Off the Shelf: Love, religion and Judaism

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Judaism is about law, while Christianity is about love. Rabbi Shai Held sees this statement as not only anti-Jewish propaganda, but completely mistaken. His purpose in writing “Judaism Is About Love: Recovering the Heart of Jewish Life” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is to prove that Judaism is a religion whose fundamental ideas are based on love. He notes that “the Jewish tradition tells the story of a God of love who creates us in love and enjoins us, in turn, to live lives of love. We are commanded to love God, the neighbor, the stranger – and all of humanity – and we are told the highest achievement of which we are capable is to live with compassion. That is considered nothing less than walking in God’s ways.” 

“Judaism Is About Love” is an impressive work: it contains 380-plus pages of text, followed by more than 120 pages of footnotes. Held cites numerous biblical verses, which he discusses from a variety of angles. These include verses that support his basic idea and others that could be interpreted as opposed to his thesis. The author looks at a widening circle of those Jews are commanded to love, noting that even when dealing with sinners, we are commanded to hate the sin, but not the sinner. His understanding of love comes from his translation of the Hebrew term chesed, whose exact meaning is open to debate. Held notes that the word “has been rendered over time as ‘love,’ ‘kindness,’ ‘lovingkindness,’ ‘mercy,’ ‘faithfulness,’ and more. The fact that one Hebrew word has been taken to refer to all these suggests that they are so interwoven with each other that we can’t fully explore one (love) without investigating the others as well.” 

The book’s most interesting sections focus on the idea that in order to love God, we must love all of God’s creatures, including our fellow humans. However, Held notes there is a debate about exactly what that obligation means. Is there a special obligation to love fellow Jews? What about one’s love for family and friends? What actions does that love require from us? Are we obligated to perform those actions for all of humanity? The author believes these questions teach an important lesson about Jewish ethics: “Faced with the complexity of human experience, Judaism doesn’t try to simplify it so much as embrace and express it. If we are asked whether Jewish ethics is particularistic or universalistic, the answer is that it is emphatically both.” Held sees Judaism asking hard questions, rather than offering easy or explicit answers about how to feel and behave. Since feelings and behavior are often two separate things, Jewish tradition speaks to both. 

One discussion centers on the verses in Exodus (23:4-5) that command us to return an enemy’s ox or donkey if we find them wandering from their owner’s home. It also tells us to help our enemy’s donkey regain its feet if it has fallen. Held discusses whether this means we are required to love our enemy, or only treat him justly. He notes that these actions might heal wounds and turn enemies to friends. However, although the author notes we are told not to seek vengeance when someone does us wrong, we do not have to passively accept being harmed. Balancing these two ideas can be difficult, especially in terms of verses from the psalms, where the psalmist asks God to punish those who have done evil to him. Held offers both sides of the issue, again showing how Judaism embraces complexity. 

The concepts of love and justice are often thought of as opposing impulses. Head, however, see a connection between them, believing that the concepts “walk hand in hand.” He writes, “The God of Judaism is a God of love and justice. To speak of justice without compassion is to miss out on love, and potentially to forget the crucial urgency of being present with people in their suffering. But to speak of compassion without justice is to focus on people without asking why they are suffering. To be sure, some suffering – a great deal of suffering, actually – results from our finitude and mortality. But some suffering – more than many of us are willing to admit – stems from injustice.” There is a need to balance the two concepts in our lives so that we can comfort those who need it, while fighting to rid the world of the inequality that causes suffering. 

Judaism does see a connection between behavior and emotion. For example, Held believes that the ability to love God can be cultivated by performing the mitzvot (commandments). That means Judaism commands us to use our actions to express our love of God. Some suggest that we are God’s hands in this world: our actions bring God’s love into our lives by the way we care for others. Others see our actions as what bring us closer to God; rather than bringing God into the world, we are reaching out to connect with God. Held notes how Jewish tradition offers both of these possibilities without giving one specific answer as to which is correct. 

“Judaism Is About Love” includes an amazing amount of material. However, it does have its imperfections: it’s easy to lose track of Held’s basic thesis due to the lengthy discussions offering contradictory material from biblical and rabbinic sources. While each discussion is interesting in itself, readers may have difficulty connecting the many different ideas and concepts. A shorter, more focused work might have served the topic better. However, “Judaism Is About Love” does a service by reminding readers of the theme underlying our religion: God’s love for humanity and humanity’s love for God. The tradition speaks to both possibilities.