Impossible Love

lovers quarrelLove is impossible.

That’s just the way it is.

Love stimulates growth and change, so love never sits still or stays put where you set it.

If love, that is, the act of loving, becomes static, you can be sure something will appear to disrupt it.

A chaos, a jealousy, an abandonment, a misunderstanding — some third thing that threatens the harmony of the two lovers.

This threat doesn’t necessarily arise because the love is weak, or because the lovers are immature. It arises out of the nature of love.

And love, with its disruptions and its pleasures, is necessary for soul-making.

So says psychologist James Hillman.

And so says the story of the Golden Calf  (Exodus 32-33). As the story opens, love grows between God and the Israelites. Each takes risks for the other. God does battle with Pharaoh, and self-reveals at Mount Sinai. The Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, and hear the terrifying Divine voice. God says, “I have carried you on eagle’s wings, and brought you back to me.” The Israelites say, “We will do and we will listen.” Everything is going so well.

Until…the Israelites feel that God has abandoned them. And God feels replaced by a golden idol. God’s jealousy is so fierce, it’s equal to God’s passion. God wants to kill everyone God loves.

Moses mediates. Not by talking God out of God’s jealousy or passion, but just by buying some time. “What about appearances?” Moses says. “You’ll look really weak if you can’t handle this relationship.”

God pauses and, by showing Moses the 13 attributes of compassion plus the one attribute of accountability, says “You are right, Moses. My true nature is love. Love is 93% compassion and patience, and 7% deep wounds.”

But God stays in the relationship, and so do the Israelites. God designs a mishkan (sanctuary), a beautiful dwelling where they can be together, and the Israelites build it. They grow in spirituality and community.

The drama repeats in the Book of Numbers. The Israelites decide they don’t trust God to bring them to the land of Canaan. God becomes angry and threatening. Moses and Aaron mediate. The lovers are reconciled. Together, they undertake the project of claiming the land. The Israelites grow in courage and resolve.

Are the Israelites flawed? Yes. Is God temperamental? Yes. Do they clash? Yes. Are they bonded to each other in love? Yes. Does the roller-coaster of love take them somewhere? Yes.

Shir HaShirim, the erotic Biblical love poem traditionally read on Passover, says this too. Its lovers are together, apart, together. Their love is beautiful, and wounded too, disrupted and strengthened again and again. Others seek to shield them from pain. But no one can protect them.

Together: Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth/for your love is more delightful than wine/Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance/Your name is like the finest oil/Therefore do maidens love you/Draw me after you let us run!/The king has brought me to his chambers (1:1-3)

Apart: Upon my couch at night/I sought the one I love/I sought but found him not/I must rise and roam the town/Through the streets and through the squares/I must seek the one I love/I sought but found him not (3:1-2)

Together, then Apart: I was asleep/But my heart was wakeful/Hark, my beloved knocks!/Let me in, my own/My darling, my faultless dove!/For my head is drenched with dew/My locks with the damp of night/I rose to let in my beloved/My hands dripped myrrh/My fingers flowing myrrh/Upon the handles of the bolt/I opened the door for my beloved/But my beloved had turned and gone (5:2-6)

Together: How lovely are your feet in sandals/O daughter of nobles!/Your rounded thighs are like jewels/The work of a master’s hand/Your navel is like a round goblet/Let mixed wine not be lacking! (7:2-3)

Bonded: Let me be a seal upon your heart/Like the seal upon your hand/For love is fierce as death/Passion is mighty as Sheol/Its darts are darts of fire/A blazing flame/Vast floods cannot quench love/Nor rivers drown it. (8:6-7)

Protection? We have a little sister/Whose breasts are not yet formed/What shall we do for our sister/When she is spoken for? If she be a wall/We will build upon it a silver battlement/If she be a door/We will panel it in cedar. (8:8-9)

No, thanks! I am a wall/My breasts are like towers/Hurry my beloved! (8:10, 14)

Controversy surrounds the original intent of Shir HaShirim. Does it describes a profound human experience of erotic love, or a profound spiritual love between God and human beings? Teiku, as we say in rabbinic Hebrew: “It’s a tie. The question cannot be definitively answered.” Shir HaShirim describes both.

Impossibility, disruption, chaos, change, and growth. Why is love so hard?

Image: “Lovers’ Quarrel,”

  1. “This threat doesn’t necessarily arise because the love is weak, or because the lovers are immature. It arises out of the nature of love”
    The witness of the Holy scriptures agrees with James Hillman on count 1. Cf. Songs 8:6; 8:7 & Jn. 13:1 (Jesus having loved his own loved them to the end). On counts 2 & 3 biblical wit ness does not support his position. It is fair to inter-disciplinary collaboration with theology; but the rules of engagement I believe must be grounded within the norms of biblical assertion – e.g. “God is love.” To posit that God is love is to affirm that this love is sui generis and therefore any understanding of love must be contingent upon and take queue from this primal love.
    I do not think the psychologist Hillman knows and understands what love is outside the realm of human experience. To impose the general conclusion that “it is in the nature of love” is to conflate “love” within and from two domains of experience; one of which he may only objectively know about and the other subjectively. When we promise our spouses for example our eternal love and commitment, we impose a category of love that is neither viable nor experientially true. Human love is not constitutively eternal because we are time constrained and therefore to ascribe eternality to that which is transient is to metaphorically gesture to another as language allows us.

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