Love: The Heart of the Religious Experience

A Reflection by Rabbi David Rosen

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Here is the text of a reflection given by Rabbi David Rosen on Oct. 27 in Assisi at the «Spirit of Assisi» meeting.

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It is an honor for me to be part of this testimony of love in the family of Abraham ; a testimony of love for the world.

Thanks to the Second Vatican Council in particular, the promulgation of “Nostra Aetate”and the teachings of the Magisterium since; the rediscovery of Jesus’Jewishness and the importance for Christians to understand their Jewish roots has become increasingly commonplace.

Therefore it will come to most if not all of you as no surprise when I say that Jesus’emphasis on the two golden rules of love as the essence of the Divine commandmen in the Hebrew Bible, reflects the foundations of Jewish teaching.

Indeed for Judaism, the virtual scriptural credo is Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear O Israel” (“Sh’maYisra’el”), which is recited by observant Jews at least twice daily.

“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One .And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.And these words which I instruct you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children” etc.

The rabbis of old explain (Tanna dbei Eliyahu,section 28) that the commandment   “You shall love the Lord your God» means that “you shall make the name of God beloved to all creatures by righteous conduct toward all people.”

Indeed our sages point out that the full text of Leviticus 19:18 is:-                              “ and you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord”.  In other words,       the testimony of true faith in God, is in the way we treat one another.

This idea is expounded in the discussion between the ancient rabbis Akiva and Ben Azzai concerning the great rule of the Torah, Scriptural revelation.( Genesis Rabbah 24:5; and Sifra Kedoshim, 4)

Akiva identifies Leviticus 19:18 as the great principle, and Ben Azzai adds the principle that every human person is created in the Divine Image (Genesis 5:1,2). (Indeed Akiva himself emphasizes the Biblical concept of the Divine Image in every person, both in the Mishnah in Avot and elsewhere; so it makes sense to understand that Akiva’s intention was also universal in emphasizing love of neighbor.)

However what Ben Azzai adds to our appreciation, is the fact that the Biblical command to love one another, flows directly from the idea that the human person is created in the Divine Image. If one truly loves God, then one loves the Divine image – the essence of each and every human person.

For this reason Rabbi Tanhuma adds to the discussion that in fact any act of disrespect towards another person is an act of disrespect towards God Himself, “for in the Image of God He created him”. 

There is thus an inextricable relationship between the Love of God and the love of human beings.

In the Middle Ages, the renowned Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (16c.) reiterated the above idea with the words “Love of all creatures is also the love of God; for whoever loves The One, loves all the works that He made. When one loves God, it is impossible not to love His creatures. The opposite is also true. If one hates the creatures, it is impossible to (truly) love God who created them” (NetivotOloam, ahavathare’a, 1)

And the great rabbi and kabbalist, Isaiah Horowitz, one generation later, not only echoed this stating that “the love of God and our fellow human beings is ultimately  the same thing, as God is One and all is from Him”; but he added that precisely because the human being is created with the Divine spark in him or her (the kabbalistic concept of the Divine Image) the love of one’s fellow is literally the love of God. (Shnei Luhot Habrit 44b-45b)

Accordingly, the sages of the Talmud saw the commandment of love of God as fulfilled through Imitatio Dei, the cleaving to God out of love expressed in living in accordance with the Divine Attributes. They declare in tractate Sotah (14a):-

“just as God clothes the naked, as it says, «And God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them» (Genesis 3), so you should also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, for it is written: «And God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre» (Genesis 18), so you should also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, for it is written: «And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son» (Genesis 25), so you should also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, or it is written: «And God buried him (Moses) in the valley» (Deuteronomy 34), so should you also bury the dead.”  

This idea is summarized in the words of Abba Shaul, (Canticles Rabbah, 3), “just as He is compassionate and merciful; so you be compassionate and merciful.”

Surely this is expressed so similarly by the most noble teachings of Christianity, and of Islam; by the person of Francis of Assisi; and by the spirit of Assisi

May we all be inspired by the spirit of Assisi to deepen our love and compassion for one another – Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

May we all be inspired by the spirit of Assisi to deepen our love and compassion for all people; for all creatures; for our whole world,   

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