Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Valentine Dilemma

So we spend so much time focused on the traditional "December Dilemma" that we often forget the many holidays that we as Jews in America encounter, but aren't ours. Halloween. Valentine’s Day. Thanksgiving. Fourth of July. Living as a Jew in America means existing with a constant dual tension. While some of these holidays may have been Americanized to a point where their original meanings aren’t even recognizable, there are implications for observing them as Jews. As the secular calendar brings us to each of these, I will look at some of the holiday origins and will offer ways to encounter them Jewishly and also point out how Jews observe similar celebrations.

If we asked a second grader in 2010 about Valentine's Day, we would most likely hear about love, hearts, sweet tarts, candy, red/pink, flowers, cards, etc. And while this may be the Americanization/Secularization of the holiday, it isn't really the basis for the holiday. Ask the average adult, and they might tell you that they know it was originally St. Valentine's Day, but beyond that, have no historical context. They might re-iterate the seven year-old's list, and then go on to add jewelry, a date night out, and romance/sex. But again, no real historical context.

So, in our attempt to evaluate how Jews should approach the day, we must first look at the historical account of Valentine's Day. [www.petalsnetwork.com/info/valentines.htm, www.homiliesbyemail.com/Special/Valentine/history.txt]

The first interpretation has The Feast of Lubercus celebration originating as a pagan tradition in the third century. During this time hordes of hungry wolves roamed outside of Rome where shepherds kept their flocks. The God Lupercus, was said to watch over the shepherds and their flocks and keep them from the wolves. Every February the Romans celebrated a feast called Lupercalia to honor Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks. Also during Lupercalia, but in honor of the goddess Juno Februata, the names of young women were put into a box and names were drawn by lot. The boys and girls who were matched would be considered partners for the year, which began in March. This celebration continued long after wolves were a problem to Rome.

Valentines Day started in the time of the Roman Empire. Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II - Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular military campaigns. Claudius the Cruel, as he was known at the time, was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. He believed that the reason was that roman men did not want to leave their loves or families. As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome.

This was when a Christian priest named Valentine came to defend love in the empire. Valentine began to secretly marry couples despite the emperors orders. When Emperor Claudius was informed of these ceremonies Valentine was sent to prison where he remained until his death on February 14 in the year 270.

It wasn't until a few hundred years later when Valentine's Day began to develop as we know it. At the time Christianity was beginning to take control of Europe.

As part of this effort the Church sought to do away with pagan holidays. Valentine's Day came to replace a mid-February fertility festival called Lupercalia. In honor of his sacrifice for love Valentine was made a saint and Lupercalia renamed in his honor.

Interesting, huh? But what did we learn ... this holiday is based in Pagan, Roman and Christian history ... the date was chosen because it is the date that Valentine died ... and it's really about standing up for something you believe in (in this case it just happened to be the right to love and marry). Knowing this, based solely in the history, should Jews observe this holiday? [I would be interested in a healthy debate about this.]

On the other hand, if it's just about celebrating love, weddings, marriage, partnership, etc ... then Judaism provides us our own holiday to do so. {disclaimer: some of the following may have been adapted from other sources, but I originally put it together over 5 years ago, so I can't remember what was originally mine, and what was adapted....}

Picture this, as we go back in time: women clad in white, dancing in vineyards, men flocking to see them. As the second century Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel put it, “There were no better, happier days for the People of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel/Jerusalem got all dressed in white and danced in the vineyards. What were they saying: Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)…” —Taanit, Chaper 4

Centuries before Hallmark even thought about Valentine’s Day cards, Tu B’Av was a day that did more than celebrate love. It sanctified it. It ushered it into the highest realms of spirituality. Although it is difficult to cite the origins of the holiday, the Gemara says that on this day the biblical “tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other,” namely: to marry women from other tribes.

This was no meat market. Women were not to be judged solely by the shape of their bodies and the clothes that they wore, but by their character. In fact, it is said these women all borrowed white dresses that looked the exact same; that way, men had to look beyond their surface for a deep inner beauty. This was the day where the interior was as important as the exterior (and maybe even more.) The rabbis who ushered in this holiday understood that true love could not exist without substance, without respect, without an acknowledgement of another person’s inner beauty. Can you think of a better cause to celebrate than this?

So while I won't turn down flowers, chocolates, jewelry, love notes and "I Love You/Be Mine" sentiments any day of the year, I would prefer that extra-something come my way on Tu B'av and not specifically on Feb 14th.

And, just in case you need/want to add it to your calendar on my behalf ... here's the dates for the next three years.

Erev Tu B'Av:
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Thursday, August 2, 2012

p.s. Note the name of my blog ... get it now?