Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).