A friend of mine owned a Jewish bakery. One of his employees was very Orthodox, from an insulated Orthodox family and community. When the baker suggested creating a line of Valentine’s Day cakes and cookies, she was horrified. “This is a kosher bakery! You can’t display such a thing! It’s like puttingtreif in the window!”
Inevitably someone will call to ask me, “Rabbi? Is it ok if my kids exchange Valentine’s cards with other kids? After all, it’s a Christian thing, isn’t it?” This is a variation on the Halloween question as to whether it’s appropriate for Jewish kids to hit the streets on October 31st in search of tricks and treats.
My ruling on this is unambiguous. Valentine’s Day is as Christian a holiday as Halloween. Which is to say, not at all. There was at least one, if not more, saints named Valentine or a derivation thereof. They were remembered on February, as well as in July.
However, the connection with love and pink hearts is a totally secular phenomenon attributed to a few sources. The first source is Geoffrey Chaucer, the famed author and cultural icon of the Middle Ages who is credited as being the father of English literature. Apparently the Middle Ages was a time when there was a leisure class with time to dwell on romance and flowery language. Chaucer took advantage of this trend, creating a lasting connection between romantic love and chivalrous deeds.
The British, not generally known as the most passionate of people (or is this the influence of Downton Abbey?), are the second source of Valentine’s Day traditions. Valentine’s Day has historical roots mainly in Greco-Roman pagan fertility festivals and the medieval notion that birds pair off to mate on February 14. The history of exchanging cards and other tokens of love on February 14 began to develop in England after Chaucer, and then drifted across the Channel to France and eventually across the Atlantic to the US shores.
America was a ripe and ready market for European cultural transplants. Valentine’s Day, fuelled by the rise of capitalism and industry in America was a perfect match. Which introduces us to the third source of Valentine’s Day: the greeting card industry. Valentine hearts, candy, flowers and so forth, have been pushed at every conceivable commercial angle to the tune of billions of dollars in revenue.
To reiterate, there is absolutely no Jesus anything in Valentine’s Day. None. Whatever Jewish allergy to Valentine’s Day still exists, particularly among Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, has a lot to do with a fear of cultural assimilation. If a holiday or custom is safely located in Torah, it’s ok. But to take a secular practice and engage in it brings Jews right up next to non-Jewish activities that could be misconstrued as Christian. Therefor Valentine’s Day among traditional Jews is what is called pahst nischt, “not ok”.
Postmodern Judaism embraces full participation in secular American behaviors. July 4th, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day are all expressions of being an American. The idea of being included within a collective besides the Jewish experience is an utterly new thing in Jewish life. It is a true expression of inclusion and citizenship that is actually quite precious.
So by all means, enjoy Valentine’s Day if you choose. Just don’t use being Jewish as an excuse to short someone a box of candy.