A couple holding hands. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Love is in the air. That’s the problem.

(RNS) — We love to love love.

Love surrounds us and captivates us and lures us with its ample charms, but the key to sustaining a great relationship is learning the art of intimacy. True intimacy is physical, emotional and soulful, and it must be cultivated and practiced if it is to thrive.

But this Valentine's Day, let's think for a moment on what we mean when we speak of intimacy.

Intimacy implies a soulful connection with another person, an exclusively private and deep relationship.

Yes, love is in the air but what human beings ultimately need is closeness. Even more than that, we crave oneness. So here is a counterintuitive concept for this season of love: Intimacy is the truest treasure in any relationship.

Yet the message has been drummed into us that if we can just find someone to fall in love with, we will enter into a paradise of togetherness and harmony. That is highly misleading, for it posits that love is the essential element needed for true intimacy to blossom and that intimacy is an organic and logical next step.

The problem is that when intimacy doesn’t materialize, the legitimacy of love is called into question, often to tragic outcome. But intimacy, as I stated earlier, must be cultivated. It is a practice. It is an art. It demands devotion and mindfulness in order to flourish.

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Mystical tradition has a take on the story of Adam and Eve that teaches us something essential about our own pursuit of intimacy. The Book of Genesis says this about the creation of the first human: “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” According to Jewish tradition, what this means is that God created the first human as an androgynous being, both male and female.

In other words, originally male and female were one being. In Hebrew, the language in which the story of Genesis was written, the word for a human being is adam — an adam being a whole human being, male and female combined. God then put this whole human being to sleep and separated, physically and spiritually, the male and female parts from each other. Thus they became two halves of one being … whose deepest quest is to be reunited in this earthly realm.

Locks adorn a sculpture of two hearts. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

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This is the true meaning of soul mate: our other, primal, organic half. Not just the person who shares our taste in music, movies or coffee but the person we cleave to in ultimate closeness.

What the Jewish teachings say is that the unique attraction between soul mates originates from a desire to be whole again, to reunite two parts of one adam. It is unnatural to be alone, for God originally created the two as one. Their separation is an unnatural imposition, and thus they are told to seek one another and overcome this imperfect state.

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But why does God separate us and then ask us to seek oneness again? Perhaps because the search for oneness with another soul is the essential experience of being human. Indeed, that’s what makes us human. The other creations, all of the beasts of the woods and fields, do not have this task. They were created spiritually finished, good to go, and ready for their jobs in the world.

Not so the human being, the adam. The human experience is a quest to unite two halves of one whole.

While the unity at the core of intimacy is the main focus of that experience, the separation that precedes it is also crucial. The separation creates the need and the yearning for unity.

Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism, teaches that this dance is replicated on the cosmic level. God created the world and then “stepped back” from it, separating Himself on some level so that we, His creations, will seek through free choice to do good deeds that will unify us with him again.

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Becoming one seems almost impossible to pull off but, in fact, a married couple can become one because they were once one. The Talmud tells us: “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a heavenly voice proclaims: ‘The daughter of this one is destined to marry that one.’” It then goes on to explain the ramifications of this concept. The souls of a husband and wife are created together and are destined for one another. Therefore, when they marry it is possible to bring them back together. It would be impossible to bind together two souls that were never connected.

What’s important here is that our coming together is not just a simple attraction between two people; it’s much greater. It’s a spiritual connection, an affair of the soul. When a man and a woman encounter one another and know that each is part of a whole, that is the beginning of intimacy.

Marriage is about creating a life that embraces and nurtures that intimacy. Intimacy is a state of grace that arrives and then hides. So even if we have achieved intimacy, we must continue to maintain it. We must constantly seek it out, cultivate it, protect it and nurture it.

Intimacy, therefore, is the key to a great lifelong relationship.

(Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of "The Joy of Intimacy: A Soulful Guide to Love, Sexuality and Marriage," is a well-known author, biblical scholar, relationship counselor, lecturer and philosopher. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)