Daily Life: Relationships
Relationships: Interacting With Friends & Opposite Sex

Jewish Wisdom on Friendship
Jewish literature offers many insights into the nature of friendship, the rewards it offers, and the efforts one should make to sustain a friendship.

The following selections represent contributions to the understanding and appreciation of friendship. They are taken from a medieval midrash, a Hasidic tale, and the writing of a contemporary rabbi.

True Friendship

There were two close friends who had been parted by war so that they lived in different kingdoms. Once one of them came to visit his friend, and because he came from the city of the king's enemy, he was imprisoned and sentenced to be executed as a spy.

No amount of pleas would save him, so he begged the king for one kindness.

"Your Majesty," he said, "let me have just one month to return to my land and put my affairs in order so my family will be cared for after my death. At the end of the month I will return to pay the penalty."

"How can I believe you will return?" answered the king. "What security can you offer?"

"My friend will be my security," said the man. "He will pay for my life with his if I do not return."

The king called in the man's friend, and to his amazement, the friend agreed to the conditions.

On the last day of the month, the sun was setting, and the man had not yet returned. The king ordered his friend killed in his stead. As the sword was about to descend, the man returned and quickly placed the sword on his own neck. But his friend stopped him.

"Let me die for you," he pleaded.

The king was deeply moved. He ordered the sword taken away and pardoned them both.

"Since there is such great love and friendship between the two of you," he said, "I entreat you to let me join you as a third." And from that day on they became the king's companions.

And it was in this spirit that our sages of blessed memory said, "Get yourself a companion" [Mishnah Avot 1:6].

-- This translation of a legend, from the collection of minor midrashic works, Bet ha-midrash, assembled by the Viennese scholar Adolf Jellinek (1820-1893), appears in Francine Klagsbrun, Voices of Wisdom (Pantheon Books).

Learning to Love a Fellow Human Being

Rabbi Moshe Leib [of Sassov, a late 18th-century Ukrainian Hasidic master] told this story:

"How to love men [i.e., other persons] is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him, 'Tell me, do you love me or don't you love me?'

"The other peasant replied, 'I love you very much’.

"But the first peasant replied, 'You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.'

"The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again.

"But I understood. To know the needs of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow--that is the true love of men."

-- Martin Buber (1878-1965), a prolific author and influential Jewish thinker, was Professor of Social Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Reprinted from Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2: The Later Masters (Schocken Books).

Only Our Relationships Endure

I was sitting on a beach one summer day, watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water's edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.

I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.

I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to hold will be able to laugh.

-- Rabbi Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, and author of To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown & Co.) and Living a Life that Matters (Anchor Books). Reprinted from When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough (Summit Books).

Judaism and Sexuality

Judaism considers sex natural and holy, though not without boundaries. In the famous words of the Iggeret HaKodesh (The Holy Letter), a 13th-century treatise on sexuality often ascribed to Nahmanides, “One should know that sexual union is holy and pure when it is done as it should be, at the time it should be, and with proper intent.”

Traditionally, Judaism only approves of sex between a husband and wife. The first commandment in the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply,” and procreation is one of the reasons that sex is considered holy. Contraception is problematic because it interferes with the religious obligation to procreate; nonetheless, it is not absolutely prohibited. Traditional sources on sex tend to address men only, and the Talmud understands the commandment to procreate as a legal obligation specifically for men. Thus Jewish authorities are more lenient with female contraception, like the birth control pill.

Judaism recognizes the importance of sexual pleasure and companionship for its own sake as well. The Torah requires that a husband fulfill his wife’s need for intimacy. Exodus 21:10 lists marital intimacy as one of three basic things that a husband must provide to his wife (the other two are food and clothing). Laws governing sexual relationships are detailed in the Talmud. In fact, one of the most extensive of the six sections of the Talmud, Nashim (literally, “women”) is devoted to explicating the laws of sex and marriage, often with incredible detail. For example, the Talmud provides a detailed schedule for men’s conjugal duties, organized by profession. While a man of independent means is obliged to sleep with his wife every day, a camel driver is only obligated once in thirty days, and a sailor once in six months. That being said, a woman is allowed to reject her husband’s sexual advances, and Judaism forbids a man from pressuring his wife sexually.

There are, however, traditional restrictions on marital sex. Jewish law prohibits sex during menstruation. Though the Torah only prohibits intercourse during this time, later rabbinic authorities prohibited all physical contact. These restrictions apply for the seven days following a woman’s period and extend until she has immersed in a mikveh, a ritual bath. This category of laws is often referred to as Taharat HaMishpacha, or “family purity,” and though they have fallen out of favor with most contemporary Jews, many women—both liberal and traditional—are rediscovering and reinterpreting these laws to suit modern sensibilities.

The prohibition against having intercourse with a menstruating woman (known as a niddah) is stated in Leviticus 18. This chapter contains an extensive list of other inappropriate sexual relationships, including incest and bestiality. Adultery, of course, is one of the Ten Commandments listed both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Rape is treated in the Torah and later rabbinic writings as a monetary offense, perpetrated as much against the father of a rape victim (who ultimately will receive less of a dowry) as it is for the woman herself.

Despite the holiness of sex, rabbinic tradition often associates the sexual drive with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Paradoxically, however, the evil inclination isn’t all that bad; it can be harnessed for productivity and holiness. Indeed, according to a famous midrash, “Were it not for the yetzer hara, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children.”

The sexual imagery found in the Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism, is also worth noting. As Arthur Green wrote in the Second Jewish Catalog, “Kabbalists see the very origins of the universe as a never-ceasing process of arousal, coupling, gestation, and birth within the life of a God who is both male and female, and proclaim this complex inner flow of divinity, described in the most graphic of sexual terms, to be the highest of mysteries.” In contrast, many of the medieval philosophers were far less appreciative of sex. In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote, “The law about forbidden sexual intercourse seeks in all its parts to inculcate the lesson that we ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether, hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely.”