What Is Love?


Rabbi Rami dives into deep spiritual waters on the nature of love, evil, truth, and more.

I know this question may be unanswerable, but I’m asking it sincerely: What is love?

RABBI RAMI: One way to approach love is from the perspective of its opposite: fear. Fear is a response to life that shuts us down physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually; love is a response to life that opens us up physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Fear causes us to back away from others; love causes us to move closer to them. Fear raises our defenses; love takes them down. Fear is about escape; love is about engagement. Fear pretends to keep us safe; love knows safety is an illusion. There is a time for love and a time for fear. Sadly, many of us cannot tell what time it is.

My dad has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize me. When I tell him I’m his son, he gets very agitated. It is so painful that I’m thinking about not visiting him anymore. Is this the right thing to do?

I can’t imagine what this is like for you, but let me offer this: Continue to visit your dad and reintroduce yourself to him not as his son—a role you play—but as the person you truly are or would like to be. Doing this might be easier on him and provide you with an opportunity to better know yourself as well.

My mother died a while ago, and though I think of her often, I’m not prone to hearing from her. Until now. Lately, she has been singing me the lullaby “Rock-a-Bye Baby”: Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop /When the wind blows the cradle will rock / When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall / And down will come baby, cradle and all. It’s clearly her, and I have no idea what to make of this. Any thoughts?

If my mom were singing this to me, I would take it as a warning. The bough represents something that appears outwardly strong, but which is inwardly rotten. The cradle, dependent as it is on the rotting bough, represents a place of pseudo-refuge lulling me into a false sense of security. The wind that rocks me to sleep heralds a brewing storm that will snap the bough and send me hurtling earthward to serious injury, if not death.

Your subconscious, using the voice of your mom, is warning you of something that only you can determine. If I were you, I would sit with a therapist to uncover who or what is providing me with a false sense of security before the wind picks up and the bough breaks.

My sister is a devout Christian who insists that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Yet her “truth” imprisons her in racist attitudes and antiliberal politics. How can I help her become truly free?

While I doubt you can do anything to liberate your sister from her “truth,” you might at least point out that when Jesus stated his truth, he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, highlighting love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40). If your sister could replace her “truth” with Jesus’s truth, she might be more loving than racist.

My mother is religious. I’m spiritual. We know there’s a difference but can’t articulate it. How would you compare religion and spirituality?

Religion is a map. Spirituality is a compass. Religion-as-map leads you to a fixed destination: salvation, enlightenment, atonement, etc. Spirituality-as-compass has no destination, only direction.

While you may be traveling northward, you will never arrive at “north.” In this way, spirituality-as-compass keeps you moving toward compassion and justice without the conceit of having arrived and mastered compassion and justice. While the two need not be opposed to one another, I value compass over map and the journey over the destination.

My 90-something Jewish parents want my sister and I to prepare to leave the United States in response to rising antisemitism. We think they’re overreacting. What do you think?

My parents are of the same generation as yours, and my dad was always looking for signs that we should leave the U.S. I thought he was paranoid. I no longer hold that opinion. Attacks on Jews on the streets of major cities, attacks on Jews in synagogues both Orthodox and Reform, anti-Jewish rhetoric on social media and in the halls of Congress by legislators both Republican and Democrat, and a terrifying shift from liberalism to ethnonationalism leads me to seriously consider seeking refuge outside the U.S.; consider, but not yet act. My advice is twofold: 1) fight for liberal values openly as Jews and not just as liberals; and 2) organize your personal and financial papers and look for safer haven. But if you do leave, take care not to flee to a country that perpetuates against other people the fascism, hatred, and violence you fear at home.

Reading my Bible, I discovered this horrible statement: “The human heart inclines to evil from its youth” (Genesis 8:21). Is this true?

Reading the Hebrew original, the words “evil” and “youth” are better understood as “selfishness” and “adolescence.” Self becomes problematic if it morphs into selfishness. We are inclined towards this from that moment in adolescence when we develop the illusion of a separate self. As the 1st century BCE sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). Answer: a sociopath. The way to avoid evil is to care for both self and others rather than self at the expense of others.

Years ago, after decades of incessant arguing, my parents divorced. Neither ever remarried. They divided their possessions but never thought about their adjoining graves. They are both on the verge of death, and incapable of communicating. I can’t imagine they would want to be buried next to one another. What should I do about this?

The fact that you can’t imagine them buried side by side is irrelevant. For all you know they did think about their burial plans and wanted to be buried next to one another. If, like me, you don’t believe corpses have preferences, burying them side by side is fine. If, however, you believe they will lie next to one another and continue arguing, you can take comfort that they haveall eternity to make peace between themselves.

Listen to Rami’s podcast on the topic of green burial with documentary filmmaker Brian Wilson.

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