The Love of God

Jon D. Levenson
  • Review
By – October 27, 2015

What does it mean to love God? Jon Lev­en­son shows that love goes far beyond romance and pas­sion, affec­tion and car­ing — the qual­i­ties that might first come to mind. As in any seri­ous rela­tion­ship, he argues, it like­wise entails loy­al­ty, trust, oblig­a­tions, and sacrifice. 

Lev­en­son, a leg­endary teacher at Har­vard, estab­lished him­self as both a bril­liant schol­ar and an orig­i­nal thinker almost 30 years ago with Cre­ation and the Per­sis­tence of Evil. That land­mark work, like this one, bases an orig­i­nal the­sis on a close read­ing of documen­tary sources from the ancient to the near­ly con­tem­po­rary. He builds on some of the same con­cepts in both works. Lev­en­son cites ancient Near East­ern treaties of suzerain­ty as mod­els for the covenant between God and Israel and con­trasts Mai­monides’ thought with Aristo­tle’s idea of a per­fect God who is eter­nal, sep­a­rate, unalterable.” 

The ear­li­er book looks at the covenant as the ground on which obe­di­ence and free choice con­tend. Here he explores the rela­tion­ship it cre­ates, which he com­pares to a son’s feel­ings toward his father: for­ev­er loy­al, ready to help, grate­ful. That com­par­i­son comes direct­ly from the lan­guage of the time and place where the Jew­ish peo­ple came into existence. 

As ear­ly as the four­teenth cen­tu­ry BCE, Lev­enson tells us, the king of Byb­los (in mod­ern-day Lebanon) seeks help from the Egypt­ian pharaoh by ask­ing rhetor­i­cal­ly, Who will love [you] if I die?” In the sev­enth cen­tu­ry BCE the Assyr­i­an king Assur­ba­n­i­pal required his vas­sals to swear, we will love the king of Assyr­ia.” In both instances the vas­sal king speaks to his suzerain as if to a par­ent. This is nei­ther a poet­ic metaphor nor an emo­tion­al feel­ing. It describes the roles and oblig­a­tions that a fam­i­ly rela­tion­ship entails. So, when King Ahaz of Judah asks for pro­tec­tion by Assyr­ia against mil­i­tary threats, he writes to Tiglath-pileser III, I am your son; deliv­er me from the king of Aram and the king of Israel who are attack­ing me.” When Jews are com­mand­ed to love the Lord your God,” they are also being remind­ed of their oblig­a­tions to a greater pow­er who has saved them from their enemies. 

There is cer­tain­ly an emo­tion­al com­po­nent as well. Love, accord­ing to Lev­en­son, includes feel­ings of grat­i­tude for God’s gift in choos­ing to have a rela­tion­ship with the peo­ple Israel, and a sense of humil­i­ty in the face of the dec­la­ra­tion in Leviti­cus: I will be your God and you will be my peo­ple.” That rela­tion­ship also demands Israel’s faith­ful­ness and explains God’s pos­ses­sive­ness. These themes, so often raised by the Prophets, are famil­iar to us as well in the polit­i­cal alliances and inti­mate rela­tion­ships of our own time. Lev­en­son helps us see them in God’s love as well. 

Love between human beings can also be sex­u­al, of course, and the love of God can be just as intense. When the peo­ple Israel pay atten­tion to oth­er gods, the Prophets accuse them of whor­ing.” The Song of Songs cel­e­brates sex­u­al love and pas­sion: Love is as fierce as death, Pas­sion is mighty as She­ol. Its darts are darts of fire[…] Vast floods can­not quench love.” This inspires the midrash to read Song of Songs as an account of God’s pro­pos­al of mar­riage to Israel on Sinai — con­sum­mat­ed, no less, in the Tabernacle. 

Writ­ings after the age of the Bible talk about encoun­ters with God in more mysti­cal or philo­soph­i­cal terms. Lev­en­son takes pains to point out that medieval Jew­ish ideas depend on the influ­ence of Chris­t­ian, Mus­lim, and Gre­co-Roman thought. His exam­ple par excel­lence is Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, which drew upon Neo­pla­ton­ism and Sufism. It teach­es that God’s love is felt through his cre­ation and is earned through ded­i­ca­tion, wor­ship, pre­scribed prac­tices, and self-sac­ri­fice. Mai­monides, a cen­tu­ry lat­er, is more philo­soph­i­cal­ly inclined, and sees inquiry and wis­dom as essential. 

The Love of God con­cludes with a chap­ter that looks at the post-Enlight­en­ment reli­gious con­di­tion through two great twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry fig­ures, Mar­tin Buber and Franz Rosen­zweig. With the ero­sion of the author­i­ty of God’s com­mand­ments, how can Jews have a rela­tion­ship with God? Buber envi­sions a deeply per­son­al (I and Thou) dimen­sion where authen­tic­i­ty is essen­tial — which means that the indi­vid­ual choos­es when to accept a law and when not to. Rosen­zweig, by con­trast, see God’s love as so trans­for­ma­tive that human beings can respond only with a heart­felt Yes!” when God com­mands, Love me.” For Rosen­zweig, Torah and com­mand­ments are the medi­um for giv­ing and receiv­ing God’s love. 

Jon Levenson’s expli­ca­tion of these ideas is a mir­a­cle of orga­ni­za­tion, pre­ci­sion, and clar­ity. He writes acces­si­bly and con­ver­sa­tion­al­ly, bely­ing his immense schol­ar­ship. The Love of God can be read for its orig­i­nal point of view, as a his­to­ry of ideas, or as a way of find­ing new mean­ing in famil­iar ways of talk­ing about God. It suc­ceeds bril­liant­ly on all counts. 

For the obser­vant Jew, Lev­en­son does some­thing more: he reviv­i­fies Jew­ish prayer, rit­u­al, and oth­er com­mand­ments by explain­ing them in terms of rad­i­cal grat­i­tude for the gifts of a lov­ing God. It may sound sim­ple, but it is a pro­found insight, and anoth­er rea­son this book’s influ­ence will be felt for decades to come.

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