I am reading and blogging about Jon Levenson’s book, The Love of God.
Levenson deals with midrash and other interpretations of the Bible in rabbinic writings. I don’t know a lot about rabbinic thought. Some of this chapter touches on controversies and ideas that I know little about. So I am going to just try to summarize his main thoughts and pick out some of the ideas that interest me.
One of the concerns of the rabbis was the contrast between love and fear. In the Bible fear of God often meant something closer to awe. But many saw fear as the dread of punishment. So the rabbis took up the question of whether someone could love God if the motive was fear. They often concluded that fear detracted from love, which should be pure and inspired by God’s person rather than concern about one’s own fate. However, the rabbis also considered human beings to be imperfect. So the motive of fear was sometimes needed.
Mostly Levenson deals with the interpretation of the command to love God with all your heart, and soul and might from Deuteronomy 6:4.
In the Bible, and often in the rabbis, the heart was not the seat of emotion. So to love God with your heart was not understood as emotional love. The heart was the seat of thinking. So this kind of love meant bringing the mind to bear upon God. This is partly behind the rabbinic idea that study and scholarship of the Torah are a form of prayer and devotion.
Also often misunderstood is the command to love God with one’s soul. The biblical idea of the soul was that it was life. To love God with your soul meant with your whole life. Especially with the Maccabees in mind, the rabbis interpreted this in relation to martyrdom. To love God with your soul was to be willing to die for God.
To love God with all your might suggested the intensity of commitment. We might say today that you were “all in” for God’s cause. Both love with your soul and with your might suggested the idea that love must involve sacrifice.
The rabbinical writings tended to interpret Job with this in mind. Job was an example of fully loving God, because Job loved God in spite of his personal circumstances, in spite of whether God blessed him or not. Also some of them interpreted Job’s impassioned questioning of God as a form of loving God will all his heart.
Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac was another passage interpreted through this lens. You need to love God more than life, even the life of your son.
This passage is one that Levenson comes back to in more than one of his books. I remember how in his The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, he spoke of the impulse to human sacrifice in some of the Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions and how the Bible transposes this into ultimate devotion to God, while abolishing human sacrifice.
There was a good deal of rabbinic discussion about the meaning of Psalm 44:22:
Yet because of you we are killed all day long;
we are treated like sheep at the slaughtering block (NET Bible).
What does it mean to be killed all day long (or perhaps it means “every day”)? Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya wrote that it meant that God credits the faithful with daily death, so that even the ordinary, daily life of a righteous person equals martyrdom in God’s way of figuring.
All of this is interesting and, since I have not done enough reading about rabbinic thought, I have no way of evaluating Levenson’s views. Basically, it looks like he is saying that, even though Greek ideas like an immaterial soul and heroic death sometimes influenced the rabbis, they brought these ideas back to their authentic Hebrew base.