Ayelet Ahavim: Iyunim Be-Khokhmat Ha-Ahava (Beloved Doe: Studies in the Wisdom of Love), by Naftali Rotenberg. Sifrei Hemed Series. Tel Aviv, Yediot Aharonot, 2004.
Who can resist a scholarly book that trumpets the wisdom of love in Jewish sources? The name beckons and promises much. Unfortunately the book does not fully deliver on its promise.
To be entirely fair, the book's subtitle, "Studies in the Wisdom of Love," hints at its major problem. This is not a book whose parts cohere; it is a potpourri of different essays, sometimes loosely, sometimes not at all, interconnected.
What's more, there is repetition even within each of the essays. While it may be true that a good formula for a speaker is: tell them what you're about to say, say it, then tell them what you've told them, the written medium has no need for so much repetition. A clear exposition is all that's needed. If the reader wants to review the material, she can always flip the pages and reread from the start.
The book has five self-contained sections: 1) Androgyny: Unity, Separation, Passion and Unity (the repetition is in the original Hebrew); 2) a sketch of the scholar of love; 3) the scholar of unfulfilled love: studies on Yehuda Abarbanel's "Talks of Love"; 4) Written on Men by Men: Feminist Revolution and Innovation in the Canonical Sources; and 5) Contrast and Harmony in Partners: On Spirituality and Asceticism. Section One is a careful reading of the Biblical creation story and a comparison of the primal androgynous creature as it is described in Plato's work, and the primal androgynous creature as it is described in rabbinic lore. Section Two is a selection of stories about R. Akiva, his love for the women in his life, his love for people, and his love for God. Section Three is an overview of a forgotten philosophical treatise on love written by Yehuda Abarbanel (son of the noted biblical commentator). Section Four is an apologia for (seeming) rabbinic misogyny, while section five is a discussion of the (seeming) dichotomy between spirituality and carnal love.
Of these sections, the least interesting is section three. Yehuda Abarbanel's treatise on love has been justifiably neglected by history. It is not original and not especially illuminating. It merits an article in a scholarly journal, but no more than that.
Sections Four and Five are weighty topics, each of them worthy of a book unto itself. The subtitle of Section Four suggests a possible foray into the laws of marriage and divorce, a discussion of levirate marriage or perhaps a discussion of the laws of "nida"-the cycle of female purity and impurity. …