no documentation of any persecution by Claudius.
  •  Basically, these legends must be understood as part of a literary genre focused on imparting specific values.
  • But – these legends don’t have any connection to the themes of love and romance that are what Valentine’s Day itself has come to be about.

One theory suggests that Valentine’s Day is a Christian reconstruction of a pagan holiday known as Lupercalia – a fertility festival

  • However, this theory has been debunked.  Apparently it was based on a mistaken understanding of Church chronology.
  • Another theory suggests that Valentine’s Day’s themes of love and romance were actually a creation of Geoffrey Chaucer and a number of his contemporaries in late 14th century here in England. In fact, the first literary reference to Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love is found in a poem that Chaucer wrote in honour of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.
  • The ritual of sending formal greetings seems to have appeared in the 1500s, and we know how widespread this has become today. Yet, the source for the custom seems to have evolved out of an embellishment to the legend of St. Valentine –the embellishment being that Valentine falls in love with the daughter of his jailer and on the night before his execution, he writes her a parting note signed “from your Valentine.”  Of course, there is no evidence of this having happened.
  • All of this unclear history prompted the Catholic church in 1969 –Vatican II to remove Valentine’s Day from the church’s calendar – they stated that ‘nothing apart from his name is known, except that he was buried in Via Flaminia (in Rome) on February 14th’

Ok – so to sum up, the Church has declared that Valentine’s Day is not a Christian holiday.  There is no proof that there is any religious history or significance to this date.  But does that mean that we should be celebrating it?  Well, there has been a good deal of halachic discussion on the issue of Jews celebrating secular holidays, and there are a number of criteria that need to be met in order for the Rabbis of old to have approved of a celebration.  I won’t go into each criterion now, but the basic idea is that in order for the Rabbis to approve of Jews observing a secular celebration, the intent, activities, and purpose need to be consistent with Jewish messages and values.

And so, looking back at the legends around the mythical St. Valentine, we can see that the real message of Valentine’s Day was originally about faith.  A strength and conviction of faith so strong that he was willing to risk his own death in order to spread his message.

Our Torah portion this week is all about faith.  After the Israelites are given the Ten Commandments, this dramatic moment at Sinai, they are hit with the reality of what it means to have rules.  This is the week in which our Torah changes in tone and content dramatically.  Since the beginning of Genesis, we read personal family stories. We learn about our ancestors’ lives, their relationships, their failures and their triumphs.  The Torah, up until this point is a series of narratives about characters, and now we shift our focus to laws, rules, and words to live by.  The Torah is no longer about specific characters, but about all of us – all of the people of Israel.  This shift shows that we are really moving towards a future together, that at this point, the Children of Israel were truly and finally a people.  Laws and rules help to make us a people, a society.  The rules are there to form society, to keep order, and to show people how to interact with each other.  In this portion, 53 commandments are given, and the Israelites accept them all by saying “na’aseh v’nishma” – we will do and we will hear.  Take note – the doing came first.  This is one of the strongest possible displays of faith.  The people had faith that God wouldn’t ask them to do something bad, and so they swore that they would agree to follow the commandments and then learn their purpose and meaning.  It’s important to recognize though, that this promise doesn’t preclude understanding – understanding is a very important element of fulfilling the Mitzvot, but their faith came first.

This can be a troubling concept, especially for those of us steeped in Reform ideology.  Our movement teaches that religious practice must be based upon learning and understanding, and not just “doing what we are told.”  I don’t think that na’aseh v’nishma is really talking about blind faith, although sometimes I think that having that kind of conviction would be a great way to live, but I think that it is about trusting our inner voices, trusting our gut instincts.  Doing what we KNOW is right without having to be told.  We know that kindness, compassion, and love are right – they are innate inside of us.  Na’aseh v’nishma means that we will do what’s good and right no matter what.  Obviously, this can be very hard. Doing the right thing, doing the compassionate thing doesn’t always seem to be the most effective or practical way to deal with issues in our society, but each one of us knows deep in our souls what is really right and wrong.  That is what I think that na’aseh v’nishma really means.  It’s not about doing what you’re told and then getting the explanation after.  It’s about accepting the concept of the laws, agreeing to always do what’s right, and then struggling with the specifics after.  I like to think of it as the covenant being in our kishkas – we know what to do, and then we can intellectualize and debate the details.  In fact, if we take a close look at the Hebrew, we can see that the word nishma – we will hear – has the root shma – shin mem ayin, and the Hebrew word for guts m’i has a similar root of mem ayin yud.  So na’aseh v’nishma can be thought to mean “we will do, for we will hear it in our guts.”

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that we will just do every one of the laws handed to us.  There are plenty of laws that don’t work for us, plenty that make us uncomfortable.  I’m not saying that we should ignore that discomfort and just do them all and deal with the reasons later.  I’m saying that those laws give us an ever greater opportunity to trust our guts…to know when something is no longer relevant.  In fact, there are some laws in the Torah that, to the best of our knowledge, have never been followed – laws that the Rabbis of old wouldn’t allow us to follow.  I have to believe that this is because people always knew that doing good, doing what’s right, following our guts had to supersede laws.  Why were such objectionable laws given to begin with?  Well, maybe it was a misunderstanding or misinterpretation on the part of those who wrote the laws down. Or maybe it was a Divine test – a way of checking to make sure that we followed our guts.  A way of ensuring that we trusted in goodness and compassion over all else.  When our students become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we tell them that even though they might not be old enough to take care of themselves and fulfil all of their responsibilities as an adult, they are old enough to know right from wrong – and that’s what’s at the heart of our covenant with God.  By saying na’aseh v’nishma, we promise to always try to do what’s right, what’s in our guts.

In this way, we can see that all of the laws and rules handed down to us aren’t meant to restrict our behaviours, as much as they actually give us the ability to exercise free will.  The Hebrews spent years and years in bondage and slavery, and just a few days after celebrating their freedom, they are given this hefty set of rules.  But, instead of confining us, the rules are there to show us how to treat others, how to act with compassion, kindness, and love – and even when our guts tell us that a law isn’t right, that is also our opportunity to let love speak louder than rules.

Which brings us back to Valentine’s Day.  Originally, this was a celebration of faith, and today, it’s a celebration of love.  Which are, in essence, the same thing.  Faith in God means faith in each other, faith in ourselves, and faith in love and compassion to always lead us in the right direction.  And so on this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember that our laws are really all about love.  To paraphrase the famous passage from Pirkei Avot; in a world where it often seems like there are few true human beings, we as Jews must always strive to be loving, compassionate people.  That is what the mitzvot truly teach us.