A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life – Part Two – Love
Last month I wrote about belief. You can find that article here. This week I want to connect that analysis to elements of Jewish observance such as Shabbat and Kashrut. The connection is a connection of love.
We are, of course, commanded to love both God (that obligation comes from the Shema) and our fellow (a command Rabbi Akiva considered the single principle underpinning the entire Torah). At first these obligations seem disparate. God is the power beyond all particularity and form, whereas humans are weak and distinct. But they are connected by the single most radical idea in Judaism – the notion that humanity is created btzelem elohim – in the image of God. The Etz Hayim Chumash points out that all kinds of Ancient Near East traditions considered the King divine, but the Torah goes far further insisting all humanity contains divinity. Each of us; men, women, the powerful and the powerless… contain this spark. It’s a notion powerful enough to justify human rights, democracy, or frankly any liberation movement you care to name.
Certainly taking these twin obligations as one it becomes impossible to claim to love God while treating any human poorly. The reverse is equally true. If you place the love of all humanity at the heart of your every action you embody what it truly means to love God. Certainly the best advice for anyone unsure about belief is don’t worry so much, concentrate on loving your fellow. The magic of the staggeringly profound nature of our existence may seep in slowly, but don’t worry about theology, just get on with loving.
So what does it mean to be loving? Provocatively the Torah doesn’t understand love as an emotion. Rather love means action. In Talmud Sotah (14b) the Rabbis struggle with how to fulfill the Biblical obligation to ‘walk in way of God,’ – how to behave in a godly manner. They come up with a list of Divine accomplishments that are most remarkable for their being least remarkable. Just as God visits Abraham as he recovers from circumcision, so we are called upon to visit the sick, and so on. Nowhere are we called to be anything other than Menschen – humans whose humanity is embodied in acts of kindness.
Lovers are not slapdash, rough or approximate. And so too in our relationship with God. If we love God it matters whether there are 49 poles in the sanctuary, or fifty. It matters whether one eats a cheeseburger or remembers to call one’s mother Shabbat eve. And so we arrive at the heart of the entire system of Jewish do-s and don’t-s. It’s an attempt to articulate how to be a lover.
Should we say a blessing before we eat food? Of course we should. This is how we develop the spiritual discipline that allows us to understand our place on this planet. Then the pursuit of detail follows; what should we say before we eat this or that, what should we say after? These questions, and thousands like them, drive rabbinic Judaism – how do we balance competing claims of different refractions of different divine images? How we should treat poshtei yad – beggars on the street? What if they might spend the money on booze, their dog or their gang master? Thankfully we have a system of working these issues through – it’s called Halachah. Sometimes, admittedly, the pursuit of detail can blind. Sometimes we can lose the bigger picture – but the bigger picture is acting in a loving way.
Even areas of Halachic that seem distant from this idea of love connect. Shatnetz – thou shall not mix wool and linen – is superficially unlovely. But it is part of a series of obligations to hold different elements of creation differently. Don’t eat meat and milk together, don’t yoke an ox and a mule together etc. These are attempts to have us understand everything is not the same. That clothing, food and the like are not merely our playthings, they define our relationship with the world. If we treat clothing purely as something for us to use and are blind to the difference between clothing that comes from plants and clothing that comes from animals, how are we supposed to care about the treatment of animals, or the wages paid to cotton pickers in Ukraine, or the working conditions of garment manufacturers in some awful factory that collapses under the weight of human greed – ours as much as the manufacturers? Mitzvot are calls to become observant. As we observe it we become more observant, and the more we see, the more we understand, the more capable we become of acting in a loving way.
We don’t need to re-invent the entire interplay of morality and ethics and compassion with our every purchase and every bite. Instead we can observe Shabbat, keep Kosher, even wear non-Shatnatz clothing and use these pathways of love to become ever more loving.
That’s the Jewish legal system; a system of walking in the path of the Divine, recognising the image of God in all humanity and trying to do the right thing to do in the ever more complex web of relationships, pulls and tugs that make up our existence.
Jeremy Gordon is the rabbi of New London Synagogue.