How can emotion be commanded? Yet the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 contains the command “You shall love the Lord your God.” Most marriage ceremonies include the promise to love. Yet love as passion is a fickle thing that comes and goes. How can you treat it as an obligation?
In regard to God, is his love for us an obligation? And, if it is, does that not make it sort of cold and abstract? Do we not want God to love us for ourselves rather than out of duty or even commitment?
These are some of the questions that Jon Levenson takes up in The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.
His approach is to highlight the idea that God’s love is bound up with the covenant he made with Israel. Certainly this is what the shema means in the context of Deuteronomy, a book all about the covenant. This idea, in turn, draws upon a kind of treaty that we have examples of in the Ancient Near East where a vassal king pledges to love and serve an emperor-king and the emperor-king has a reciprocal obligation to protect and seek the welfare of the vassal.
This moves God’s love and our love for him some distance from the modern idea that love is emotional, sentimental and romantic.
Levenson gives a number of historical examples. One of them is the Assyrian emperor, Esarhaddon, who wanted to guarantee that his vassals remain loyal to his dynasty after his death. So he gave a command that sounds a lot like the command in the shema: “You shall love yourselves Assurbanipal.”
The unique thing about the covenant in the Hebrew Bible is that it moves this idea of love between unequal partners from the realm of diplomacy to the realm of theology.
So Levenson’s point is that love between God and man–more specifically between God and the Jewish people–does include the idea of obligation. Much of his effort in the book, though, is to show that there is balance, that the emotional side of love can get included in the Jewish idea of love once we recognize the foundation of covenant love.
I found it helpful to watch this 28 minute video of Levenson discussing the love of God. The video comes from 2013 when he was in the process of writing this book. The value of the video to me was that it showed Levenson as more balanced than some of the reviews of the book claim.