‘All you need is love’. The Beatles’ lyric is emphatic that ‘love is all you need.’ From the perspective of Jewish teaching, love is crucial, but we also need social and economic justice. Indeed, there is a connection between love and justice. But first to love: The Torah makes it clear that Abraham loved both his sons – Ishmael, as well as Isaac (Genesis chapters 21-22). We also read in the Torah that Isaac’s son, Jacob, fell in love with Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle Laban, when he first met her (Gen. 29: 11;18), and that he loved Rachel’s firstborn, Joseph, above all his other sons (Gen. 37:3).
In English idiom, we distinguish between ‘love’ and ‘being’ or ‘falling in love’: While ‘love’ is associated with the feeling of family members and very close friends for one another, ‘being’ or ‘falling in love’ is located in the arena of romance and Eros. Jacob demonstrated both types of love to excess: his passionate love for Rachel, led him to spurn her elder sister, Leah (Gen. 29: 25-31); his doting love for Joseph, made his other sons feel rejected and resentful (Gen. 37:4).
Love, in all its dimensions, is wonderful in moderation. But the Torah is not only concerned with love as emotion. In Leviticus chapter 19, in the parashah (portion), K’doshim, known as the ‘Holiness Code’, the commandments set out there include two injunctions about love: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ (19:18); and: ‘The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as a home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal, your God’ (19:34). Significantly, in all contexts – emotional, romantic and social – the Hebrew idiom used is identical: ‘Love’ is AHaVah – based on the Hebrew root, Aleph – Hei – Beit.
But this is puzzling. How can ‘love’ be commanded? Not least: love for neighbours, who can test our tolerance to the limits; and love for strangers, whom we do not know. In my most recent Yom Kippur morning sermon, I shared the insight of Paul Mendes-Flohr in his Reflections on Leviticus 19:18, Love, Accusative and Dative (Syracuse University Press, 2007). He points out that ‘love’ in these contexts is not ‘love’s emotional embrace’, rather the neighbour and the stranger are ‘the intended recipients of love’s deeds’ (p. 11). In other words, we are obligated, not to feel loving – feelings cannot be commanded – but rather to act lovingly towards others. The exercise of justice dictates loving behaviour.
If loving neighbours and strangers presents a challenge, what about, loving God? ‘You shall love – v’AHaVta – the Eternal, your God with all your heart, and with all your being, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). Some people may, indeed, feel love for God. The Sh’ma, which includes this verse, makes it clear that to love the Eternal is to teach and practice God’s commandments. Ultimately, we demonstrate love for God, through loving, ethical conduct in all our human relationships.