February 7, 2011
Don’t dismiss the Jewish character of Cupid
What’s Jewish about Valentine’s Day?
The day was first released from the purview of the Catholic Church in 1969, when Pope Paul VI declared that Valentine’s Day was no longer a saint’s day for universal liturgical veneration on the Catholic calendar. This restored Valentine’s Day to its original state, a traditional mating day of birds—and humans—in the English folk calendar.
But Cupid isn’t exclusively a pagan symbol.
Without trying to sort out the connections between the classical figure of erotic power and the biblical cherubs prescribed for the Holy Ark, there is interesting archeological evidence of Cupid’s Jewish character.
Cupid appears on Jewish sarcophagi in Rome, on paintings in Jewish catacombs in Rome and, most significantly, above the door of the synagogue at Capernaum in Israel—six of them over the main entrance, according to Erwin Goodenough in “Jewish Symbols of the Greco-Roman Period.”
Clearly, if Palestinian Jews of the first century found it fitting to go to a shul where they were greeted each time by Cupid’s form, the winged one is not to be entirely dismissed from Jewish religious consideration.
What, then, is the significance of this figure in Greco-Roman times? What might he be saying as he stands there, vivid in bas relief, above the entryway?
Cupids often are represented holding cups and associated with Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, Goodenough explained in “Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period.” The suggestion is that love intoxicates.
Song of Songs, the biblical book sung by many Chasidic Jews every Friday night, sounds the same theme.
“I am faint with love,” writes the author. “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”
E.E. Cummings agreed, writing that “Love’s function is to fabricate unknownness.”
Lest you think love is an indulgence, Cupid reminds that it is a necessity of life, not a frill. We need it to be released from the hell of isolation, the Greek philosophers wrote.
This notion is not only Greek. It is also long established in the rabbinic tradition. To live in isolation is to live “without joy, without blessing, without happiness,” the Talmud says in Tractate Yevamoth.
“It is not good for a man to be alone,” God says in Genesis.
There is even a rabbinic legend similar to the Greek one related by Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”—that among the original forms of the human being one was androgynous, male and female, that was later cut apart and became separate male and female.
It appears in Bereshit Rabbah: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: ‘At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the primordial person, that person was created with two faces (one male, one female). That person was then cut in two, and separated.’ ”
The ancients believed the effects of love were not simply personal but social, too.
“The saving effect of love is not only that it makes men pleasant who were far from affable, but that it makes a ‘soul that is narrow, debased, and is begotten to be suddenly filled with understanding, a sense of humor, grace and liberality,’ ” Goodenough wrote, citing Plutarch Amatorius. “When we recognize the change, which is like putting a light into a house at night, we should exclaim with Telemachus, ‘Surely, some god is within.’ ”
This social element was apparent in the great lover of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard, the 12th century French scholastic philosopher, theologian, logician and church father whose ill-fated lifelong romance with Heloise has long been legendary.
Abelard “was the only leader in the Middle Ages who ventured to attack, openly, the anti-Jewish tradition of Christendom,” wrote Malcolm Hay in “Europe and the Jews.” “He attacked the tradition at its root. He said the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Christ.”
The ancient Greeks believed love was what made the world turn and what made life meaningful. This carries some weight in Judaism as well.
“Were it not for the libido [yetzer hara, or evil inclination], no one would build a house, wed, conceive and bear children, engage in trade,” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said in Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.
Small wonder, then, that the Cupid, a symbol of love, was placed above the main entrance of the synagogue at Capernaum.
In Gematria, the system that finds hidden meanings by assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters, the words “one” and “love”—“echad” and “ahava”—have the same numerical value, 13.
Once each year, then, might we not dare to translate the Shema differently, with a nod to this Gematria?
“Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is Love!”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
(Rabbi Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., was the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., serving there from 1971 to 1995.)