You know the line.  You know the movie. You know the scene.  Unless you don’t – because you were born after 1990 and/or have no affinity for the trite-yet-charming romantic “dramedy” genre of yesteryear.  Allow me to provide some context for the dear reader: This modest scene appears in the ’80s classic Say Anything, though it is not the iconic “boombox” scene.  Instead, it is set at a payphone (i.e. device used for telecommunication in antiquity). Against the backdrop of a rainy summer night, the camera centers on the unremittingly chivalrous hero (now extinct in 21st century cinema).  For the first time, the audience detects in him an aura of existential deflation, as he remarks that his idolized girlfriend, Diane Court, not only broke his heart, she gave him a pen as a parting gift to send her letters (i.e. prehistoric precursors to Snapchat).  So, to borrow a phrase, what makes this rejection different from all other rejections? Curiously, it seems that Lloyd’s focus was not on the break-up, but on the pen! Wasn’t the disintegration of his years-long adolescent crush the more potent and pertinent wound?  What was so intolerable about her giving him a pen anyway, and what relevance may it have for our lives?

Let us imagine that an Alien Life Form, (which for simplicity we will heretofore refer to as ALF), lands in our galaxy and wants to understand the human condition.  ALF decides to study our popular culture to decipher the phenomenon we human beings call “true love.” Perusing myriad messages in our films, poems, and television shows, ALF concludes that partners in love follow a few unspoken, but unalterable rules.  Here are a few. Rule #1: A person “falls” in love. It happens quickly, unexpectedly, and since I can’t choose who I love, it demands that I surrender some control of my feelings, hence the requisite “falling.” Rule #2: Every couple in love deserves and expects a “happily ever after” ending.  That is, after initial hardship, couple-hood culminates in a state of unending bliss, without struggle or setback, and remains on carefree cruise control – forever. Rule #3: The highest goal in adult life (beginning sophomore year of high school and ending in one’s middle-aged years) is to find “the one,” my single pre-destined life partner.  Rule #4: A single person is incomplete without said life partner, without whom one cannot be truly fulfilled (enunciated explicitly by the dashing Jerry Maguire). Once a person in love feels “complete,” every major life problem can be resolved, or at least tolerated. Rule #5: A person can, and often will, fall “out of love,” (exempting him from Rule #1) if the initial passionate feelings wear off.  If the butterflies in the stomach disappear it is a clear sign that the romance has reached its expiration date, and this is evidence that my partner is not “the one” (pursuant to Rule #3).

Is this really as good as it gets?  Is there another way? Let’s try using our Jewish lenses to analyze the meaning of love and maybe along the way gain a new insight into ourselves.  The word “love” is used interchangeably in English between the romantic context above, and the colloquial description of a strong desire or interest.  For instance, we could utter those three words, “I love you,” to our partners in the most intimate of moments, and shortly thereafter proclaim “I love that sandwich” without batting an eye.  The latter falls in the category of what the world-renowned psychiatrist Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski has called “fish love.” No, fish love is not, I repeat, not about Tom Hanks and an occasional mermaid.  According to our spiritual masters, the term “fish love” was coined long ago when a holy rabbi encountered his student eating a fish. The rabbi asked him why he was eating the fish, to which the student replied, “Because I love fish!”  The rabbi then asked, “If you loved the fish, why did you take it out of the water, kill it, boil it, and then eat it? Be real. You love the way the fish tastes. You don’t love the fish, you love yourself.”

Astounding!  How often have we used the phrase “I love…” flippantly?  “I love my new outfit” or “I love this pillow.” Do the words we use desensitize us and allow for self-deception in our expressing romantic love?  When I finally said “I love you,” did I unwittingly mean “I love [the way] you [make me feel]”? True love is other-oriented, fish love is an insidious mask for “self-love.”  For the sensitive soul, the implications are earth-shattering.

Fortunately, Jewish teachings illuminate a path that leads away from the dangers of fish love.  The key to unlocking this wisdom is embedded within the Hebrew word Ahava, or “love” itself. Ahava, is comprised of the root “hav,” which means “give.”  This hidden gem is understanding that the essence of true love is in giving to another. Therefore, in Jewish thought, we do not give to whom we love, we love to whom we give.  In other words, the more I give to someone, the more I will grow to love her. True love in Jewish tradition is not simply “experienced,” it is created. We do not fall in love, we choose to “love” – as a verb.  A story is told of a man who comes to his rabbi bemoaning that he does not love his wife anymore, and is in search of guidance. The rabbi listened intently to the man’s grievances and afterwards thoughtfully responded with the advice:  “Love her more.” The man was confused. “No, Rabbi, you misunderstood. I don’t love her at all anymore.” The rabbi understood and exhorted, “Love her more!” He urged him to “love” her, as a verb, meaning, give to her more. Give and give and give.  Then give some more. Prioritize her needs, her dreams, her aspirations. Create the loving feelings, repair the relationship. Give to her. Love her, and see what happens.

Wait, wait, wait…Time out!  If you are a hopeless romantic and reading this, your defensives may be up high.  You might be thinking this all sounds logical, but what do the spiritual masters know about love anyway?  Being in love is a feeling, not some ephemeral topic of study that can be subjected to this intellectual dialectic!  A fair query. To you, dear reader, I gently ask, have you ever felt “love sick”? Have you ever felt the piercing sting inside when you lost the object (notice the noun) of your affection?  With care, I challenge you to ask yourself if that feeling was, at its core, “self-oriented” or “other-oriented”? This is the difference between fish love and genuine love. One need not have all the answers, but simply asking these questions thoughtfully will be valuable on the path to discovering true love with another.  Our own Lloyd even hints at this awareness during one tender moment when he asks Diane if she really wants him, or just “someone” to fill her needs! True love does not need to take from another to fill my needs or fulfill my desires. I am an emotionally whole being, you are an emotionally whole being. Now, together, we can fuse into another whole being, one infinitely greater than each of us could achieve while apart.  In Jewish thought, then, true love is “one plus one equals One.” The Hebrew word for love, Ahava, fittingly shares the gematria, or numerology, of the Hebrew word for Oneness, Echad. In such a union, we can relate in some way to the Holy One, who dwells within the sanctity of our homes and lives.

What so many of us are eager to know is, as Whitney Houston, ob’m, asked:  “How will I know if he really loves me?” How will I know if I ever experience true, genuine love or its mirror image, fish love?  What if her love for me is gone? To begin to answer this question we would need at least enough pages to fill a book, so let’s begin with the knowledge that this is only a glimpse.  When our Biblical patriarch Jacob wished to marry our eventual matriarch, Rachel, he worked for seven years for the right to marry her. The Torah expresses that these years of hard labor felt to him as if they were  “just a few days” (Genesis 29:20). How could that be? Wouldn’t that time seem endless and torturous? Not at all, because he transformed each act of arduous work into a labor of love. He was giving of his strength, his time, and his wealth for the love of his life, the light of his eyes.  He did not get “love sick” in the sense that he could not function without her while laboriously waiting those long years. Instead, his love was shown to be genuine because his giving engendered more love for her, even while they remained physically apart. For us, we express true love when we are willing to work hard for the ones we love, when we are willing to give even when we are tired, hungry, and grumpy.  These seemingly small acts build upon a lifetime of putting one’s partner’s needs first. Conversely, if the giving is done with an ulterior motive, eventually it will become apparent. The so-called giver will be overrun with resentment at the sacrifices he/she is making. When genuine, however, the giver sees her giving not so much as a sacrifice, but as an expression of an offering that is meant to be received in love and connection.             

Now we return to our start.  Was Lloyd simply in fish love with Diane, or was it real?  And why was the giving of a pen so significant? I will not reveal the ending  because I faithfully adhere to the infamous 614th commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Share Spoilers!”  But, with a new appreciation for Ahava, I leave it to the reader to decide. I like to hope that Lloyd’s love was genuine, and the sting of receiving the pen was so acute because he perceived that Diane only viewed the relationship from the lens of fish love.  Am I right? Please send your thoughts/reflections on “Fish Love” and Say Anything to [email protected]!

Thank you for reading and I look forward to hearing your take (and your “give”)!

Always with joy,
Rabbi Mike

, or “Rabbi Mike,” is a trained mental health clinician at Jewish Family Service of Dallas.  He is a seventh generation rabbi and, with his wife, artist and math teacher Nicole Friedman, serves as co-founder of Nafshi, an organization that offers inspiring programming that integrates Jewish and holistic principles to enhance emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual wellness.

Rabbi Mike lived and studied in Israel for five years, where he received Rabbinical Ordination. His education includes two Bachelor’s degrees (Arts and Talmudic Law), and a Masters of Education.
Rabbi Mike enjoys basketball, musical meditation, playing guitar, and serving as an ambassador for the Jewish community.  He and Nikki are the joyous parents of three boys. You can reach him at [email protected].