Photograph by Claudio Schwarz via Unsplash

Love is a religious value, but only if we make it one

Zev Mishell

July 11, 2024

Like many others who grew up in religious families, my earliest childhood memory is of the blessings my grandfather and I would recite before going to bed. We would say the shema, Judaism’s declaration of faith in one God, and we would whisper the Jewish prayer about loving God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. His blessing led to my own long practice of saying the shema at night, with additions about safety, hope, and faith in God.

Since my grandfather’s passing last month, I have been reflecting on this story in light of one of the most important works of Jewish theology written in the last decade, Rabbi Shai Held’s new book, Judaism is about Love (Macmillan, 2024). At a time when religious violence is ascendant all over the world, it isn’t surprising that many people are giving up on religion in favor of new forms of community and belonging. For many on the progressive left, it’s hard to even know what to do with religion. Is it simply a force of reactionary politics, as evidenced by the rise of Christian nationalism and the violence in Israel/Palestine? Or can it still be a force of change and prophetic witness, like the long history of religious movements in the struggle for civil rights and social liberation?

Rather than address these questions in the abstract, Held’s book offers a defense of Judaism and what it can still offer to Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. In the book, he responds to what he thinks is the most unfair charge against Judaism: that unlike Christianity, which is a religion of spiritual love and passionate connection to God, Judaism is cold, ritualistic, and overly committed to religious law. Held explains that as Christianity began forming as a new religious movement, the Gospels deliberately contrasted themselves against a supposedly “loveless Judaism,” which created long-lasting stereotypes in the process. Held argues for a return to what he thinks is the foundational idea for both Jews and Christians: love.

Over the course of fifteen chapters, Held makes the argument that Judaism is about love. He looks at the relationship between Jewish conceptions of love and the building of community; the way Jewish thought embodies love through protest and speaking out against injustice; and how Jewish ethics inform love of strangers and the wider world. The book invites its readers to see Judaism in a new way by challenging some preconceived notions of what makes something authentically Jewish.

As a scholar of the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who himself advocated for Jewish-Christian dialogue, Held constantly borrows and transforms some of Heschel’s most important ideas. He explores Heschel’s notion of prayer as a bridge between a person and the divine and how social justice embodies Judaism’s commitment to merging the life of the spirit with the life of the world. For both Heschel and Held, Judaism teaches that we are God’s partners in rectifying an imperfect world, an idea articulated centuries earlier by St. Teresa of Avila when she said, “we are the hands and feet of God.”

Seeing Judaism as rooted in love is a choice. When we inherit a tradition, we make choices about which values to center and which to set aside. When I think about my grandfather, I remember someone for whom Judaism nourished his ability to care for others in a loving, heartfelt way.

For Christians trying to understand why this shift towards embracing love is important, it may be helpful to reiterate that Judaism is not founded on dogma and centers action rather than belief. In the United States, Jewish communities are divided into a number of denominational branches that draw on and relate to similar foundational sources, with vastly different understandings of Judaism’s core values. When Held writes about the centrality of love, he isn’t modeling it after a credo or belief; he’s making the argument that love is an embodied ethic that permeates every part of Jewish life, especially through the practice of Jewish law. The goal is to not merely feel love towards God or one’s community, but to both feel and embody it in one’s full religious life.

As Held points out, the law isn’t a set of beliefs, but is instead the cornerstone of how Jews should fulfill their obligations to God. Given the inevitable shortcomings of being human, Held argues that Jews live in the gap between these ideals and how they are realized, between the hoped-for world and the society we currently inhabit. As a friend recently taught me, Jewishness insists that there should never be a moment where God’s love is absent from our actions in the world. Like many Christian thinkers, Held suggests that God implants in us the capacity for love, and it’s our job to act on that inner calling.

But this pivot towards embracing love puts in sharper relief something missing from the book: the lack of an absolutely necessary rejection of how Jewish thought is weaponized by the Israeli government to further the violence in Israel/Palestine. What makes texts troubling isn’t only their content, but the context in which they are read. Thus, though Held addresses passages from the Bible that challenge his reading of Judaism and love, he overlooks how those stories carry more gravity when they are employed to justify war and violence. To make a Jewish ethic of love real, one has to name and reject the violence occurring in its name.

To the book’s credit, Held carefully explains that seeing Judaism as rooted in love is a choice. As Held points out, when we inherit a tradition, we make choices about which values to center and which to set aside. When I think about my grandfather, I remember someone for whom Judaism nourished his ability to care for others in a loving, heartfelt way. Because that’s the thing: religion is about love if we make it about love. And that takes courage, commitment, and a willingness to challenge the complacency of our traditions when they don’t live up to their values.

By facing these hard questions, even when they challenge our deepest convictions, we can work to make religions of love real in the world. We need all the help we can get.

Zev Mishell is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He graduated with honors from Princeton with a degree in Near Eastern Studies, specializing in Israel/Palestine and the history of the Israeli Far Right. More recently, he’s begun researching local histories of the American Midwest.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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