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A Jewish perspective on Love

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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Love your neighbour as yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19: 17-18)

In the Mishnah, one of the earliest legal texts, in the section known as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers' which is studied every year between Passover and Shavuot, we are taught that the world stands on three things: On Torah, on service (or worship), and on acts of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). The Talmud (Sukkah 49b) says that acts of loving kindness are in fact greater than charity, because they can be done for both rich and poor, living and dead, and because they can be done with either money or with acts. The Mishnah also says that acts of loving kindness are one of the few things that we can benefit from both in this world and in the world to come.

 

Love in action

Acts of loving kindness can include things like visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, and giving money to help the poor eat. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that one could bring meaning to suffering through the opportunity it provides for the other to respond, and, through showing loving kindness to the sufferer, he brings God into the world. Suffering holds no meaning for the sufferer, but when a person responds to another's need, they may fulfil their human potential and thus may find some deeper meaning in life.

 

A large part of Jewish law is about the relationship between man and his neighbours, trying to create communities that function justly and support all their members. The tradition teaches that when this breaks down, and baseless hatred (sin'at chinam) dominates society, only destruction can be the outcome, indeed the rabbis attributed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem as punishment for baseless hatred between two Jews.

 

But enough about hate, what about love!! Arguably the most famous book dealing with love in the Bible is ‘The Song of Songs' or Shir ha Shirim. It's got some rather hot contents, as well as some very famous lines such as ‘I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine'. Now the rabbis traditionally interpreted the book as a metaphor for the love between Israel and God, but it could also be read as a celebration of the beauty of love and of eroticism within that. Bodies and physical love are praised and enjoyed in the song, and it is possible that it is a celebration of how emotional and physical love can be channelled in celebration of the divine (but that's not a very traditional reading of it!!)

 

Love is all you need!

An important and frequently quoted story is of Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the same time as Jesus, and his rabbinic opposite Shammai. A pagan is said to have approached Shammai, saying, ‘If you can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot, I'll convert to Judaism.' Shammai was outraged and sent the man packing. The same man approached Hillel with his question, and Hillel wasn't fazed. He said, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.' Another famous quote of Hillel's (this time from the Mishnah) is, ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?' Thus our relations with each other are incredibly important, and positive relationships are the ideal. Love is not necessarily always highlighted because perhaps the rabbis felt this was impractical; understanding human nature means we don't always get on with everyone, but hatred is avoided through thinking of others and doing acts that demonstrate loving kindness.

 

I don't know if he is Jewish, but personally I think this quote by Andrew T Somers, which I stumbled upon once, is a good summary of how we can maintain better relationships:

 

Treat every person with kindness and respect, even those who are rude to you. Remember that you show compassion to others not because of who they are but because of who you are.

 

 

 

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