Love is a funny thing. Even though most people view it as one of the most important aspects of their lives, they have a tough time defining it. Poets and painters have labored to capture and express its essence through their arts. Scientists and sociologists have probed it, endeavoring to explain its origin and purpose – all with questionable results.
How can we be so confused about something so fundamental to the human experience?
Love is at the root of our most precious relationships, craved in all times and in all places, and, strangely, it’s a bottomless pit that can never be filled. There never will come a time when we say, “Ah, I’ve had the last interaction I’ll ever need with this person.” Even if we lived 1000 years, it wouldn’t be enough. If only our beloved could be here just a little longer.
That’s why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What is this thing called love?
— Cole Porter
Love: My Chemical Romance?
There are those who suggest that love is a chemical illusion created by the brain and “designed” by evolution to promote the survival of our species.
If that’s the case, evolution did a pretty lousy job. If anything, love is a great hindrance to us. It causes us to make crazy and rash decisions (Romeo and Juliet), to have fewer offspring so that we can pay more attention to each one, and to lay down our lives – often for the weaker, less-viable portions of the population.
Other life forms do a perfectly fine job of reproducing in a loveless manner – salmon do not carry a torch for “the one that got away,” and mosquitoes do not endlessly pine for their departed fore-bearers as there’s nothing productive in that. Love seems to be something quite different.
Here is some standard materialist thinking about emotionality. In a nutshell:
- Physical existence is the only kind of existence
- People experience emotions, therefore
- Emotions have a physical cause
For many years we have been hearing about the causal link between the experience of love and a chemical called Oxytocin. The story went something like this:
- People have genes
- Genes have a “drive” to reproduce
- Evolution selected Oxytocin to help ensure that parents would care for their offspring
- “Love” is really just Oxytocin tricking us into keeping our genes going
So leaving aside the high improbability of a functional gene ever randomly developing and not attempting to account for how a chemical arrangement like a gene would come to “want” something like reproduction and not bothering to ask how the species could have survived before it had evolved its Oxytocin, materialists have a new problem – Oxytocin, it seems, doesn’t even do what they thought.
A science writer known as Neuroskeptic has recently published a piece in Discover entitled “Oxytocin: Two New Reasons For Skepticism.” Apparently, according to researcher James C. Christensen “quite a lot of previous Oxytocin research may be flawed.” Later in the study, Chistensen details how he and his team extracted and measured Oxytocin levels in people who were asked to play “the Prisoner’s Dilemma” game (which requires participants to make decisions based on trust or lack thereof). They assumed that there would be an obvious relationship between the Oxytocin levels and the level of trust but what they found was that there are “no significant correlations between Oxytocin and behavior.”
And there’s the rub. Maybe there’s not much of a correlation between chemicals in the body and behavior overall. Could it be that chemical changes generally occur on the heels of emotional ones and not the other way around? If so, what would then be the true source of our emotional experience? Theists have long asserted that there is both a physical and non-physical component to a human being. These components work in tandem to create the full experience of being human.
Science is at a loss as to how to explain many aspects of human behavior and experience. Once science comes to acknowledge that there are aspects of existence that are not rooted in physicality but rather in metaphysicality they may be able to explain the human experience of love.
Love: Break On Through To The Other Side?
In his book “Judaism: a Way of Being” David Gelernter outlines the Jewish concept of human separation from the spiritual realm. We are blocked from accessing it directly though we can come as close as we like – our noses almost pressed against the surface – to discern its contours and to make inferences about what lies just beyond. The veil both separates and connects but only one thing in this universe is capable of creating that connection beyond the veil – love. Love is the key that unlocks “the other side.”
Only one thing can penetrate the veil. ‘The People of Israel are beloved,’ says the Talmud…God is hidden like the mezuzah text, separated from Israel by a sacred screen that is like a bridal veil — opaque except to love.
What about our dead who we miss so dearly and the love of them which can never be requited? In truth, they are not so very far away — they are separated from us by only a thin screen.
In Gelernter’s words:
When someone dies…we ask that God grant the departed “perfect peace beneath the wings of God’s presence.” We ask that the departed be gathered to God’s side beyond the veil. The phrase recalls cherubim’s wings screening the Ark of the Covenant, curtains screening the Holy of Holies, Moses’ veil…or the blanket spread over a sleeping child on a cold night. Judaism has developed many doctrines about death over the millennia, but the simplest and deepest is this: our dead are beyond the veil – which is opaque, inviolable, and impenetrable, except by love.
In what ways should this knowledge affect us? The generation and enhancement of love between individuals is conceivably the single most significant activity a person can engage in. Most cultures and religious systems acknowledge this – few of us follow through. How many of us proactively worked on this today, the day before, or ever?
Nonetheless, it is part of the definition of a successful and fulfilling life. How many of us are consciously engaged in it? What is our plan to carry it out? The good life requires teaching ourselves how to love. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote:
I’m going to talk with you about love today, which is life and death; it is all the same thing. If you live well, you will never have to worry about dying. You can do that even if you only have one day to live. The question of time is not very important; it is a man-made, artificial concept anyway. To live well means basically to learn to love.
Love After Death: The Yizkor Prayer
The Yizkor prayer is recited during the synagogue prayer service on Yom Kippur (and the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot).
Yizkor is founded on two fundamental Jewish beliefs; one, that the prayers and actions of people in this world can have an elevating spiritual effect on the souls of the departed, and two, that a primary, God-given mission in every person’s life is to make the world a kinder, better, more beautiful place. In Jewish life, this pursuit of kindness is known as olam chesed yibaneh, “to build a world of kindness.”
Yizkor is a beautiful expression of these ideas. The central element of yizkor is the commitment to make a charitable donation in honor of ones departed relative. By making such a commitment, you are affirming the belief that God wants us to do what we can to be helpful and alleviate the suffering of others. When you make an effort to help someone else, and do so in honor of a relative, then the relative becomes the motivating cause behind your act of kindness.
You and your departed relative become partners in this act of kindness. The result is that you become a better, more giving person, the departed soul of your relative is elevated and the recipient benefits from your kindness and generosity.
Yizkor is a short prayer that elevates the soul of a departed loved one and has a deep spiritual impact on the soul of departed relatives, leaving a powerful emotional impression on those who say it.