The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Section EditorThe Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @ pjvoice.com
Rabbi Lewis John Eron, Ph.D., Jewish Community Chaplain, Jewish Senior Housing and Health Services of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey
What is the essence of the Torah, the living word of the living God? To Rabbi Akiba, the great sage and martyr of the 2nd century, the answer was
"ahava/love." He drew on two verses from the Torah to support his belief. The first was "You shall love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5), which comes
from Torah portion Va'etchanan, and the second was "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) from the Torah portion
But what is ahava/love and how does one command it? This is a particularly sharp question for us today, because in the modern world we understand love primarily as an emotion or a feeling, an interior state of mind. This view of love, however, is much narrower than the biblical understanding. While not denying what we today would call the emotional aspects of love, our ancestors saw love primarily as term that described a relationship such as our brit/covenant with God. For them love did not reside in the emotive of center of the soul but appeared in words and deeds that expressed the relationship and demonstrated loyalty to the other partner.
In contemporary Jewish culture, the clearest contrast between the modern and traditional views of love appears in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. In the moving duet, "Do You Love Me," Tevya, trying to understand his daughters' modern ideas, asks Golde, his loyal wife, if she loves him. Golde, unable to comprehend love as an emotive state, finds it difficult to answer her husband's question. All that she can do is remind him of the myriad of things that she has done for him over all their long years of marriage that demonstrate her abiding commitment to him and their family, which to her means love.
The verse from Deuteronomy that instructs us to love God with all our heart, soul, and might underscores the biblical understanding that ahava is more than an emotive state. Without a doubt there is an emotive aspect to God. We are to love God with our soul, our nefesh, our life force first created when God breathed the spirit into the primordial human (Genesis 2:8). But love also has a cognitive component and an action imperative. We are to love God also with our heart, the intellectual center in biblical anatomy, and with our might, our material gifts.
Biblically, we define ourselves not by our interior feelings but by our relationships to those around us. What we say and what we do can express the state of our souls. However, if we have no interior feelings, our souls can be trained by the way we interact with others, for better or for worse.
So how do we love God and love humanity at the same time? Our sages taught that we express our love of God by acting in ways that manifest God's love for us - by doing justice, by pursuing peace, caring for the less fortunate, by cherishing those dear to us, by building communities, by healing the sick, by honoring our past, and by dreaming for our future. We love God by making God beloved by others (Sifre Deut. 32).
Similarly, we express our love for humanity by helping them express their own love of God. According to the tales of creation they, like us, were created in God's image, and they, like us, have a soul awakened by God's living breath. By cherishing each other and by working together to make this world a better place for all, we witness our love of God and of humanity and express the essence of the Torah.
There is a great deal to do and much more in the Torah. This is a starting point and, as Hillel taught, "the rest is commentary; go study."