Parashat Vaetchanan: The Right Path to Loving God

How can we ask a person to relate to God through love?  How can a person translate the dedication, self-nullification, and sensual vigor felt toward the opposite gender into sentiments appropriate for the expression of love of Hashem? A trap may have been set for us, one that might lead to a tremendous explosion in the name of religion.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Ben Admon, Director of OTS’s Maarava Program for Rabbinical Emissaries to Sephardic Communities

Sometimes, when we pray, we stop the constant stream of words bursting into our mouths from our siddurim, prayer books, to look here or there for a verse, or a word, that we find personally inspiring. In doing so, we appropriate the siddur, truly allowing prayer to occur. This is a very personal process. My prayers differ from those of my neighbor’s, though the text is identical. On every Friday evening, during the prayers ushering in Shabbat, I read the verse “those who love Hashem, hate evil!”, and feel inundated with thoughts and emotions. Inexplicably, even to myself, the verse causes me to wonder, to contemplate, and to anticipate. Yet it also makes me feel despondent and exasperated at the thought of our world, one in which acts of savagery are committed, all in the name of loving God. How have we stooped from this religious and pedagogical ideal to misanthropy, creating such a skewed personality?

Part of the answer lies in the awkwardness we experience trying to understand one verse in this week’s parsha that we read three times a day: “And you shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The quandary is well-known and deeply felt: How can we ask a person to relate to God through love?  How can a person translate the dedication, self-nullification, and sensual vigor felt toward the opposite gender into sentiments appropriate for the expression of the love of Hashem? A trap may have been set for us, one that might lead to a tremendous explosion in the name of religion.

I’d like to propose that the commentators had grappled with this dilemma, and had suggesting various ways of observing the commandment of loving Hashem. I would like to describe several types of “God-lovers” based on various exegetical positions, which we encounter in contemporary Israeli society. By examining the paradigms they propose, I would like to try to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each position. This is therefore a socio-exegetical discussion of the role of the love of God in Israeli society, in light of idealistic paradigms. I won’t disqualify any method. I will, however, try to identify the way love is understood and brought to fruition in each method. Furthermore, I have no interest in fleshing out the details of each commentator. Rather, I will suffice in describing several paradigms for loving Hashem.

We’ll begin with Sefer Hachinuch, which tries to provide concrete halakhic guidance on loving Hashem, as it does for every other area of halakha:

… It is fitting for a person to put all of his thought and all of his effort towards the love of God; and he should always evaluate in his heart that all that there is in the world – of wealth, children, power and honor – it is all like null and void compared to love for Him, blessed be He…” (Commandment DXVIII)

The author of Sefer Hachinuch suggests that we enumerate all of the loves a person experiences (such as a person’s love for family, money, honor, etc.), and methodically nullify them in favor of the love for Hashem that he or she anticipates.

If so, we learn that love for Hashem is exclusive and can’t coexist with other loves, certainly not at the same level.  In this paradigm, the totality of loving conduct doesn’t leave too much room for other loves. I would even add that they jeopardize their very existence. This illustrates a love of Hashem that may lead to misanthropy, if the love for other human beings is seen as a stumbling block preventing this love of Hashem from materializing. In its extreme form, this position is dangerous and sets the stage for religious fanaticism. Fantasizing about living with a love of Hashem could fundamentally tip the scales between interpersonal commitments and religious commitments, creating a religious monstrosity. This reading of the words “with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might” might feed into this position. This presents a clear and present danger: a love of Hashem, devoid of any love toward other human beings.

We often encounter people who express their love of Hashem by strictly adhering to the precepts of Jewish law. This love is fulfilled through the cautious observance of the commandments, and under no circumstances may one stray from this path. Here, too, we run the risk of totality that can sometimes blind a person, preventing those people from lifting up their heads so that that can solve the problems that cross their paths. One can become caught up in overzealous adherence to Jewish law while ignoring what halakha requires in other contexts. Truth be told, sometimes, halakha serves as a safe haven for the disturbed. It’s easy to hide away within a halakhic system that converts the emotion of love into ritual. Religion is present, but what about genuine piety?

The replacement of love with ritual can also occur in another category of human religious practice which is less strict about adhering to Jewish law. In this paradigm, pure adherence to religious law doesn’t define the religiosity of its adherents to the same extent as tradition does. One the one hand, the impression we get is that this religious position allows an open dialog with the Creator of the Universe and forging a connection to Him, more so as a father figure than as a lawmaker. Here, the verbal and emotional channel with Hashem is more open, and doesn’t pass through an intermediary like Jewish law or Torah study. On the other hand, love is disproportionately expressed toward sanctified objects that adherents associate with magic powers. Love of God is now a blend of observance of Torah commandments and superstition, and some would suggest that in this case, the game isn’t worth the candle.

Other commentators advance the idea that one can’t speak of love with relation to Hashem. Therefore, they suggest channeling love to something that can express the emotion of love. This approach is spearheaded by Maimonides. In several instances, he points out that:

…according to that knowledge will that love be; if it be small, the love will be small; if it be abundant, the love will be abundant. It is, therefore, necessary for man to dedicate himself to understand and acquire intelligence in the sciences and reasonings which make known to him his Owner, in the measure of power that man possesses to understand and attain it… (Mishne Torah, The Laws of Repentance, 10:6)

It seems to me that what Maimonides is after is shaping a personality in love with wisdom and Torah, who wishes to become more knowledgeable, sensing that knowledge is always lacking, and that this lack leads to suffering. Sometimes, this opinion will lead a person to loving Hashem, but the medium that most of that person’s energy must be directed to is knowledge. In this case, therefore, love of Hashem is an intellectual pursuit. The quintessential proponent of this approach is the scholar who delights in his studies (Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment 3), and even if people with other views have other experiences resulting from having delved into the study of wisdom, they are certainly a minute minority. From this, we can conclude that the obsessiveness associated with love is directed toward study and self-nullification in the face of a treasure hoard of wisdom.

One very commonplace form of new-age Hassidism gaining a foothold in national-religious circles takes the love of Hashem in a different direction, trying to entrench it (even if it does so rather partially) in the sayings of Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen. According to this view, one can only speak of the love of Hashem after having become familiar with and loving oneself. By working on their souls and their character traits, people can learn about their strength and weaknesses, and this can form the underpinnings of their love of Hashem.

When we accept ourselves and our frail existence, we have fulfilled a central tenet of this school of thought: to love Hashem “with all of your heart”, i.e., with your two inclinations, the good inclination, and the evil inclination.  Weaknesses and failures are even a precondition for discovering the potential magnitude of a person’s love for hashem, since only by facing the difficulties of life can a person advance toward the “authentic spiritual plane”.  This type of personality, which is more self-aware than Maimonides’ intellectual, eventually reaches the same outcome, however – a personality cult. This is because ultimately, that person’s basic energies are directed toward himself or herself, and this might produce an “ego cult” disguised as love for Hashem. Even if these things don’t appear in writing, the danger with this approach is that we will be left with a godless love of man.

Between the love of Hashem that leads to fanaticism and the one that leads to a godless love of man, there is another option – the one embodied by “Lovers of Hashem – hate evil!”. The Talmudic interpretation of the commandment to love God is wonderfully simple, and it extricates us from the danger of become fanatics or being obsessed with ritual:

And you shall love the Lord your God”, which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. [One should do so in that he should] read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds… (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 86a)

 The basic assumption is that a person can’t keep the commandment of loving Hashem without an intermediary. The commandment can only be observed when another person is present, one who is trying to understand the reasons for his friend’s proper conduct. Here, love of Hashem is portrayed as a religious view that takes other human beings into consideration, and this leads to a love of fellow man. This is, first and foremost, a form of activism. Actions are performed honestly and responsibly. We take responsibility for educating the next generation, an allusion to “you shall educate your sons and daughters”. Our world is in need of this type of love of Hashem, one that doesn’t turn people into fanatics or cause them to ostracize themselves from society. One that adds to peace and light in the world.


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