What does it mean to ‘love’ God? According to Midrash Sifre, it would appear that the obligation to love God is simply that, and thus the midrash juxtaposes love with fear: “Do it from love. The difference between acting from love and acting from fear is that the reward of one who acts from love is doubled and multiplied” (Sifre Deuteronomy 32).
This approach is clearly adopted in the commentary of R. Joseph H. Hertz (U.S., England, 1872-1946):
This is the first instance in human history that the love of God was demanded in any religion. The love of God is the distinctive mark of His true worshippers. The worshipper, as he declares the Unity of God, thereby lovingly and unconditionally surrenders his mind and heart to God’s holy will. Such spiritual surrender is called ‘taking upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.’ If the Unity of God is the basis of the Jewish creed, the love of God is to be the basis of the Jewish life.
Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was vehemently opposed to this approach: “A person cannot claim that he believes in God and loves Him, because belief in God that is thus based upon what a person imagines as God is nothing but the very essence of idolatry” (Seven Years of Discourses on the Weekly Torah Reading, p. 782). Leibowitz goes on to explain that “the relationship between man and his God that is referred to in later Hebrew as faith, and that in Biblical Hebrew is called love of God, is nothing other than a person’s willingness to accept the obligation to serve God by keeping the Torah and the commandments.”
Like Leibowitz, the p’shat commentary of the Etz Hayim Bible explains that “Israel’s duty to love God is inseparable from action and is regularly connected with the observance of His commandments.” It further explains that “in ancient Near Eastern political terminology, ‘love’ refers to the loyalty of subjects, vassals, and allies.” The d’rash commentary attempts to harmonize the various approaches: “Love is more than an emotion. It is a commitment to another, a demand for absolute faithfulness to God and to no other god.”
1. In the Bible, love between human beings is always one-sided: Abraham loves Isaac, Isaac loves Rebecca, Jacob loves Rachel, Jonathan loves David. Is the love of God also perceived to be one-sided?
2. Biblical love tends not to end happily ever after, for example: Shechem loved Dinah, Michal loved David, Amnon loved Tamar, Samson loved Delilah. What might these examples tell us about how the Bible understands and employs the word ‘love’? What might this usage tell us about the obligation to love God?
3. Is there some connection between the way love is portrayed in the above examples and the way it is explained by Hertz?
Iyunei Shabbat is published weekly by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, The Masorti Movement and The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel in conjunction with the Masorti Movement in Israel and Masorti Olami-World Council of Conservative Synagogues.
Chief Editor: Rabbi Avinoam Sharon