Can One Love God?

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


The Torah talks a lot about love, love of God, love our neighbors, and love the stranger. But what does love, Ahavah mean? And why is it so often paired with the word Yirah, which is usually translated as fear, but in reality, it means respect? Love in English tends to focus on what one expects and receives. In Hebrew the word has a root Hava that means to give, to bring. So that loving one’s neighbor, loving one’s wife and children, loving the stranger are all predicated on what we are giving as much as receiving. It is a process of reconciliation, concern, and support, physically, and emotionally. But what can one give to God? Once we used to sacrifice. Now we pray. Perhaps one day it will all be virtual.


The Hebrew phrase “ VeAhavta LeReacha Camocha” is normally translated as “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” Although literally, the phrase translates as “Show love to your neighbor because he is like you.” Reduced to do as you would be done by, it is a useful principle. Not a romantic one. This is not meant to diminish romantic love. But simply to say that, as with so many concepts, there are different dimensions and ways of understanding them.


The verb “ to love” in the Bible often refers to actions, not feelings. When Deuteronomy describes the obligation to love another human, it means a love expressed in benevolent acts, as in Deuteronomy 10:18, God “loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.” Israel’s duty to love God is likewise inseparable from action. It is regularly connected with the observance of His commandments, throughout the Book of Deuteronomy.


What then do we mean by loving God as the Torah keeps on telling us to? How can a very human emotion be applied to a not physical phenomenon? I am not going to try to define God here. Using Daniel Dennet’s term “The Idea of God,” both those who accept the idea and those who reject it, have their own understandings of what they mean by it. No definition will please everyone.


Traditional Jewish philosophy was heavily based on the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. By the 19th century, these schools of thought were no longer considered philosophically relevant (except historically). It is ironic that we still venerate the systems of our Jewish medieval philosophers. For example, the Greeks maintained a basic distinction between mind and body. God could be reached only through the mind. The body, composed of mere matter was considered less important. But if you cut off the oxygen or the blood to the brain, it won’t be able to contemplate a philosophical truth. As Psalms says, “ The dead cannot praise God.” IN such a rational world there was no room for a holistic or mystical approach. The result was that they thought that the way to love God was through the intellect alone. And commandments were a means to that intellectual end.


Maimonides thought that the human love of God was a function of that person’s wisdom (Guide 3:28). He believed that everything that Aristotle had to say about the sub-lunar world was indisputably true (Guide 2:22). Basing a religion on an abstract God who is not subject to change, however, does not fit into the overwhelming position of most Jewish thinkers dating back to the Torah, that humans and God interact through prayer and repentance, if God’s will is not subject to change by humans? And if belief in God is predicated on intellect, what of all those people who simply do not have the intellect or the interest in philosophy? What is God to them? The idea of belief is problematic. It only entered Judaism long after the Bible when Jews borrowed Greek philosophical concepts to underpin their theology by saying that only through belief in a redeemer can one come to God. But there is no actual command to believe in the Torah, only a statement that God is there. The word Emunah there means to have trust, to be committed, to care every time it is used. It is not a theological or philosophical imperative!


An alternative to such rationalism is mysticism. The antidote to philosophy. Much as I love mysticism, its irrationality can sometimes be problematic. The Zohar claims that every action we take in performing a mitzvah, whether we are aware or not, actually does, physically modulate our bodies, and automatically brings us closer to God. It means that an action devoid of thought or intent automatically fulfills the Will of God. This is an interesting idea. But it cannot be taken literally. And even if one unconscious good act leads to a conscious one, the first cannot be an expression of love for God.


In an excellent article on Thetorah.com, Professor Marty Lockshin uses the thought of a brilliant nineteenth-century rabbi and scholar Shadal, R. Samuel David Luzzatto; 1800-1865. Not to be confused with the better-known R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, also known by the Hebrew acronym Ramchal,1707-1746.


In Shadal’s commentary to Deuteronomy 6:5 “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” does not make sense as a command. He explains that just as loving a neighbor means doing things that one’s neighbor wants to do, so also loving God means doing what we understand to be God’s will… The proper worship and love of God has nothing to do with withdrawal from society and living in the desert to contemplate in isolation, but rather living with other human beings and treating them with righteousness and justice.” Love of God is expressed through loving other humans, in contrast to hermits.


As for prayer, it is not that God wants or needs our prayers. We are the ones who are needy. We pray to feel committed to a moral-spiritual way of life that God represents. And this process creates an association with its source, a sense of connection, even fellowship. A sense of loving and being loved is a consequence of the experience of appreciation of, and submission to, a different, higher dimension and authority. In the way that one feels good when pleasing someone. One can feel this, even if not always seeing any obvious reciprocity in getting what one wants. “Be Holy because I am Holy” in Leviticus 19, means that God stands for and symbolizes morality. Being good is how we can interact with God. Just as God is defined in Genesis 3.5 as being that which knows the difference between good and bad. Divine energy, which is God in the universe, on the other hand, is something that can be experienced in mystical ways. God, in other words, functions on two levels. The human and the cosmic.


The purpose of love is to identify. A reinforcement is like feelings of loyalty to a country or even a soccer team, even if it is abstract. This is the way most humans navigate through life. Based on feeling as opposed to an intellectual argument. This is why commandments, rituals, and practices, are much more effective in guiding human behavior than philosophy or theology.


The highest form of love is unconditional. It is an outpouring of one’s own emotion, regardless of whether it is reciprocated. Even unrequited love is still called love. Still, for most humans, reciprocity is essential. In the case of God, simply expressing a feeling of devotion is called love. And this can be achieved in two ways, behavior and feeling. If the result of expressing this feeling is that we sense that we are loved, then so much the better. This is what reinforces a sense of the presence of God in the world whether it is innate or acquired.


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.