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The Morality Of Love

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Something implicit in the Torah from the very beginning becomes explicit in the book of Devarim. God is the God of love. More than we love Him, He loves us. Here, for instance, is the beginning of this week’s parshah:

“If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love [et ha-brit ve-et ha-chessed] with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13).

Again in the parshah we read: “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today” (ibid., 10:14-15).

And here is a verse from last week’s parshah: “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength” (ibid., 4:37).

The book of Deuteronomy is saturated with the language of love. The root a-h-v appears in Shemot twice, in Vayikra twice (both in Leviticus 19), in Badmibar not at all, but in Sefer Devarim 23 times. Devarim is a book about societal beatitude and the transformative power of love.

Nothing could be more misleading and invidious than the Christian contrast between Christianity as a religion of love and forgiveness and Judaism as a religion of law and retribution. As I pointed out in my column on Parshat Vayigash, forgiveness is born (as David Konstan notes in Before Forgiveness) in Judaism. Interpersonal forgiveness begins when Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Divine forgiveness starts with the institution of Yom Kippur as the supreme day of Divine pardon following the sin of the Golden Calf.

Similarly with love: when the New Testament speaks of love it does so by direct quotation from Leviticus (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) and Deuteronomy (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might”). As philosopher Simon May puts it in his splendid book, Love: A History: “The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye,’ while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history. For the Hebrew Bible is the source not just of the two love commandments but of a larger moral vision inspired by wonder for love’s power.” His judgment is unequivocal: “If love in the Western world has a founding text, that text is Hebrew.”

More than this: in Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures, philosopher Harry Redner distinguishes four basic visions of the ethical life in the history of civilizations. One he calls civic ethics, the ethics of ancient Greece and Rome. Second is the ethic of duty, which he identifies with Confucianism, Krishnaism and late Stoicism. Third is the ethic of honor, a distinctive combination of courtly and military decorum to be found among Persians, Arabs and Turks as well as in medieval Christianity (the “chivalrous knight”) and Islam.

The fourth, which he calls simply morality, he traces to Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He defines it simply as “the ethic of love,” and represents what made the West morally unique: “The biblical ‘love of one’s neighbor’ is a very special form of love, a unique development of the Judaic religion and unlike any to be encountered outside it. It is a supremely altruistic love, for to love one’s neighbor as oneself means always to put oneself in his place and to act on his behalf as one would naturally and selfishly act on one’s own.” To be sure, Buddhism also makes space for the idea of love, though it is differently inflected, more impersonal and unrelated to a relationship with God.

What is radical about this idea is that, first, the Torah insists, against virtually the whole of the ancient world, that the elements that constitute reality are neither hostile nor indifferent to humankind. We are here because Someone wanted us to be, One who cares about us, watches over us and seeks our wellbeing.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”

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