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The Jewish Covenant of Love

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Judaism understands love to be covenantal -- the dynamic and persistent integration of the inner emotion/virtues of affection, empathy, desire, yearning and delight with deeds of tzedek (justice), shalom (wholeness/integrity) and berakhah (blessing/wellbeing).

That definition is a mouthful, and it will reward us to analyze it's component parts in turn.

Jewish love is covenantal. Covenants are not necessarily restricted to equal parties. Kings and vassals are not equal, yet they provide the sociopolitical context for the biblical covenant. God and the Jewish People do not claim to be equal. But they do insist on the ability to bridge the chasm of disparity with relationship, and in relationship one may stand as a partner even with someone who is not your equal. Love that it spans that gulf, and un-equals are able to stand in partnership and in dignity together, despite their differences; perhaps because of their distinctiveness. Our entire tradition is a recurrent outpouring of covenantal love, so that God creates the world, we are told, in order to have an object to love. As if that isn't enough, God rises up against Pharaoh and brings us to freedom, because God so loves our ancestors. And then as if that isn't enough, God brings us to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and there offers us a covenantal contract, which the rabbis tell us is a Ketubah, a wedding contract.

The wedding contract sealing the relationship between the Jewish people and God is the very Sefer Torah, the Torah scrolls, we read from. Ours is an ancient tradition of covenantal love. And strikingly, covenantal love is very different than popular culture's portrayal of love, in which love is the pitter-patter of a heart, but that pitter-patter only lasts as long as it takes to cook a pop tart. Five minutes later, our attention drifts to some other infatuation. So we live in a culture with all these romances, passionate beginnings and frequent flammable finales. We read about the various stars and their love affairs, and we can read about their breakups and their new love affairs. That superficial, provisional appetite is not Covenantal love. Covenantal love, we are told, nurtures understanding and generosity; seeing the best in your lover; seeing the best in your children; in your community; in humanity; in the world; and then with similar generosity, sharing in their struggles; sharing in their efforts.

Such covenantal love is both dynamic and persistent. Love is sometimes misunderstood as a fleeting fad or passion. Or even worse, it can be taken to be a cool intellectual assessment of value. Between the incinerating heat of passion and the icy chill of assessment, there is no room for a love that lives. Jewish love is alive, which means always open to change, always in relationship. As the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig reminds us, "Love brings to life whatever is dead around us."

Nobody can be in a relationship without being open to change. Ask any parent, and they will affirm that what it means to be a child's parent is different now than it was a year ago. And it will be different, thank God, a year hence. Love alters when if finds alteration -- a responsive vulnerability, but it must also be persistent. When your child presents you with a challenge, it is your love that will sustain the child, providing the strength to overcome. It is that yearning for life, for wholeness and for connection that allows us to withstand life's disappointments, pains and brutality. This our enemies do not understand. They rely on force. They rely on fear. They rely on terror. These traits are static and they shatter from their brittleness. But love, expressed diligently and persistently, will wear them down.

Chesed is the integration of values and emotions with deeds. One of the defining characteristics of every living creature is homeostasis, the ability to maintain a consistent, internal environment despite an external environment that changes. That ability to integrate is the hallmark both of being alive and of having character. Love is the ability to integrate all our powerful emotions and in consistent empathic behavior. Our emotions inspire us to act. Our actions hone and habituate our feelings. The cycle is never static and never ending. The cascade of feeling to behavior to elevated feeling to ennobled behavior spirals us toward infinity. "I love (ahavat) you, says God, with an everlasting love, therefore I continue my lovingkindness (chesed) to you" (Jeremiah 31:2).

Love (ahavah) ripens as lovingkindness (chesed), primarily in three clusters:

The first is tzedek, justice. The symbol of tzedek is the scale -- evenly, tentatively balanced. Judaism understands that love and justice are not conflicting values. They are dual expressions of one core value, as light is both particle and wave. Indeed, Judaism affirms that love is the source and the root from which nourishes justice, while justice is the fruit and the flower of determined, abiding love. Jewish tradition reminds us, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). Or in sage advice attributed to an ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." We know that chesed results in acts of caring and of justice. Covenant love is not weak; it does not tolerate a world in which there are no rules, no consequences. Chesed is resolute, strong, insistent and fair. But it is, above all, love.

The second great cluster is shalom, which is understood as peace, but it means so much more than merely peace. Shalom comes from the Hebrew word, shalem, which means wholeness, integrity. The Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza writes, "Peace is not the absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice." Love must be grounded in the entirety of who we are -- our memories, character, experiences, body, temperament and aspirations. And our love must be grounded in our integrity -- in the authentic selves we are in private and in public. As the Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim told his students, "You cannot find peace anywhere if you do not find it in yourself." The wholeness and integrity of shalom means not making yourself small because others would have you shrink from your own greatness. Shleimut, wholeness, means offering to the world the fullness of who you are at your best: your beauty as you are, your greatness as you are. That shleimut means inviting others to rise similarly to their unique greatness. Jewish tradition understands that the value of shalom is an act of love so significant, that it is nothing less than messianic. It will advance the age of universal harmony if we practice shleimut with resolute determination: "If you fulfill the law of kindness to birds, you will fulfill also the law of freeing the slaves ... and you will thereby hasten the advent of the coming messiah" (Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:7).

Finally, the third great cluster is the value of berakhah -- of blessing and well-being. There is so much bounty manifest in this world, a harvest which we did nothing to deserve. We were simply born into a world that was prepared across the millennia for our arrival. Our task in the world is to savor the bounty, to delight in it, to steward it and to help each other to do the same. We are make of ourselves a blessing and commit to being grateful for the blessings. That is why the structure of Jewish prayer always starts Baruch Attah. Baruch, in the blessing formula, does not mean blessed literally. God does not need our blessing. God is the Source of all blessing, the fount of all bounty. So we start our berakhah, our spur to mindfulness by noting: You, God, are bountiful, baruch attah. After that general admission we then specify God's particular lovingkindness of that occasion: You are bountiful for giving us Torah ... You are bountiful for giving us life and bringing us to this season ... You are bountiful for giving us bread to eat. Jewish prayer is a resilient discipline reminding ourselves of the bounty of being alive, and that we are called to embody God's image. We are called to be like God, sources of bounty and blessing for others: "Be a blessing ... and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:2).

In a world so afraid that it routinely erupts in hatred, we are commanded to love. In a world in which children go to sleep without knowing that they are safe, or that there will be a meal tomorrow, we Jews are commanded to love. In a world in which people believe they can bully the State of Israel out of existence, we are commanded to stand tall for the liberation and national self expression of all peoples, and to love. In a world in which some go to bed hungry, some go to bed impoverished, some go to bed sick or lonely, we Jews are commanded to know what makes them hurt, and we are commanded to lift them up.

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