The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, by Jon D. Levenson


Reviewed by Russ Resnik

Jon Levenson is a world-class biblical scholar, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, and a writer gifted in engaging his readers on issues that might at first seem antiquated or esoteric. His latest offering, The Love of God, opens with “one of the most familiar passages in the Bible,” Deuteronomy 6:4–9, part of the daily Shema.1 Levenson wastes no time in raising a number of questions about this passage that draw the reader into his extended discussion of how the love of God has been understood in Jewish thought, beginning with Moses’ extended discourse in Deuteronomy.

After considering the opening line of the Shema, Levenson asks, “But what are we to make of the next verse, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might’ (Deut 6:5)?”2 We moderns, thinking of love as an emotion, might imagine this verse to be expressing an ideal, not an obligation. We might ask, as Levenson puts it, “How can an emotion be commanded? How can we be required to generate a feeling within ourselves?”3

The answer emerges in Levenson’s discussion of covenant, beginning with its origins in the political dynamics of the ancient Middle East. A powerful king, or suzerain, offers his protection and guidance to a lesser king, a vassal. Whatever feelings the two rulers might have toward each other are secondary: the suzerain shows love by offering the benefits of covenant to a lesser king, and he expects in return the vassal’s love, that is, his loyal submission and service.

The revolutionary idea in the Hebrew Bible was to transpose covenant from the realm of suzerain-vassal polity to the relationship of God with his people. Covenant is the gift of a loving God, who expects a response of love in the form of gratitude and faithfulness, as in the book’s subtitle: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism. Levenson claims this revolutionary shift in the application of covenant “is surely of the greatest importance for understanding the love of God in the Bible, as well as Jewish (and Christian) theology more generally.”4

The love that is commanded, then, is not a feeling but the practice of grateful obedience. This covenant love, however, is not devoid of feeling; rather it entails both action and affection. Levenson sees action-affection as one of the first sets of “either-or” categories that later religious thinkers imposed upon the Hebrew Bible. His deconstruction of such false dichotomies is one of the great benefits of the book.

An example of particular relevance to Messianic Judaism is the dichotomy between love and law, which often appears in Christian discourse and New Testament studies as faith and works (although Levenson doesn’t use those terms). “Law” represents the stipulations of covenant, and obedience to these stipulations is essential to the “love” between God and Israel that the covenant expresses and nourishes. For Levenson, “No choice between love and law need be made, for in this case love and law entail each other.”5 Messianic Jews might see an echo of this “both-and” resolution in Messiah Yeshua’s words, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (John 14:21a cjb, emphasis added). Love in the Hebrew Bible is a rich and complex term, much more inclusive than the contemporary eros-based construal of the term. It comprises acts of loyalty and obedience as well as emotion and passion.

The Love of God discusses another dichotomy relevant to Messianic Jewish thinking, the frequently made contrast between love and fear. Levenson writes that he is often asked how we can love someone (God) if we are afraid of him.6 I’ve often encountered the same question in my rabbinic and pastoral work. Fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom, as the Psalmist says, but we often seem more intent on qualifying it or explaining it away than on putting it into practice. Like “love,” “fear” in the Hebrew Bible is a rich term with a variety of nuances depending on context. In Chapter 2, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” Levenson notes that a sense of tension between love of God and fear of God can be detected as early as the Talmudic writings, which are the focus of this chapter, even though the tension is absent from the Bible itself. “In biblical thinking, the love of God and the fear of God can, and should, coexist.”7 As with the treatment of love/law, this reconciliation between love of God and fear of God helps to create a more balanced and realistic understanding of what it means to know and serve the God of Israel, a balance that is reflected in the Apostolic Writings as well. Messiah Yeshua portrays fear of God as entirely consistent with a sense of his loving fatherhood and, paradoxically, as a key to overcoming fear of anyone or anything else.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but are powerless to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gei-Hinnom. Aren’t sparrows sold for next to nothing, two for an assarion? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s consent. As for you, every hair on your head has been counted. So do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:28–31 cjb)

I’m taking a bit of a tangent here to illustrate the practical benefit of the book’s treatment of the love of God as an aspect of covenant. This treatment avoids the overly analytical dualism of modern Western thinking and provides a framework for responding to the love of God in practice. The Love of God, then, is a fascinating study that also has the potential of refreshing and strengthening spiritual practice within our religious communities.

Chapter 3, “The Once and Future Romance,” provides another example of this unifying, both-and approach. Levenson has already noted that love in Torah is not limited to the erotic sense of love that dominates in the contemporary world. Covenant love is a broader concept than that, but at the same time it doesn’t preclude the erotic element. Love is both active and affective, and the affective dimension includes what we’d call a romantic element. Thus, Deuteronomy 7:7 “speaks of God’s having ‘set His heart’ (hasaq) on Israel in language that can be reasonably interpreted as connoting an erotic passion and not simply a platonic favoring.”8 Levenson goes on to show how the prophets, Hosea and Ezekiel in particular, develop this aspect of covenant love to portray God’s passionate love for Israel, Israel’s failure to respond in kind, and the assurance of eventual reunion. Levenson cites the words of Hosea that the worshiper recites as he wraps tefillin, or phylacteries, around his middle finger:

And I will betroth you forever:
I will betroth you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will betroth you with faithfulness;
Then you shall know the Lord. (2:21–22 njps, as modified by the author)

These verses introduce the “grand finale of Hosea 2,” God’s promise to restore wayward Israel, which in turn inaugurates cosmic redemption. “The passage thus adds a strong note of expectation, the expectation of nothing less than a transformed world when the Lord and Israel have resumed their intimacy.”9 Levenson demonstrates that Hosea’s treatment is entirely consistent with Deuteronomy and the rest of Torah (covenant providing the common thread), and concludes chapter 3 by showing how the same consistency applies to the Song of Songs. This text is best read as both erotic romance and devotional portrayal of the love between God and Israel. We can interpret the Song both through its plain sense and through midrash, and the two are not mutually exclusive but in harmony.

In Chapter 4, Levenson moves beyond the foundational texts of Scripture and classic rabbinic literature to discuss the love of God in the philosophical literature of the Middle Ages under the heading, “The Consummation of the Spiritual Life.” Medieval Judaism, like its Christian and Islamic counterparts, was heavily influenced by Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical thinking, which had a problem with incorporating love, especially love for a particular people, Israel, into its rationalistic idea of God. Medieval Judaism created ways to resolve this problem, including “probably the greatest reflection on the love of God in medieval Jewish literature, and perhaps all of Jewish literature,” Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, written in Spain circa 1080 ce.10

Levenson’s treatment of this material, which could easily be seen as arcane, provides another example of the book’s accessibility and relevance. Bahya’s description of the signs that a person is practicing the love of God, as Levenson summarizes them, are relevant to anyone pursuing spiritual discipline and formation.11 This is so particularly for Messianic Jews, who ideally seek to practice the love of God to which Messiah Yeshua calls us within a broad Jewish context.

Here are a few of Bahya’s signs:

• “[T]he abandoning of all superfluous things that distract from obedience to God.” (What could be more relevant in the age of Instagram and Snap Chat?)

• Commitment to serving God regardless of the praise or blame of others—or reward from God.

• Love for God amidst suffering, even suffering that seems to come from God.

• Constant verbal thanksgiving, blessing, and praise toward God.

• Actively seeking to influence others toward the love of God.

• Taking responsibility for one’s sins and misdeeds and practicing teshuvah.

Levenson notes, “In most Jewish circles today, this strong emphasis on private, personal devotion is seldom, if ever, heard. . . . Not infrequently one hears that attention to one’s inner spiritual condition and personal relationship with God are non-Jewish, Judaism being allegedly communal, social, and activist rather than private, solitary, and contemplative.”12 In fairness, we should note the rising interest in personal spiritual practice in the Jewish world, as evidenced by writers such as Lawrence Kushner,13 Aryeh Kaplan,14 or Alan Morinis in the realm of Mussar.15 Hasidic Judaism in particular has never neglected private, personal devotion.16 At the same time, Messianic Jewish worshipers in particular, with a strong platform for personal devotion provided by the sayings of Messiah Yeshua and the Apostolic Writings, can both benefit from and contribute to the practice of the love of God as outlined by Bahya and Levenson.

The chapter continues with a discussion of Maimonides and his more intellectual or rationalistic approach to the love of God. It might surprise readers to learn how impassioned this love remains for Maimonides. He reflects, for example, on the book’s theme verse, asking, what is the love that we are to practice “with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deut 6:5)?

It is a love of God so great, surpassing, abounding and intense that one is bound up, heart and soul, with the love of God and thus ever enthralled by it—like the lovesick, whose minds are never free of the love for the woman by whom they are ceaselessly enthralled, whether sitting down or standing up, eating or drinking.17

After briefly treating two philosophical followers of Maimonides in Medieval Spain, Hasdai Crescas and Joseph Albo, Levenson concludes with Chapter 5, “Because He has sold Himself to us with the Torah.” Here he discusses an extended dialogue between two of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Martin Buber (1878–1965), and Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929). Buber and Rosenzweig grappled with the question of how post-Enlightenment Jews can respond to the ancient idea of covenant, which involves a personal, impassioned, and very particular God, the God of Israel. Both thinkers seek a way to transcend the scientific, rationalistic boundaries of 20th century thought and reconnect with the love of God. Levenson’s treatment in this chapter is as engaging and accessible as his discussion throughout the book, which he summarizes in his concluding paragraph:

In the case of the love of God as we have explored it in this book, some will believe they hear only the voice of the ancient, medieval, or modern Jews whose writings we have discussed, speaking exclusively within the historical worlds of their own time and place and having nothing to say in our day. Others, though, may believe they hear the genuine tone of the ancient commandment, “Love me,” and act accordingly.18

Levenson’s scholarly treatment of ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish thinking on the love of God provides historical and theological context for this thinking without forcing it into modern, critical patterns of thought. As he says in his conclusion, he enables his readers not just to learn about the concept of the love of God but to be drawn through a wide range of Jewish writings into a deeper experience of that love—and into the practice of loving God “with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.”

tone of the ancient commandment, “Love me,” and act accordingly.18

Levenson’s scholarly treatment of ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish thinking on the love of God provides historical and theological context for this thinking without forcing it into modern, critical patterns of thought. As he says in his conclusion, he enables his readers not just to learn about the concept of the love of God but to be drawn through a wide range of Jewish writings into a deeper experience of that love—and into the practice of loving God “with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.”

1 Jon D. Levenson, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1.

2 Ibid, 2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, 9–10.

5 Ibid, 26.

6 Ibid, 30.

7 Ibid, 31.

8 Ibid, 91–92.

9 Ibid, 104

10 Ibid, 145–146.

11 Ibid, 159–165.

12 Ibid, 164.

13 E.g. God Was in This Place & I, I Did Not Know—25th Anniversary Ed: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning 2nd Edition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2016). Jewish Lights has an extensive offering of such material.

14 E.g. Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide (New York: Schocken Books, 1985).

15 Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (Boston & London: Trumpeter, 2008).

16 See for example Yitzhak Buxbaum, Jewish Spiritual Practices (Northvale, NJ, London: Jason Aronson, 1990).

17 Ibid, 169.

18 Ibid. 169.