I am going to reverse Jon Levenson’s final chapter in his The Love of God and start at the end. The chapter is about the problem of how the love of God relates to modernity. He discusses how more modern Jewish philosophers have dealt with modernity. He is dissatisfied with each philosopher he discusses. At the end he offers an analogy (which he credits to Wilfred Cantwell Smith) that he thinks may offer a way forward.
His analogy is that of listening to music. You can listen to the noise made by a particular instrument, the boom of a drum, for instance. You can hear it as just a device that makes a sound. But there is a second level at which you hear the sounds of the instrument as the self expression of a performer. If you are listening to a band or an orchestra, there is another level where you listen to the combined work as the production of a team, as social contribution. But if the music has been written by a great composer–say Mozart–then there is another level where you are listening to him, even though he is long gone, through the combined performance of the musicians.
These are levels of transcendence. To listen to the music at the highest level as an expression of Mozart does not deny the reality of the instrument, the performers, or the social unit of the band. The reductionist error and the error of much of modernity is to narrow down the Bible and other old texts to their literary units, authors and editors, and social context as though those things meant that they could not convey revelation from God in the same way a piece from Mozart can convey a revelation from his mind. (I think Levenson’s concept of revelation might include the discussion of rabbis and philosophers down through the ages and even allow for Christian and Muslim contributions).
Revelation is important to Levenson because he has stressed that in Jewish tradition the love of God derives from a particular kind of treaty or covenant used in the Ancient Near East. The temptation of modern people is to treat this in a reductionist way, to see it as the product of historical contingency, and so to dismiss its relevance.
It is this that causes Levenson to disagree with Martin Buber’s personalistic reformulation of Jewish thought. Buber thought that the laws of the Torah were the product of accidental historical situations. So in his I-Thou-I-It classification of relationship, he classified an individual’s relationship to the law as an I-It relationship. He did not think you could take ancient laws and apply them today unless you went through some existentialist gymnastics to make them subjectively authentic to you.
Franz Rosenzweig could not agree with his friend and correspondent, Buber. He thought there was a way to keep the law as an expression of love for God even when the law came to us in a very human way. Levenson quotes from the difficult work of Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption:
God’s first word to the soul that is opening itself up to him is “Love me!”. And everything that he may yet reveal to the soul in the form of law turns without more ado into words that he commands it “today.” It turns into execution of the one and first commandment: to love him” (quoted on p. 190).
Levenson appreciates Rosenzweig’s approach, but thinks it is still too individualistic. He wants something that takes more into account the social and communal nature of the Jewish response to God’s love.
So he brings up the music analogy and the need to pay attention to all the aspects of the love of God. We need to receive this message as it comes to us from ancient sources without reducing it down to just literary, or historical, or social data. In the matrix of all of this, God speaks to us.
I want to point out that I have seen a similar musical analogy before in Israel Knohl’s idea of the Bible as a “divine symphony”. For Knohl this allows for the validity of all the historical-critical insights about variety of thought within the scriptures without blotting out the word of God that comes through it. Knohl’s emphasis is different, but I appreciate the concept of the word of God transcending human contingency in both cases.
To see what Levenson is talking about here in more concrete terms I thought of the issue of circumcision. Just poking around a little on the internet, I notice a great deal of hostility to the practice. Some of this comes from people who, wrongly I think, equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation. But part of it comes from the idea that this is something that your family or community does to you without your consent. In other words, the objection comes from modernity’s idea of us all as isolated choosing individuals.
Levenson, I would think, might see circumcising your sons, if you are Jewish, as a response to God’s word, “Love me!”.
Levenson’s book on the love of God has gone down a very different track than the Christian discussions about God’s grace and whether Christianity rejected a legalistic Judaism. I don’t think Judaism excludes the grace of God at all. It does understand it differently than an influential branch of Protestantism does.
In the case of the love of God we have explored in this book, some will believe they hear only the voice of ancient, medieval, or modern Jews whose writings we have discussed, speaking exclusively within the historical worlds of their own time and place and having nothing to say to our day. Others though, may believe they hear the genuine tone of the ancient commandment “Love me,” and act accordingly (p. 195).