Judaism and love

Judaism and love

Rabbi Shai Held talks about his new book

Rabbi Shai Held
Rabbi Shai Held

The world is an immensely complicated place, and we human beings who live in it are immensely complicated as well.

We shouldn’t need a theologian, in a great many chapters and with a formidable craneload full of footnotes, to tell us that.

But Rabbi Shai Held’s new book, “Judaism is About Love: Recovering the Heart of Jewish Life,” explores the way we Jews — for that matter, everyone, but most specifically us Jews — live in family, community, and history. And it’s equipped with all those endnotes so the text can flow lucidly but anyone who wants to pursue any thought any farther can find direction — and of course anyone who doubts any idea’s provenance can check it.

Rabbi Held, who grew up in Monsey, was educated at Ramaz and Harvard, and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the dean and president of the Hadar Institute, an independent Jewish organization that values intellectual rigor and clarity, halachic observance, and egalitarianism. (That’s clear in his book; Rabbi Held is meticulous in not referring to God using gendered pronouns. His God is not He —  his God is God.) Rabbi Held will talk about his book at Oheb Shalom Congreagtion in South Orange on May 5, and Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck on May 23. (See below.)

We live in complexity and contradiction, Rabbi Held said. “The world full of unfathomable beauty and unspeakable cruelty, and they’re both true at the same time. Part of what it means to be awake in the world is to be open to both those things.”

Take the idea of Judaism as being about love, and God as being a God of love. Rabbi Held holds to that idea — and he does so despite it being engrained into us as American Jews that it’s the Christians who have a God of love. Ours is a God of vengeance, or at the most yielding, a God of law.

In truth, there is both love and law in both our Bible and the Christians’ scriptures, and both are necessary.  “There is a Protestant temptation, specifically a Lutheran temptation, to set up law and love as antithetical to each other, but to set them up in juxtaposition to each other is antithetical to the spirit of rabbinic and Rabbinic Judaism,” Rabbi Held said.

“Law is itself a manifestation of a revelation of God’s love.”

As for Jews feeling God’s love, “twice a day, we say Ahavat Olam,” thanking God for both love and law, he added.

And if you are in the mood for a vengeful God, there certainly are some New Testament passages to get your blood boiling.

Rabbi Held thinks that part of Jews’ own belief in their God as a God of wrath “is institutionalized anti-Judaism. We know that minority groups tend to see themelseves the way the majority groups tend to see them. we take on the perspective of those who see us in belitting ways. That runs very deep. And it is exacerbated by the anxiety Jews felt aabout assimilation. They came to believe that whatever Christinity is, Judaism is not.” If Christianity is about love, well then, Judaism must be about something else.

He suspects but does not have the research to prove that this Jewish belief in Judaism as not being about love is from modern America; it does not trace back any farther.

Similarly, the concept of grace — something good that you have not earned but have been given nonetheless — is Jewish as well as Christian, although by now the word itself has a churchy sound.

Another example, Rabbi Held said, is that because American Jews convinced themselves that Christianity was all about the afterlife, they also decided that Judaism has no notion of the afterlife. “Which is ridiculous,” he said.

Rabbi Held describes love as “having an emotional dimension, but it is not itself an emotion. It is an existential posture. And that’s helpful, because if you were to try to build a spiritual life on any emotion, you’d be destined to fail, because nobody feels anything all the time. So you can be a loving person, even if what you’re feeling at the moment is grumpy.

“It’s the same as gratitude. When people say that they feel grateful all the time, I think it’s a mistake. Some of the time, the world makes us feel grief and sorrow. Love is not simply an emotion, even though it has an emotional dimension.”

It also has a wide range of meanings. “It’s an umbrella term for a series of different postures and emotions,” Rabbi Held said. “I can say that I love the stranger and my neighbor and my daughter. That’s all true, and it’s all love — but it’s not all the same emotion. Similarly, compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit — they all fall under the umbrella of love.”

He’s taken with the idea of compassion. “In Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, there is no way to distinguish between love and compassion. They’re the same word. It’s both interesting and suggestive.”

The Jewish approach to love is to start inside and move out from there, Rabbi Held said. “It works with the grain of nature, not against it. I start with loving my family; I love the guy down the street, but not as much. Jewish texts don’t talk about loving enemies in the same way that Christian texts do.”

Rabbi Held’s book was finished before October 7, but now we live in a post-October 7 world. How does he make sense of it?

“We live in a world that God has created, with real freedom,” he said; because God allows us to make our own decisions, there is evil in our world. That’s unavoidable. Still, he said, “there are certain pieces of wisdom that the Jewish tradition might offer us in making our way through this moment.

“First of all, it is it is totally understandable and also morally defensible to think first of your family and your people”; that’s a point Rabbi Held makes repeatedly, as love moves from the concrete to the abstract. But “that said, compassion is never a vice, and dehumanization is never permitted.

“So as tempting as it sometimes might be, sometimes, to forget this, we have to remember that we’re at war with human beings. We’re never allowed to forget that, not least because dehumanizing people can lead to some really ugly moral places.

“If there ever is going to be peace in the blood-soaked land of Israel, it will only be made possible by people choosing to listen empathically to each other’s stories and each other’s suffering. There is no alternative.

“I realize that it may sound Pollyanna-ish, but what’s the alternative? Compassion and empathy remain absolutely key to the possibility of there being peace in the Middle East, even at a moment like this — maybe even especially in a moment like this. Even if you think that this war is just and necessary, you have to know that war is not the ultimate end.”

Rabbi Held knows that many of the ideals in his book may be more aspirational than easily reachable. “They’re like asymptotes, right?” he said. They’re like a curve that comes closer and closer to a line — but both will go off into infinity close but without ever touching. “We’re never fully going to embody these ideals — and I know this is a mixed metaphor — but they’re a lodestar.

“Writing this book was a deeply aspirational project. These are ideals that I dream of embodying. They’re what I want for my kids and my students.

“We write beyond what we know.”

Who: Rabbi Shai Held

What: Will talk about his new book, “Judaism is About Love”

When: On Sunday, May 5, at 10 a.m.

Where: At Oheb Shalom in South Orange

Why: For the annual Rabbi Alexander M. Shapiro z”l memorial lecture and breakfast

To learn more and to register: Go to hadar.org scroll down to R. Shai Held is on a book tour, and click on it, or go to www.ohebshalom.org

When: On Thursday, May 23, at 8:15 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck

To learn more: Go to hadar.org, scroll down to
R. Shai Held is on a book tour, and click on it, or go to www.cbsteaneck.org