Tristan and Iseult – Courtly Love and Covenant

It is not an accident that Bamidbar is the parashah read before the festival of Shavuot. The themes of our people wandering in the desert and then entering into the covenant with God at Mount Sinai are part of the Torah portion for this Shabbat, and are amplified in the Haftarah portion from the prophet Hosea. Wandering and covenant are also central themes of Shavuot itself, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah.

The prophet Hosea highlights in starkly personal terms the tragic romance he suffered with his wife; but he, the prophet, transforms his wife’s betrayal of their marriage into metaphor to explain the wayward relationship of the Jewish people from God during the period of wandering.

Hosea was a romantic. He wanted to forgive his wife her betrayal of him and welcome her back into his arms, and using that as metaphor, he preached that despite the people’s infidelity to God, God too would forgive the people, reaffirm the Covenant, and enter into a relationship of love.

The underlying theme of Bamidbar, Hosea, and Shavuot is love of two kinds; the spiritual love of Israel for God and the romantic yearnings for one’s soul-mate.

In a little book called We, the minister and Jungian therapist Robert Johnson explores the medieval myth of the hero Tristan and his beloved Iseult the Fair, a complicated tale from twelfth century Europe about the intersection of love with faith.

The story tells of the dramatic emotional and spiritual journeys of two protagonists, Tristan and Iseult, and investigates what came to be known as “Courtly Love” during the Renaissance, a love lifted high above sexuality and lust. Courtly Love is an idealized and spiritualized love designed to cultivate religiosity. When lovers rise in love they experience a sense of completion as though a missing part of themselves returns to them. They feel elevated as though raised above the ordinary world. Johnson wrote that in courtly love “We feel ennobled, refined, spiritualized, [and] transformed into new, better, and whole human beings.”

This kind of love/bliss takes on an intensity, glory, ecstasy, and transcendence we never feel when we are out of love. In romantic love the goal of the lover is to be possessed by love (as in The Song of Songs), to soar to the highest heights, to find ultimate meaning with one’s beloved. Romantic love drives us to yichud (oneness) and sh’leimut (wholeness).

In the western world, the religious meaning drops away and is replaced by what Abraham Maslow describes as the “peak experience.” To the Biblical prophet this yearning is the core of spiritual aspiration. Jewish mystics speak of it as a glimpse into the “Ein Sof” – the infinite and eternal universe.

Robert Johnson wrote:

“Here we are confronted with a paradox that baffles us, yet we should not be surprised to discover that romantic love is connected with spiritual aspiration – even with our religious instinct – for we already know that courtly love, at its very beginning so many centuries ago, was understood as spiritual love, a way of loving that spiritualized the knight with his lady, and raised them above the ordinary and the gross to an experience of another world, an experience of soul and spirit.”

The myth of Tristan and Iseult suggests that what spiritual seekers yearn for is the experience of the unity that comes when two souls find each other. It is not surprising that this myth emerged at the beginning of the Renaissance when the Catholic Church was retracting and humanism was emerging.

This is why the metaphor of the wilderness as described in Bamidbar is so compelling, for it is there in the expansive nothingness of the desert that we are stripped of pretense and confront who we really are. In the midbar we have little control, and we are aware that physical beauty and sexual lust are fleeting and far less important than soulful love.

The love sought by the prophet Hosea in his marriage bond, the prophet’s desire for divine inspiration through Torah, and the holiday of Shavuot commemorating the receiving of Torah, are intertwined. Together they lead us towards the fulfillment of the personal and the universal promise, the healed vision of ourselves and the hope of a redeemed world.

About the Author
A native of Los Angeles, Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed the position of Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1988 and will become Emeritus Rabbi in July, 2019. Before coming to Temple Israel he served large congregations in San Francisco (1979-86) and Washington, D.C. (1986-88). He is the immediate past National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and served on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the Vaad HaPoel of the World Zionist Organization, and the Executive Committee of ARZENU (the International Reform Zionist movement). He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street. John is the author of "Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Nashville: Jewish Lights, 2017) and his forth-coming book "Why Israel and its Future Matter - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Ben Yehuda Press, New Jersey. November 29, 2019). John is married to Barbara and is the father of two sons and the grandfather of one.
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