In Judaism, the covenant between God and Israel has two aspects to it—a concrete contract, on the one hand, and an infinite set of aspirations, on the other.
Thus, the 613 mitzvot are concrete obligations that the Jewish people take upon themselves in serving God, but in and of themselves they do not exhaust our commitments and obligations, because a relationship rooted in love can never be encapsulated in a checklist, no matter how long or detailed. Love’s aspirations are limitless, and hence the Bible mandates not only that we observe the commandments, but also that we “walk in God’s ways,” which our sages interpret as living a life of chesed, of love manifested as kindness. The concrete mitzvot thus represent the baseline commitment beneath which we may not fall; a life of lovingkindness is the height towards which we aspire.
The covenant entered into under a
chupah is parallel to the one shared by God and Israel. On the one hand, there is the ketubah, which lists a set of concrete obligations between the partners (for present purposes, I am bracketing the obviously important questions of reciprocity and gender equality). Now, only a fool would suggest that the ketubah, which sounds like a contract precisely because that’s all it is, exhausts the commitments and obligations of marriage. (Imagine telling your spouse, “I’ve done all 14 things required of me by marriage, and I have thus completed the task of loving you.” You would rightly be accused of not yet having understood the first thing about love and covenant). But again: love’s aspirations are limitless, and in enacting a covenant with another, we commit to a lifetime of mutual love and care; of support and sustenance; of intimacy physical, emotional and spiritual; of nurturing in countless ways the uniquely precious image of God with whose life and dignity we are entrusted.
The heart of the Jewish wedding ceremony (Nisu’in) is the recitation of the sheva brachot, the seven blessings. In these blessings, we tell the story of the universe, from its beginning in creation to its culmination in the redemption of Jerusalem. Why not just thank God for the love between these two partners; why invoke the history of the cosmos in this moment? For, in reciting these brachot, we are making a bold and dramatic claim—that this wedding is a moment that matters in an ultimate way, that it has a crucial role to play in the redemption of the world. At a Jewish wedding, we implicitly declare, the cosmos shakes with the love between these two people. A wedding is never just a private affair, something enacted between two people alone. No, it is a sacred coming together, which adds love to the world and thus brings us closer to the future God envisions for humanity. What we have, in other words, is a marriage contract, on the one hand, and the aspiration to play a role in the healing and repair of the whole world, on the other.
This may help explain a riddle suggested by these blessings. If creation and redemption are history’s endpoints, revelation is usually taken to be the midpoint, the moment in which God’s love becomes manifest in the world. So why, on the wedding day, do we talk of creation and redemption, but not of revelation? Why no mention of Sinai—the moment when out of love, God reveals the Torah to Israel—in the sheva brachot? In the blessings, the absence of Sinai actually suggests something profound: at a wedding there is no need to mention Sinai, because there is another revelation on which we focus. The love between these two spouses is, like the Torah, a revelation of God’s love, and it serves as history’s midpoint, as the moment in history in which God’s love is made manifest. This, of course, is both a blessing and a challenge: at every wedding, we pray that the relationship consecrated helps bring the world to its final destination, a place where human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.
There is something crucial implicit in all this: the aspirations of a marrying couple are not just about the love and care they show one another, but also about the love and care they radiate outward. This is why the chupah traditionally has no walls—to remind us, gently but firmly, that the love between us must reverberate to the broader world around us. In other words, both the liturgy and the choreography of the wedding warn us about the “narcissism of two” and direct our attention not just to our responsibilities to and for one another, but also to our shared responsibilities to and for our communities and the world around us.
Jewish tradition makes two seemingly contradictory claims about God. On the one hand, we are taught that God withdraws (or contracts the divine light) in order to make space for the world, and for human beings within it. But on the other hand, we are told that God is always with us, even and especially in our times of need. How can God simultaneously contract and be with us? This ostensible contradiction is in fact no contradiction at all, and instead conveys a profound truth about God’s relationship with us: God is radically present while still making space for us. If we take the mandate to “walk in God’s ways” seriously, this paradox teaches us about the kind of relationships to which we should aspire—being present while still making space, making space while remaining present. So often in life, we are tempted to seize one pole at the expense of the other—to be present in such a way that we leave no space for the other, or to allow so much space that we cease to be present at all. Our goal, then, is to steer a course between narcissism and abandonment; it is precisely this kind of dialectical presence-contraction that marital love requires.
In a remarkable theological passage, the chasidic master Rabbi Zadok HaKohen of Lublin (1823–1900) discusses two kinds of covenantal love—vast, overflowing love (ahavah rabbah), on the one hand, and committed, enduring love (ahavat olam), on the other. In their morning prayers, Ashkenazic Jews speak of God’s vast love for the Jewish people—and by implication, they testify to their own aspiration to reciprocate; in the evenings, by contrast, they speak of God’s enduring love. Why the distinction? Rabbi Zadok offers a stunning explanation. Morning is a time of new light and possibility, when abundant love can emerge—and the liturgy is constructed accordingly. Evening, on the other hand, is a time of darkness, which is suggestive of fear, uncertainty and pain. In such situations what is called for is abiding love, and again, the liturgy responds accordingly. In its fullness, then, covenantal love is both abundant and abiding, overflowing at times but persisting always.
We can learn a great deal about the covenantal love between spouses from what Rabbi Zadok teaches about the parallel love between God and Israel. A young couple will understandably aspire to have vast, passionate love flow constantly between them—to live, that is, in a kind of “eternal morning.” But life, as we know all too well, does not work that way: just as every life has periods of greater and lesser light, so also every authentic love grows more and less passionate over time. In order to weather the waxing and waning of passion, mature love must thus be characterized at least as much by abiding commitment as by abundant passion.
In fact, we might define covenantal love precisely as that love which endures even through periods of darkness. The sobriety of ahavat olam is necessarily calmer than the ardency of ahavah rabbah. And yet, paradoxically, this is the very source of its power and greatness: passions may ebb and flow, but commitments endure. In truth, this is the secret behind all spiritual discipline (halachic practice included): moments of passionate, overflowing love are wonderful, but they are not in and of themselves the core of covenantal love. Covenantal love is marked by “faithfulness at night,” and not just by passion “in the morning.”
Rabbi Shai Held is co-founder, rosh ha’yeshiva, and chair in Jewish thought at Yeshivat Hadar