I was surprised to learn that in some Jewish institutions, such as homes for the aged, the holiday is referred to as heart day” or “love day.” I’ve never really thought of Valentine’s Day as a “Christian holiday” but apparently some people do—particularly people who are not Christians and are afraid they might inadvertently participate in a Christian rite.
It’s been a long time since I’ve thought much about this holiday. I suppose my most memorable Valentine’s Day was when I was in elementary school—first or second grade, I think. I was walking with my friend Naomi to her house, carrying a paper bag stuffed with valentines that my classmates had given me. I hadn’t opened any of them yet but was looking forward to poring over them later. I knew that many kids gave out valentines to everyone in the class but still, I thought I might be able to tell who thought I was special from the kinds of valentines I got.
A couple of boys, probably a year or two older than we, were walking behind us. One of them grabbed my bag. “What’s this, valentines?” he asked sarcastically. Then, “Oops, I dropped them” as he dumped the bag onto the sidewalk. It had been raining earlier and many of them dropped in a puddle or into the gutter. I felt my cheeks burn as I stared down at my valentines. “Well aren’tcha gonna pick ’em up?” the boy asked.
It was a mean thing to do, spilling my valentines like that, but somehow I felt the boy would not be satisfied until he saw me try to collect them back into the bag. And I did not want him to be satisfied.
“Well, aren’tcha?” he repeated.
“No,” I said. “They’re dirty now.”
“But don’tcha want ’em?”
“No,” I lied, “I don’t care.” The boys passed, one looking disappointed, the other maybe a little ashamed. Naomi said, “Don’t you want your valentines? I’ll help you pick them up.”
“No thanks,” I said, and smiled a little. It was nice of her but I was afraid that if I let her help me the tears I felt welling up would overflow.
We walked on. I don’t know if I missed out on something particularly good because I was too hurt and too proud to pick up my valentines. I guess my reaction to that bully boy was stronger than whatever anticipation I had about the cards my classmates had addressed to me.
I don’t want to make superficial comparisons from this memory that, after all, is hardly consequential. But this reminiscing would be purely self-indulgent if I didn’t make some attempt to illustrate a point with it.
Seriously, I think of how my people have been bullied by many who claimed to be Christians. I guess it’s not surprising that some are scrupulous about not celebrating anything that might seem to be capitulating to what is sometimes perceived as an overpowering Christian majority. Some Jews are too hurt or too proud to pick up and examine something that could be special, something that a bully has used against them to try to humiliate them. Most if not all of you, dear readers, are so supportive of the Jewish people that you might be bewildered to think that anyone has used the Christian religion to humiliate Jewish people. I am glad that you’ve never been a part of this sad fact of history, and even, in some places where you’d least expect it, contemporary life.
I hope you can understand that many Jewish people want nothing to do with anything that might seem to afford satisfaction to those they see as oppressors. However, that’s not usually how it’s articulated. More likely it’s something to the effect of, “Why should we borrow their holidays and act like we’re not Jews when we have our own meaningful traditions?” And then out comes the tradition.
In the case of Valentine’s Day, I was intrigued by the alternative posed by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Some of you will remember Rabbi Boteach who, along with David Brickner and a couple of others, was part of a panel discussion on the “Larry King Live” show in the ’90s. Shmuley wears a few different hats; he continues in his anti-missionary role, at times publicly debating noted Messianic apologist Michael Brown. But Shmuley also considers himself a “relationship expert” and has written much on the subject of love. In that vein, he has commented on a Jewish alternative to Valentine’s Day.
Basically, Shmuley’s Jewish alternative to Valentine’s Day is Tu B’Av which means, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. The “Day of Love” Rabbi Boteach extolls is loosely based on a rather questionable chapter of history wherein a group of Israelites came up with a scheme to procure wives for the tribe of Benjamin. I suspect that any Jewish people who are familiar with the real biblical story would prefer to celebrate the traditional Valentine’s Day, Christian undertones or not. But that is just my opinion and I could certainly be mistaken. Yet it seems that sometimes in an effort to avoid association with all things Christian, people can become enamored with traditions that are, at times, rather far flung from the facts.
If you want to know more about this “Jewish alternative to Valentine’s Day,” go to http://www.beliefnet.com/story/36/story_3651_2.html
And if you want to know the actual biblical account, go to the book of Judges, chapter 21. And notice how the end of chapter caps the whole story with the refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (verse 25).
The interesting thing is that Shmuley talks about how the holiday (which generally falls around August) is celebrated in Israel. He says, “Our Israeli brethren have already reestablished Tu B’Av as the premier Jewish Love Festival, and last year alone more than 20,000 people joined in romantic gatherings at the Sea of Galilee.”
I had to smile, knowing that our staff in Israel were, as usual, at the festival to greet the largely agnostic or New Age crowd with the gospel. Our Tel Aviv staff have told us that sadly, the atmosphere of this festival is not unlike the book of Judges, where everyone does what is right in their own eyes. This is not an especially Jewish tendency, but a human failing among people of all backgrounds who do not accept God’s right to reign in our hearts.
If the gospel is God’s love letter (or valentine, if you will) to the lost whom He woos, I suppose there are plenty of bullies from all walks of life who would knock that letter down into the gutter, trying to make it appear spoiled and worthless. But for those who anticipate that, just maybe, the message of Jesus shows that they are special to God, we pray that they are not too hurt or too proud to look past the outer envelope that sometimes bears the mud of historical and contemporary bullies or detractors. Whatever some may do to soil and stain the good news of God’s amazing and sacrificial love, it remains pure and unspoiled. It will quicken the heartbeat of any who can humble themselves to open up to the gospel of Jesus, regardless of where it has been tossed or dragged, regardless of how it appears.
And as for you—no matter what this Valentine’s Day does or does not hold for you—may you be altogether thrilled by the gospel truth that you are special to our loving and extravagant God.