Sunday, June 03, 2012

Bamidbar - Shabbat Kallah (Wanderings)

On the Love of Torah

One of the clichés of Christian polemics is that Christianity is a religion of love while Judaism is a religion of Law. Some Jews accept this characterization and respond: Adrabah! We accept the “accusation,” but we believe that Law, as a primary principle, is superior to Love. Whereas Love is a subjective emotion, potentially vague, inconsistent, unclear, and at times blind to reality, Law is based upon principles of justice, truth, fairness, and objectivity; it is the idea of Law, and the obligations it imposes upon each person, which enables us to treat every person with true respect and dignity.

But is this cliché at all true? I would argue that Judaism, being rooted as it is in both the mind and the heart, constitutes a mixture of Law and Love. Thus, we are commanded to love our fellow man as ourselves—including, or should I see especially, the stranger in our midst (a fact that too many Israelis, including certain Knesset members and even ministers, tend to forget). But beyond that, reflecting on these ideas on the Eve of Shavuot, 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 day long!“; ”Wicked men have surrounded me, pressed upon me very much, but I have not departed from your Torah”; “I will take pleasure in Your commandments, which I love”; and so on

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 His hand the firmament”—while its second half enumerates the praises of God’s Torah—“the Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul… its statutes faithful, making the fool wise; its ordinances are upright, gladdening the heart; its commandments are clear, making one’s eyes shine,” and ends by declaring that they are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.

But we need look no further than the designation given to this Shabbat preceding Shavuot—Shabbat Kallah, the Sabbath of the Bride—to see the love in which the Torah was held. In this phrase, the Torah – much like the Shabbat in R. Shlomo Alkabetz’s hymn Lekha Dodi—is envisioned as a bride, beloved and anxiously awaited by her betrothed.

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 prior to Shema in the daily morning service is Ahavah Rabbah. “Great love have you loved us, O Lord our God; with great and excessive compassion have You been compassionate to us… For the sake of our fathers have compassion on us and teach us…. Merciful father, place it in our hearts to understand, to be enlightened, to hear, to teach and to learn, to observe and to fulfill, all the words of your Torah with love….” In brief, God expresses His love through giving the Torah.

But why and in what sense is the Torah an instrument of Divine love? I would suggest two answers to this question:
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 Jean Jacques Rousseau held to be the case in the original, uncorrupted “state of nature,” or in what seems to be the underlying assumption of a certain kind of humanistic liberalism widespread in our own day, in which personal autonomy and freedom is elevated to the first principle of ethics. Human beings as such are morally neutral; every infant is born with the potential for the greatest good or the darkest evil, depending upon the education he receives and the choices he/she makes during the course of life.

This being the case, the human being is in need of guidance and direction, needs to be taught the 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 shows to humankind, in order to deliver us from the chaotic whirlpool of impulses and desires which may easily lead one in diverse and often random ways. The ultimate goal is not Olam Haba, nor to become an otherworldly Tzaddik, but simply to be a Mensch.

Secondly, the Torah is an act of love in that it helps humankind, and specifically the Jew, to know God. There are those rare individuals—mystics, prophets, men of extraordinary spiritual powers and intuition—who may perhaps (and I emphasize the word “perhaps”) apprehend the Divine by exercising their own inner powers. But this is not the high road of Judaism. Long long ago, shortly after the destruction of the First Temple, the age of prophecy ended and the age of the Sages, the rabbis and teachers, men of learning and tradition, began. Why? What did this change signify?
God is infinite, transcendent, far beyond human understanding and comprehension. The human being is finite, earthbound, mortal, torn between his biological nature and his spiritual and intellectual yearnings. The Torah somehow serves as a bridge between the finite and the infinite, the human and the Divine—an idea particularly emphasized in Hasidism, for example, in R. Nahum of Chernobyl’s Me’or Einayim. It is a realistic path, based, not upon supernatural or esoteric ideas or disciplines, but a Torah of life—a Torah that addresses the real life situation and problems of real human beings. This being so, its being given to man—however one understands the concept of Revelation or what happened at Sinai—was a great act of love and kindness on the part of God.


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