The Right Way to Love God
by Rabbi Dr. Michael Ben Admon
Translated from the original Hebrew by Rabbi Benjy Myers
While praying, each person occasionally stops the flow of words coming out their mouth to focus on a word or phrase that has special meaning, one that is a source of personal inspiration for their life. In this way, one is able to take the siddur and personalize it, enabling one’s prayer to reach a higher, truer plain. As such, my prayer is different from my co-congregant even though we both are using the same text and liturgy. Each Friday night during Kabbalat Shabbat I experience mixed emotions and plethora of thoughts when reciting the verse “O lovers of God, hate evil!” in ways that I myself do not fully comprehend, this verse raises within me thoughts, reflections and expectations together with a sense of sadness and futility at the acts of cruelty perpetrated for the sake of the love of God. How can one go from such a religious and educational ideal to hatred of man, and formatting such an unbalanced personality?
Part of the answer lies in the confusion created by the understanding of the verse in this week’s Torah reading: “And you shall love your God with all your heart, soul and might.” The difficulty is clear: how can one expect mankind to act with love towards God? How can a person take the feelings of dedication, self-negation and desire that one has towards the other gender and translate it into an affection towards God? There appears to be a ticking bomb that could explode in the name of religion.
I’d like to suggest that the commentators were aware of this difficulty and tried to explain in various ways. Furthermore, I’d like to show different prototypes of ‘lovers of God,’ those that emanate from exegetical standpoints and those that we meet in modern Israeli society. An examination of these different archetypes will further highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each one. As such, this is an exegetical-sociological examination on the place of the love of God in modern Israeli society in light of ideal prototypes. I will not rule out any of the ways, but simply point out the ways in which the love of god is expressed. I also have no intention of examining the micro-details of each commentator’s position, but merely to characterize certain models of the love of God.
Let us begin with Sefer HaChinuch who seeks to provide a concrete way to love God, as he does in all other commandments:
It is right for a man to set his whole aim toward love for the Eternal Lord. He should constantly appreciate in his heart that all there is in the world of wealth, sons and honor, all is as naught and nothing, an utter void void compared to love for Him. (Commandment 418)
The author of Sefer HaChinuch suggests mapping out all the loves that a person feels (family, wealth, honor) and utterly negate them in comparison to the love one should have for the Almighty. Such a love, intrinsically, is exclusive and cannot exist with other loves, certainly not with the same force of feeling. The total love here does not leave room for other such loves, and indeed I would posit that other loves threaten this love. Consequently, we have a love that could lead to a hatred of man assuming that love of mankind is viewed as a danger to the ultimate existence of the total love of God. At its most extreme, this position is dangerous and could become a base for religious fanaticism. The fantasy of living in complete love with God could agitate the fine balance between religious and societal obligations, creating a religious monster. The danger here is clear: a love of God absent any love of mankind.
We often come across people who express their love of God by the total adherence to all the minutiae of halakha – religious law. Fulfillment of this love is dependent on careful and exact religious worship with no room for deviation. Here too there is a danger of blindness in the face of oncoming challenges for a person is unwilling to raise his eyes – and awareness – to tackle problems that arise. One can become so immersed in religious and halakhic exactitude that they miss or ignore what the halakha is actually asking of them in different situations. Truth told, at times the halakha is a haven for pathological personalities. It is easy to find refuge in a halakhic system that replaces the feeling of love for religious worship and practice. What we have is religion, absence religiosity.
Religious practice in place of love also shows itself in other religious categories who are less concerned and exact in their religious observance and whose religious language is not strictly a halakhic one, namely, traditionalists. One the one hand, it appears that such a religious stance enables an open conversation with the Creator and the formation of a relationship more akin to parent-child rather than lawgiversubject. Feelings and conversations are channeled much more openly, discussions with God are not bound by the constraints halakha or liturgy. On the other hand, the love is expressed disproportionately toward seemingly sacred, magical elements. The love of God becomes intertwined with superstitions, leading to questions of validity and whether the benefits outweigh the losses.
Other commentators develop the notion that there is no way to speak about love in relation to God. In place, they suggest directing the love to a subject for which they can give expression to feelings of love. Chief architect of this approach is Maimonides. In a number of places he speaks of the idea that “the nature of one’s love depends on the nature of one’s knowledge! A small [amount of knowledge arouses] a lesser love. A greater amount of knowledge arouses a greater love. Therefore, it is necessary for a person to seclude himself in order to understand and conceive wisdom and concepts which make his creator known to him according to the potential which man possesses to understand and comprehend” (Laws of Repentance ch. 10, halakha 6). It seems that Maimonides is striving to design man who loves knowledge 3 and Torah and who is always seeking to further his knowledge, aware that he is always lacking, and this awareness pains him. It is possible that such an approach will lead to the love of God, however the medium through which this happen and on which one would need to expend much energy is in the acquisition of knowledge. Thereby, love of God becomes an intellectual interest. The ultimate example is one who gains pleasure from one’s learning (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 3), and even if there are people who will attain such heights, they are few and far between. The obsession of love through study leads to a negation of the knowledge already gained, with all its inherent treasures.
The New Age Hassidic approach seeks to take the love of God in a different direction, based (at times very loosely) on the teachings of R’ Zadok. According to this approach, one cannot begin speaking of the love of God until a person knows and loves himself. Self-awareness and intimate knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses is the basis for a love of God. Self-acceptance and knowing one’s fragility is the central theme of this approach: “love God with all your heart – with both inclinations, good and evil.” Personal weakness and failings transform into conduits and indeed vital ingredients in understanding the full potential a person has for loving God, for only through the hardships of life will a person come to realize the “authentic spiritual dimension.” While this approach is more self-aware than the Maimonidean model, both focus on self-veneration, as at the end of the day the energy trained inwards into self-improvement could very well become egotistical self-adulation in the guise of loving God. The apparent danger here is the love of self, absent God.
Lodged between religious fanaticism in the name of loving God and self-love absent God is the option of “O lovers of God, hate evil!” the Talmudic interpretation to the commandment to love God is fantastic in its simplicity and nullifies the dangers of fanaticism or ritualism:
And you shall love the Lord your God, that the Name of Heaven be beloved because of you. If someone studies Scripture and Mishna, attends the needs of the disciples of the wise, is honest in business and speaks pleasantly to others, what do people then say about him? … look how fine are the ways and how righteous are the deeds of this man who has studied the Torah! (Yoma 86a) ]
The underlying premise is that man cannot fulfill the obligation of loving God in an unmediated way. Only when another corporeal being is present, one that seeks to find the proper behavior of his fellow, can this love be achieved. The love of God pictured here is a religious stand that takes into account consideration for others which leads to the love of man. It is first and foremost activism – responsible and honest labor and concern for the education of future generations- boys and girls as one. Our world needs a love of God that does not lead to fanaticism or seclusion, but rather to one that adds light, warmth and peace.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Ben Admon is the Director of Straus-Amiel‘s Maarava Program for Rabbinical Emissaries to Sephardic Communities