Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein
The Origin of Love
How the Baal Shem Tov Sublimated the Experience of Love

“And I will place My dwelling in your midst…I will walk among you and be your G-d, and you will be My people.”

-- Leviticus 26:11-12, this week’s portion.

One of the moving ideas of the founder of Chassidic spirituality, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), explores the genesis of love.

What is love? Why do we love? Where does love come from? The research of socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists, especially in the last two decades of 20th century, answered these questions based on their deep faith in evolutionary history. Love, like all other human emotions, could be explained through Darwin’s theory of evolution – it is the result of the urge for the survival of our genes. Love is evolution’s invention to entice humans and animals to mate and propagate their genes.

The mystique, magic and charm of romance were essentially a lie, psychologists taught us. These experiences, in truth, are nothing but nature’s clever way of ensuring the propagation of the species.

It seems that our generation’s experience of love, romance and marriage has been profoundly affected by this evolutionary theory, inculcated in the minds of our youth as pure science. Romance is a scheme; love is a farce. One ought not to take these experiences seriously, never mind compromise comfort for their actualization.

In this area too, the keen observation of Goethe (1749-1832) came to fruition. “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.”

Judaism took it a step further. In the same generation like Goethe, in a small town in White Russia, one of the giants of Jewish spirituality, Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) wrote a book. The main argument behind the book, the Tanya, was that if man is not more than human, he is likely to become less than human.

There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of the creation of man. In the first chapter of Genesis, man is described as having been created in the image and likeness of G-d. In the second chapter, man is described as having been formed out of the dust of the earth. Together, image and dust express the polarity of the nature of man. He is formed of the most inferior stuff in the most superior image. Judaism understood that if man does not reflect the image of the divine, he is capable of becoming dust of the earth.

If this is true in all human endeavors, how much more so in the sensitive realms of love and romance. Treat human affection as a purely animalistic, selfish mechanism to propagate the species and you create a society where even natural love and romance is denigrated. Treat love as a transcendental, divine experience and you allow it to flourish and enrich individuals, families and communities, filling their lives with the glow and grace only love can introduce.   

And so it happened, that while lecturing to his students on the mystery and potency of the love-sensation, the Baal Shem Tov employed a metaphor. In it he encapsulated the Kabbalistic-Chassidic notion that G-dliness is the essence of all reality and that love – all forms of love – were, in essence, an invitation to encounter the divine.


A great king craved to build a loving relationship with one of his subjects. Knowing that a direct visit by the king might overwhelm his subject, the king sent an agent to communicate affection and arouse the reciprocal love of the subject.


The man became so excited over the visit of the emissary that he would not let him leave his home. He was infatuated by the messenger and never made it to the king himself. The king’s objective, to invite this person into his own life, failed.


This is a strange story, yet according to the Baal Shem Tov, it captures the inner story of love.


G-d craves to reach out to each of us and build an authentic and meaningful relationship with every individual human being. However, knowing that we are incapable of grasping His direct metaphysical language and presence, He garbs His passion in a vernacular we can readily relate to: a human being, an object, etc.

G-d manifests Himself in the particular human or object of attraction, so that from this attraction we can discover our love toward G-d.


G-d, Jewish mysticism explains, is the Reality of reality; the core of all existence. We exist in reality; we exist in G-d. Everything is an aspect of reality, an aspect of G-d. Therefore, when we are attracted to somebody or something, it is a manifestation of G-d inviting us for intimacy with Him.


This does not mean that every attraction is holy. Sometimes we must neglect the “messenger” and instead go to the source. Why spend time with the king’s messenger when we can embrace the king himself? At other times this means that we ought to embrace the messenger himself or herself, recognizing the divinity within our very encounter. Some great people have fallen by failing to recognize this vital distinction, sanctifying all of their attractions and cruses as divinely inspired.


Some of us never understand the true story behind all love and romance. We remain infatuated with the messenger and we never notice the message; we are attracted to the frame and neglect the art. We become consumed by the external dimension of the attraction, and we fail to pay heed to its inner resonance.



The serpent’s perspective


This was the mistake Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden tree was attractive, lucrative and delicious. The serpent explained to Eve this was the substitute for G-d. Either you can submit to G-d’s orders and remain subservient and meek, crushed under the burden of the Lord’s tyranny, subdued to the impositions of religion; or you can assert your independence and become your own God. Either you live a life of surrender or you achieve autonomy, pursuing your pleasures and attractions.


The serpent was persuasive but wrong. Desire and attraction, even lust, are not servants of the devil; they are divine communications to us. G-d is reality; reality is G-d. We exist in reality; we exist in G-d. Everything is an aspect of reality, an aspect of G-d. By eating from the attractive tree, contrary to G-d’s instructions, Adam and Eve fell pray to the perception that attraction to physical beauty is not part of our relationship to G-d. They failed to recognize that all attraction and temptation was an attempt by G-d to initiate a dialogue with His beloved children. They allowed the temptation to define them, rather than ensuring that they would define the temptation and its ultimate meaning.


1) The warning of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya (ch. 28) must be recalled. When you are overtaken by a powerful temptation or lust you may not have the mental fortitude to sublimate the temptation to its spiritual core. Any contemplation on the nature of the attraction maybe your beast playing tricks on you. Rather, at such a moment, the wisest thing usually is to absolutely and unequivocally reject the craving without any internal dialogue or conversation. When insanity consumes you, you may not be in the position of negotiating. Yet in a moment of serenity, the aforementioned approach of the Baal Shem Tov is appropriate and desirable. This distinction removes the apparent contradiction between Tanya section 1 ch. 38, where the author rejects the approach of “sublimating the alien thoughts” and Tanya section 4 ch. 25 where he encourages it. It depends weather you are on the defensive or on the offensive.

Class Summary:
One of the moving ideas of the founder of Chassidic spirituality, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), explores the genesis of love. What is love? Why do we love? Where does love come from?