The next chapter in The Love of God by Jon Levenson moves on from ancient biblical and rabbinic material to medieval Jewish philosophers. This is new territory for me.
I had never heard of Bah ya ibn Pequda, an 11th century C.E. Spanish Jew. See here. But Levenson has a long section about a work of his called Duties of the Heart. An interesting thing about him is that he lived in a Muslim-majority region and was much influenced by the Islamic spiritual movement, Sufism. Also, Neo-Platonic thought influenced him.
His book had ten chapters, which he called the ten gates:
1. The Gate of Divine Unity
2. The Gate of Reflection
3. The Gate of Serving God
4. The Gate of Trust in God
5. The Gate of Unification of Action
6. The Gate of Humility
7. The Gate of Repentance
8. The Gate of Self-Examination
9. The Gate of Seclusion
10. The Gate of the Love of God
These are progressive. The highest and last is the love of God. Arriving at the love of God was the result of a journey of the mind and spirit. The love of God was the highest state of being and to reach it you had to go through all the other gates.
He wrote in Arabic and used the word “jihad” for the struggle and the journey. And the highest level, the love of God, is the level where you become willing to give your very life for God. I think it is understandable that I react to this with caution because people might misuse or misunderstand this idea.
The idea of a struggle and a journey seems to tend toward what Protestant Christians might call “works righteousness”. So it is important to note that Bah ya ibn Pequda also saw this as the gift of God. As he envisions this highest state of being, it is not attainable by everybody, and those who do attain it do so by the help of God.
Also, although progressive, the ten gates are not exactly like steps on a ladder. They are not only way stations on a journey, but signs of the love of God in a person’s life.
This was a very experiential approach to Jewish piety.
A much more intellectual approach came from Moses Maimonides who wrote about a century after Bah ya ibn Pequda. I have heard of Maimonidies. He influenced Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas. The most interesting thing about Maimonidies is that, while he described human love for God in passionate terms, he did not speak of God’s love for us that way. His philosophy raises the question whether a perfect God can love. This is because he subscribed to Aristotle’s ideas about how God is beyond human passion and change.
This was in conflict with biblical descriptions of God.
Many later Jewish philosophers tried to resolve this conflict.
For Levenson the value of Maimonides is in the reality that divine love differs from human love. They are not the same. This fits with Levenson’s derivation of the concept from ancient treaties and covenants between unequal powers. God loves us, but in his own way, that we may have trouble understanding.
One thing I have noticed in Levenson’s book is that it is more about our love for God. At least, it does not treat God’s love for us as a separate doctrine the way Christians might have a doctrine of God’s grace. Human love and divine love are always in relation to each other, and because it is the essence of a grateful religion, the practical matter of expressing our love for God is at the center.