Psalms, cc: wikipedia
One of the clichés of Christian polemics is that Christianity is a religion of love, whereas Judaism is a religion of Law. There are those Jews who accept this characterization and argue that: On the contrary, we accept the “accusation,” but would argue that Law is superior to or preferable to Love. Whereas Love is a subjective emotion, often vague, inconsistent, unclear, and blind to reality, Law is based upon the principles of truth, justice, fairness, and objectivity; that it is Law which enables us to treat each person with true respect and dignity. Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman’s Dvar Torah to Parshat Bamidbar – Shabbat Kallah.
But is this cliché true? I would argue that Judaism, being rooted both in the mind and the heart, is based upon a mixture of Law and Love. Indeed, one could say that the Jew sees the Torah itself as an object of love. Thus, we have Psalm 119, the great eight-fold psalm, which is an extended love song to the Torah. “How I have loved your Torah, it is my discourse all the day!“ ”Wicked men have surrounded me, pressed upon me very much, but I have not departed from your Torah.” “And I will take pleasure in Your commandments, which I love.”
Then there is the 19th psalm, whose first half celebrates God’s presence in Creation—“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the works of Hid hand the firmament” while its second half enumerating all the ways in which God’s Torah is perfect, its ordinances rejoice the heart, and its ordinances make one’s eyes shine. and ends by declaring that they are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.
But in fact, we need look no further than the designation given to this Shabbat preceding Shavuot—Shabbat Kallah, the Sabbath of the Bride. In this phrase the Torah – much like the Shabbat in R. Shlomo Alkabetz’s hymn Lekha Dodi—is portrayed envisioned as a bride, beloved and anxiously awaited and yearned for.
But not only is the Torah beloved of Israel. The Torah is also seen as the instrument of God’s love for Israel. The second blessing recited before Shema in the daily morning service, is Ahavah Rabbah. “Great love have you loved us, O god; with great and excessive compassion have you had compassion on us… Have compassion on us and teach us…. Merciful father, place it in our hearts to understand, to be enlightened, to hear, to teach and learn, to observe and fulfill, all the words of your Torah with love.” In short, God expresses His love through giving the Torah.
Listen to R. Shlomo Alkabetz’s hymn Lekha Dodi by the singer Aliza Kasi
But why in what sense is the Torah an instrument of Divine love?
I would say that this is so in at least two ways:
A. Judaism, as I understand it, does not see man as inherently evil (this, in contradistinction to the theology of classical Pauline Christianity, rooted in the doctrine of Original Sin), but neither does it see man as innately good, as Rousseau held to be the case is the uncorrupted “state of nature,” or in what seems to be the view of a certain kind of well-meaning humanistic liberalism in our own day, which elevates personal autonomy to a first principle of ethics. Human beings as such are morally neutral; the infant is born as pure potential, to be shaped in the course of his life, and as such may go in either direction. This being so, the human being requires guidance, needs to be taughtthe good, godly way. And this is the role of Torah.
Hence, the giving of the Torah is to be understood as an act of love, of kindness, of mercy and compassion that the Almighty gave to humankind, in order to deliver him from the chaotic whirlpool of impulses which may lead him in diverse and often random ways, the goal being, not Olam Haba, nor to become a tzaddik, but simply showing him how to be a Mensch.
B. the Torah is an act of love in that it helps humankind, and specifically the Jew, to know God. There are those rare few—mystics, prophets, men of extraordinary spiritual power and intuition—who can perhaps (I emphasize the “perhaps”) achieve a vision of the divine through exercising their own inner powers. But such is not the high road of Judaism. Long long ago, shortly after the destruction oftheFirstTemple, the age of prophecy ended and the age of the teachers, the rabbis, the sages began. Why? What did this change signify?
God is infinite, transcendent, far beyond humans understanding or comprehension. The human being is finite, mortal, earthbound, torn between his biological nature and his spiritual and intellectual yearnings. The Torah is somehow —and this idea is particularly emphasized in Hasidism, as in the teachings of R. Nahum ofChernobyl— a bridge between the finite and the infinite. It is a realistic path, based, not upon supernatural or esoteric ideas or disciplines, but a Torah of life—a Torah designed for and rooted in real human life of real human beings. And that being so, its being given to man—however one understands Revelation—was a great act of love and kindness on the part of God.