Ask the Rabbis
Ask the Rabbis is a forum that appears in each issue, provides a rare opportunity to read the opinions of rabbis from across the spectrum of Judaism. Its purpose is to illuminate the diversity within Jewish thinking and create a cross-denominational discussion that leads to deeper understanding.
What Does Judaism Say About Love?
Love is defined in Hebrew as ahavah, which is rooted in the Aramaic word hav and literally translates as “give.” Rather than translate B’reisheet, the first words of the Torah, as “in the beginning,” one can say “in the first gift.” Creation originated in the Creator’s will to give. We refer to the nature of this gifting as love because it involves not only giving of oneself, but also stepping back to enable the existence and flourishing of the other. God thus models what love entails: selfless gifting accompanied by withdrawal to enable the other to emerge. Therefore, the ancient rabbis defined authentic love as not contingent on any factor because if it is, and then that factor is gone, so is love. But romantic love does have contingencies. It requires compatibility and trust because it involves intimacy. The Talmud admonishes, “A man should never marry off his daughter but to the one whom she finds favorable.” Is romantic love then a step down from altruistic love? Not at all. It is rather a step into the inner sanctum of love, a sampling of the World to Come, where love is not merely a state of grace but a state of bliss.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler, Walking Stick Foundation, Thousand Oaks, CA
What is love? An emotion? Is it defined by what it is not? The opposite of hate? Like the theological challenge of defining God, does love defy being pinned down? Perhaps the most familiar references to love in our tradition come from two verses: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) and “You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” (Deuteronomy 6:5). I have always been intrigued by the idea that love could be mandated. I thought true love was voluntary, from the heart. Rashi, the 12th-century commentator, seems to have understood my problem. He distinguished between acting out of fear and acting out of love. Fear may induce basic obedience, but it won’t build loyalty. Love, on the other hand, will be met with love and a readiness to give back even more in return.
For Rashi, “love your God” meant “performing commandments out of love.” What matters is how we carry ourselves, how we treat others, how we act with loving intentions. The mandate isn’t necessarily a mandate to love God. In fact, God doesn’t even need to be part of the equation and is conspicuously absent in the instruction to love our neighbor as ourself.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer, The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, New York, NY