Tisha B'av, a Jewish communal mourning day

The Elijah Interfaith Institute's director, Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein

The Elijah Interfaith Institute's director, Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Understanding Free Love

Tish’a Be’av and Free Love

For the past forty years, and increasingly so from year to year, “free love”, אהבת חינם, is pitched as the message of Tish’a Be’av. Forty years ago, it was an idea, a feature that accompanied the day’s main message – mourning for the destroyed Temple. By now it seems to have become the main message of Tish’a Be’av. Ask the common Israeli who has no particular feeling for the Temple, what is the meaning and message of Tish’a Be’av, and the likely answer will be: Free love.

For those who haven’t been following, I don’t mean free love in the sense of the Jewish Valentine’s day that has come into vogue over the past twenty years a few days later on the 15th of Av. I refer, rather, to a teaching that is based on the Talmudic text that accounts for the destruction of the second Temple. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b) the first Temple was destroyed due to idolatry, adultery and murder. The second Temple, by contrast, was destroyed due to שנאת חינם, free hatred, or unjustified hatred.

The emphasis on שנאת חינם, free hatred, has led to a saying that if the Temple was destroyed due to free hatred, it will be rebuilt by free love, אהבת חינם.

Who is behind this teaching? Judging by its increased popularity one might think it is Talmudic or at least very ancient. It is not. It is typically quoted in the name of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Orot Hakodesh 3, p. 324), which would make it no more than 100 years old. There are other attributions as well, not much older.

It seems to me the teaching has largely redefined the meaning of Tish’a Be’av. Its classical significance is a day of mourning for the Temple. With the emphasis on free love, it has increasingly become a day for preaching tolerance, acceptance of the other and even democracy. In wider circles, free love and tolerance are pitched as keys for keeping together today’s society and preventing a future destruction of society. The Temple, in this popular application, has become a metaphor for society, if it is remembered at all.

How Hatred Works

Just in time for Tish’a Be’av, I came across an amazing passage by the same Rav Kook, which I believe holds a key to understanding hatred, to understanding our reality today and to understanding free love.

As part of a long description of the spiritual history of the Jewish people (Pinkesei Reayah 4, p. 168), Rav Kook writes:

The hatred of other people, which is a particular form of the evil inclination (yetzer hara’) that comes with setting up national boundaries, even though it is seemingly directed only to a foreign people, and it is in this sense only a moral imperfection that does not touch the lot of the nation, becomes over time an internal curse, and the hatred among brothers increases and destroys all the good within the nation, through the terrible destruction of the moral goodness that is saturated within it (the nation).

What Rav Kook is saying is that one can’t draw boundaries around hate. If you hate, hatred is a quality that fills the heart and you will not be able to contain it or to limit its recipients. It may begin as hatred shown to those outside, the members of another community, another people, the foreigners, the outsiders. But hatred of the other is a moral fault and it cannot be contained only with reference to whomever one is projecting such hatred. Sooner or later, that hatred will become internal. The hatred shown to the outsider will be manifested towards the insider, the brother. Hatred destroys our moral fabric, says Rav Kook, it overpowers the good in us, and if we give it expression, it destroys the core goodness that should unite us as a people.

The lessons seem to me ever so relevant for today’s Israel. There is so much othering going on in Israel’s collective consciousness. How can we expect that othering to stop with our enemies and not turn on us? The divisiveness that we see today, even if it “only” serves political ends, is made possible by the turning inwards of hatred previously projected to the outside. Hatred destroys, and cultivating hatred, even towards others, will ultimately destroy us from within.

Tish’a Be’av and Free Love Revisited

We can now revisit Rav Kook on free hatred and free love. Free hatred is the hatred that has turned from the outside within. If so, free love is the need to expand the love, usually reserved within, to the outside. Just as we can’t put boundaries around hatred, we can’t, and shouldn’t, put boundaries around love. Free love means love applied not just to the in-group, to those with whom we share ideals. It means more than democratic and pluralistic civility. It means we are able to love even those on the outside, those who disturb us, those who push our boundaries. Ultimately – it includes even our enemies, as Rav Kook himself makes explicit (Midot Hareaya, Ahava).

Why does it matter? In part because our moral goodness depends on it, as he suggests.

In part, because we seek to avoid the self-destructiveness of the alternative – free hatred.

But above all, because it really is tied to the teaching of the Temple, its destruction and the key to its rebuilding. God does not dwell in buildings. He dwells in a people and he dwells in hearts. When these are in tact, he can also make his presence known spatially. “They shall make for me a tabernacle, and I shall dwell in them “(Ex. 25,8). The emphasis, as so many Hassidic authors have taught us, is on God dwelling in the people, not in buildings. God cannot dwell in a heart full of hatred, neither hatred to the outsider, nor to the insider. If we really care about God’s dwelling in the world, not only about the stability of our pluralistic society and its discourse, then we should consider the heart – the heart of the individual and the heart of society. That heart must be cultivated with love, if it is to be a dwelling place for God.

We can now return to Rav Kook’s original insight of the Temple being rebuilt by means of free love and recognize how that would be. Only if we push the boundaries of love, extending them out farther and farther, can our hearts become dwelling places for God. Only that way can the Temple be rebuilt.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.