Religion & Beliefs

Monogamy And Monotheism

  I so want to be in love To believe monotheistically in you, that you are my tender, most tender love and give to you my sense of wonder — worlds captured in words – Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Youngest Desire" … Read More

By / June 30, 2008


I so want to be in love

To believe monotheistically in you,

that you are my tender, most tender love

and give to you my sense of wonder —

worlds captured in words – Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Youngest Desire"


Falling out of love is never easy, especially after a three-year relationship with someone you hoped to marry, raise children with, and be parted from only by death. For me, the last several months have been like a period of grief; some days are fine, some are filled with shadow, and most are a little hollow. But as the winter has given way to spring, and spring begun to hint of summer, the silver linings of the clouds have begun to reflect more light. In that light I've seen how the way I am in relationship often undermines the best parts of me. Emotionally, I tend to fall in love, as Heschel wrote, monotheistically. I wanted my partner to be my primary source of love, affection, companionship, and support. I wanted to turn to him whenever I needed help, and hold him when he did. Although I maintained many friendships, some of them quite dear, I loved that my partner was my best friend, my secret-keeper, the one who was dear to my heart. I know I am not alone in regarding my beloved in this way, and I am sure that for many people, it poses no problems at all. But in the months since our separation, it's become clear to me that all this monogamy of affection came at the price of my love for other people. For all my deep friendships and erotic connections, I was cut off. People would come up to me after a workshop or retreat, for example, and tell me how inspired they were, how grateful, how I'd changed their lives. And often, I'd be unable to take it in. I'd try; I'm neither so famous nor so arrogant as to simply shrug it off. But sometimes, the words would almost bounce off of me, like so much small talk. Or, I'd have lovely gatherings of friends, on special occasions like a birthday or book-launch party, and barely feel the love and affection they were offering me. Again, not always. But often, there would be an invisible disconnect between us. No wonder that, when things were difficult with my partner, I felt so alone. I had multiple offers of support, listening, and aid — but I felt unable to embrace them. I had been so emotionally monogamous for so long that I'd cut myself off from the love being offered to me by others. Even more damaging than this alienation from the love of others, though, was my alienation from my own capacity to love. It's been observed before that perhaps the most joyous aspect of loving relationship isn't being loved by someone else — it's being able to love them. To feel love, not just loved. Love feels delightful; warm, energized, buoyant; all the cliches turn true. And of course, it's possible to feel that love not just for one's partner, but for oneself, and for other people, even for God and trees and breath. Yet I was so monotheistic in my love that two paths were interrupted. First, I focused my love almost entirely in one place; even my love for spirit often felt like a misdirection, let alone that for other people and things. Second, I came to rely so much on the love I received from my partner that I stopped relying on myself to generate it. This, I suppose, is what dependency (co- or otherwise) is about: relying on someone else to provide something you ought to provide yourself. Even in ordinary circumstances, it can turn into a neediness, a clinginess. At its worst, it can lead to jealousy and rage. In my own case, it was a kind of self-impoverishment. I had seen, in contemplative and shamanic settings, how important it was for me simply to love — to love myself, others, God, the world. And yet it was almost impossible for me to do that, so accustomed I had become to receiving love from someone else. Indeed, trying felt like yet another betrayal: what if, by generating love for myself, I cut myself off from the love of my sweet partner? What if I had no need for him? Fate intervened I suppose. Not fate, of course, but the mutual choices of two people no longer fresh in their love, and at least one impelled to take the next steps on his journey alone. Unable to risk the relationship in order to love myself, I was forced back on myself when the relationship ended. I'm not one to look for the "reason" these sorts of things happen in our lives, or be sure to learn whatever lessons these kinds of circumstances offer. Usually, such talk strikes me as infuriating, insipid, or just plain annoying. But slowly, over the last several months, I have begun to open my heart a bit more to other people, other things, and myself — and new growth has emerged from the branches. I find my friends all the more beloved. I want to speak to my house, to the woods, and even to God in the sing-song lovetalk once reserved for one person only. And I have learned — been forced to learn — some of the capacities of my own heart, to generate love like a furnace. No doubt much of this seems simplistic, or perhaps banal, New Age, or sentimental. But to me it is, above all, truthful. As the Baal Shem Tov said, and as I've quoted more than once in these pages recently, "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart" — because in its brokenness is openness, in its fractured state a wholeness which transcends the individual. I have experienced that over these spring months, an awakening from a beautiful dream that was nonetheless a slumber. I am even, at times, grateful.
As the title of this essay suggests, and as my religious mind inevitably would consider, I have noticed a parallel between this process of de-monogamizing my affection and the years-long process of opening in my religious life. For some time now, I have been drifting away from orthodox, then traditional, then mainstream, then exclusive, and then even non-heretical Judaism. I don't fancy myself a heretic, exactly, but I do recognize that some of my beliefs and practices may be considered heretical by others: preparing to spend several months in a Buddhist monastery, participating in 'pagan' rituals like Beltane, having intimate visions of Christ, Ganesh, and the Goddess. For many, I'm sure (and I've been told by plenty of commenters), all this is so far beyond the pale of normative Judaism that for me to hold myself as a Jewish teacher, as I sometimes do, is utterly unacceptable. I understand that, and accept the judgment. But in my experience, none of it has undermined my love of God, and of the Jewish God in particular. Quite the contrary. By gradually opening to these other forms and other manifestations, my capacity to love has increased. And so mysticism — by which I mean the direct, loving experience of ultimate reality — has flourished. The analogy to earthly love is, presumably, obvious. YHVH, we are told in the Torah, is a jealous god. He wants exclusive, monogamous, monotheistic fidelity — and elsewhere in the Bible, Israel is repeatedly referred to as a harlot, a slut. The traditional Jewish faithful today take this demand quite seriously, and comply with missionary zeal. They reject not just the idols of the nations, but their customs, their languages, their clothes. These latter-day Jewish pietists are, indeed, more faithful to their God than I am, and I know from my own past experience and their present testimonies that they experience love in return. But that love is a kind of dependency (co- or otherwise). In its exclusivity, it shuts down other openings to sacred eros, and in its dualism, it endangers the capacity to generate love of oneself. I see in my own past Judaism the same pattern as I see in my past relationship. For years, I feared that if I stepped outside the bounds of Jewish exclusivity, the intensity of my commitment to the Jewish God would wane. And I didn't want it to wane; I couldn't articulate it at the time, but it gave me a sense of connection and security and love. It was mother's breast and father's strong arms all wrapped up in one. And so I guarded those boundaries. Gradually, though, I succumbed to temptation. I danced at Burning Man. I sat (though didn't bow) before a statue of the Buddha. I stopped worrying about whether sacred sexuality was idolatry or not, because I felt the Divine presence within it. Throughout, I "checked in," committed to being faithful to the One I loved — and throughout, the One was still there. In the depths, I called to God, and God answered me. I raised my eyes to the mountains, and asked where my help would come from — and my help was there, from God. No longer "God" in any traditional sense, no longer just Yahweh, just male, or just transcendent. Now nondual, now seemingly atheistic, now a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, now feminine, now queer. At times this "God" seemed to melt away entirely, into a mere mindstate, a pattern of the brain. But no matter; the knowing remained; and consciousness itself; and love. I still maintain many of the old forms of faithfulness. I don't eat forbidden foods, I rest on the seventh day. As I've written about before in this magazine, though, I do so not out of fear of retribution but simply as acts of love. The other day, I sat around waiting for Shabbat to end, wanting to go out, and while I questioned over and over why I was adhering to these Pharisaic restrictions, the answer of love remained. That is why I do it, I admit. I wish others would admit it as well. So while I am not a polytheist exactly, I do no longer believe that there is but one avenue to the holy — not even one per person. I follow many paths, and like to see where they lead. I have come to trust in the same salvation being at the multiple ends of the roads, as long as when I get there I can still say hinei, here, and trust and not fear. And of course, while this essay is about emotional, rather than physical, monogamy, I wonder at the causal nexus between monotheism and monogamy in all its forms. Traditional Judaism, obviously, has demanded physical monogamy for the last thousand years, largely following the lead of Christianity. (Given the powerful homosocial bonds in traditional Jewish community, the question of emotional monogamy is more complex.) And today, our fiercest religious battles are not about ethics and social justice (of paramount importance to the prophets) but sexuality, pleasure, and gender. Today, to question physical and relational monogamy is to question "traditional values," that is, religious values. To delight too much in sensual pleasure is often labeled pagan, polytheistic, or worse. I wonder at the coincidence: are traditionalists worried that if one form of faithfulness is abandoned, others will follow? That if we yield to, rather than repress, our hearts, they will, as our ancestors feared, wander outside the bounds of propriety, safety, and tribe? That as we learn that love is available in many forms and faces, that we might think the same of spirit as well?
None of this is to argue for a particular model of intimacy — indeed, not even for me personally. Just as I still look wistfully, even enviously, at my friends whose relationships have endured where mine did not, I admit that I sometimes regard the traditionally religious in this way. Their monogamous monotheism has made it, where mine has not — and I know that in any committed relationship, there have been valleys as well as peaks, doubts as many as reassurances. I don't commend my path to others. But if there is a salvation to be had, I am grateful that mine has been one of inner knowledge as well as outward generation. That is, in the same way that being forced back into aloneness has enabled me to cultivate the capacity to love, so too finding myself outside the communal and relational bonds of Jewish religious life has caused me to turn inward, to the unitive, the nondual. Perhaps the skeptics are right that when believers say, "I love you, God," they are really saying "I love." In my experience, there is no significant difference.