Rachel at the Well

“Jacob and Rachel at the Well”
Francisco Antolinez y Sarabia, 1670

Rachel at the Well

Some years ago, Jerry and I had dinner in Washington D.C. with a learned and accomplished professorial couple who’d been married and deeply in love for their whole blessed lifetime.  The conversation turned to a topic that is widely thought to be “off the table” – at least for educated contemporaries:

romantic love.

Our friend told the following story.  One of his students had come to his office asking for advice about a personal matter.  He said he wanted to have the experience of “Rachel at the well.”  But he felt that he wasn’t Jewishly acculturated enough to get an experience of that caliber.  Did the professor think he should join an orthodox synagogue and study Judaism?  Would that make it likelier that he would meet her there?

With regard to Rachel at the well, it’s the most romantic story in the Bible.   When they meet, Jacob is fleeing an angry brother and, at his mother’s urging, will take refuge with his uncle Laban.  On the way, Jacob stops at the well where he sees Laban’s beautiful daughter Rachel, his destined love.  Although his future father-in-law sets excruciating conditions before permitting them to marry – including seven years of labor – the Bible says that those long years “passed for him like days,” because of his love for Rachel.

It’s an odd way of expressing the relation to time that has been imposed on Jacob.  Ordinarily, one might think that it would go the other way around — each day seeming like a year to the impatient young lover.  However, there may be a different implication here: 

true love allows the lover to make time his friend.

That being the prototype in the mind of the student, here’s how our professorial friend advised him.  “If you join an observant synagogue in order to meet the right woman, you’re unlikely to meet her and probably will not gain much from the synagogue either. But if you seek to learn how to be Jewish for the sake of learning that, it’s more possible that you will meet Rachel-at-the-well.”

In fact, that is what happened.  The young man learned how – heart, mind, and soul — to be integrally inside the covenant and, wonder of wonders, he actually did meet her.

Funnily enough, before we met those friends for dinner in Washington, something similar had happened to me.  A young philosophy student I respected took me aside on the campus mall to ask for advice.  He loved a girl who was orthodox.  She did not reject him outright, she told him she could only marry an observant Jew.

Did I think he should become observant in order to win her over?

If you want to become observant, I had answered, you have to put aside that agenda.  First, find out if that kind of life is right for you.  Then see if she will have you.

About a year later, he hailed me on the mall – to thank me.  As he studied Judaism, he learned that the effort to commit to orthodoxy fit him very well.  Meanwhile, on his way to making that discovery, he found himself drawn to a different girl.  They’d fallen in love and were now planning to marry.

So it seems that romantic love is an absolute.  It tolerates no pretense.  At the same time, the covenant is an absolute.  It cannot be a pretext.

There is a dramatic scene in the nineteenth-century novel Jane Eyre that captures this double absolute.

Our heroine is a governess in the mysterious home of Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester, responsible for educating his ward, who may be his illegitimate daughter by a French dancer.  Over time, Jane and Mr. Rochester find themselves in love.  He proposes marriage.  At the altar, on the brink of womanly fulfillment, the ceremony is halted.  Mr. Rochester has a wife now living.  We are taken to meet the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic.

When he and Jane are finally alone, he confesses the whole story.  He had been duped into this marriage.  He entreats Jane to live with him anyway, abroad where no one will know.  They can be married “in all but name.”

Shocked and disoriented, Jane retires – only to be roused from sleep by the dream voice of her mother – “Daughter, flee temptation!”

Obedient to her mother’s voice from the beyond, Jane sets forth alone across the daunting, empty countryside, risking abandonment and starvation.

Things fall out otherwise.  She is taken in at a parsonage, whose inhabitants turn out to be her own cousins – a loving pair of sisters, and their austere brother, a clergyman.  The brother is resolved to become a missionary in India and urges Jane to join him as a wife in that calling.  Here is a temptation of a different kind, to abandon one’s own nature – sacrificing it for an ideal not one’s own.

As Jane steps back from the clergyman’s forceful importuning – to stand alone in her own company – she hears a familiar once-loved voice calling her name across the night’s vast distances.  She decides to see her lost love one last time before making up her mind.

She learns that the madwoman has died in a fire she set.  In a vain attempt to save her, Mr. Rochester has lost sight and one arm.  Thus reduced and chastened, they meet again, their romantic longings untarnished.

“Reader, I married him,” the final chapter famously begins.

Our era is mistaken when it treats romantic love as a myth.  Of course, it’s not the only summons.  But it is a summons to realize

the truth about one’s self and

the truth about the right track in one’s life.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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