Grab a bouquet of flowers, and a bottle of wine. Throughout Israel couples are dancing, giving each other small gifts and dedicating love songs on the radio. This Sunday night, July 21, we usher in a Jewish holiday of love, Tu B’av.
Well before the time of Valentine’s Day, Tu B’av was a holiday in which women dressed in borrowed white dresses danced through the vineyards. Young men followed in hopes of finding a bride. Love was certainly in the air. Although the idea of men venturing out to capture a young bride is rather outdated, Tu B’av carried a message that is anything but.
“There never were in Israel greater days of joy,” explained Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, “than the Tu B’Av and the Day of Atonement.”
On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, we partake in self-reflection and honest soul searching, in hopes that we can learn from past mistakes and become the people we wish to be. On Tu B’av, we reflect on our relationships with our significant others, and consider ways to strengthen them. We search within ourselves, and reflect on past relationships, to consider what qualities our ideal mates should have.
In temple times, the Israelite women borrowed garments they wore on this day, in order to place all of the women on a level playing field. Even those who could not afford to own a white dress would be able to wear one and participate. According to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, these women danced in the vineyards exclaiming, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set them on good family. Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain. But a woman that fears God, she will be praised.”
Even in Temple times people needed to be reminded that they should pick a spouse based on far more than looks and social status. And yet, like today, there had been barriers to finding true love.
After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites entered the Land of Israel on Tu B’Av. When they did “tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other” (Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 30b). In other words, whereas before they entered the Promised Land, the Israelites may have been expected to marry within their tribe, now they were permitted to marry Jews of other tribes. Social status should no longer get in the way of marriage.
In modern times, social status may not deter marriages in the way it once did, but we have other barriers to recognizing true love. Same sex couples in many parts of the world are forced to keep their love as a secret; marriage is out of the question. In 38 states, same sex couples are not permitted to get married. Homosexuality is regarded by many as “immoral” or “a disease.”
Despite these setbacks, campaigns for marriage equality have become increasingly successful. This year alone, gay marriage was legalized in France, Uraguay, New Zealand, and now the UK. Homosexual couples can get married in 12 states in the US, and the recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) means that couples married and living within those 12 states can enjoy the same federal benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. Each of these decisions is a celebration of love– a realization the the definition of marriage as a heterosexual institution is an outdated boundary that is slowly crumbling. Just as the Israelites were afforded the right to marry a mate on the basis of character rather than status or looks, it is my prayer that one day couples will be able to marry based on love, rather than sexual orientation.
This Tu B’av let us celebrate the love all around us, recognizing that when couples marry for the right reasons, the institution of marriage becomes that much stronger.