Monday, February 22, 2016

For The Love Of God

The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism. Jon D. Levenson. Princeton University Press, 2016. p. 235. Cloth.

Love is a two-way street, but in the economy of love between humanity and God, the flow of that love and the level of mutuality is complexly contested. In biblical perspective, love is articulated early in Scripture in primarily covenantal terms, embedded in particular social relations. As understandings of love shift and change through the middle ages and into the modern period, so our reading of God's love and its implications for love of neighbor also shift.

So, for example, Levenson argues early in this book against the misperception that the love of God is primarily sentiment, and so a private matter. Love in Near Eastern treaties is quite unsentimental--it is, in fact, "the proper stance of the lesser party toward the greater" (xiii.). Levenson takes great pains to establish this definition of love as founding semantic context for the term, and the argument is helpful, because it explains, for example, why even as late as the formation of the Lutheran Small Catechism, Luther can coin the felicitous turn of phrase, "We are to fear and love God so that..."

Jon Levenson's work focuses on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, including its reinterpretations in Second Temple Judaism and rabbinic midrash. He is a frequent interlocutor with Christian theologians, and has written extensively on resurrection in particular. In addition, one of his current courses at Harvard Divinity School deals with the use of medieval Jewish commentaries for purposes of modern biblical exegesis, and another focuses on central works of Jewish theology in the twentieth century. All of this type of hermeneutical and historical work is on full display in The Love of God.

Levenson, however, does not leave love languishing in the historical relationship between suzerain and vassal. He also states, "Although the God-Israel relationship in the classical Jewish sources is asymmetrical, as any relationship with God cannot but be, it is thoroughly mutual, as any relationship among personal beings inevitably is" (xiv). Levenson establishes the validity of this second point through an extensive reading of the love of God in classical Talmudic literature (chapter two), the Song of Songs (chapter three), the Jewish-Muslim cultural symbiosis of medieval Spain, Moses Maimonides in particular(chapter four),  and twentieth century religious thinkers, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (chapter five).

Levenson's book opts against an exhaustive treatment of the love of God, and instead attempts to evoke the power of the classical Jewish idea of the love of God. This makes the book highly readable and engaging. Levenson's lifelong scholarship, like the best of popular theological writers, has refined his ability to write theologically rigorous books accessible to the lay reader.

As a reader, I found the early chapters of the book especially compelling. I had never really considered love as a cover term for acts of obedient service, but upon hearing that definition, was able to think of the widely varied places where that kind of love is still both expected and practiced.

This kind of love can be commanded. It is a love that is expressed in loyalty, in service, and in obedience. Understanding love in this fashion makes much sense of the love commands, as well as such places in Scripture where Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and then commands, "Feed my sheep." This is not sentiment. This is obligation. Yet it is love.

Intriguingly, although this is not a Christian or Christological account of love, there are aspects of it that parallel Christian doctrine, such as the concept of imputedness. Levenson notes that in Hosea, in its description of the marital intimacy of God and Israel in chapter two, "righteousness," "justice," "goodness," "mercy," and "faithfulness" are gifts with which the Lord endows Israel in exchange for her exclusive fidelity to him (105). "They constitute at once what the groom contributes to and expects from the relationship."

Furthermore, Levenson points us to a synthesis of love and law sorely lacking in much of Christian theology. Christian theology in particular after the Reformation turn, has understood law primarily according to two uses: to condemn sin and order life together. Law in this account is either a threat, or a burden. But law in Jewish tradition is much more than this, and more beautiful. Understanding the fulfillment of law as love is the way forward.

First, there is an invitation to recognize together with Franz Rosenzweig, that God "has sold Himself to us with the Torah" (192). This is to say, the Torah, among other things, is God's form of falling in love with God's people. If the Torah is such a divine gift, then those who receive such a gift have more options. "The choice does lie between rote observance of the law as an impersonal, unfeeling reality, on the one hand, and the rejection of law as incompatible with the being of the loving God, on the other. There is a third position--a principled stance of openness to the Torah as the medium for encountering the loving and commanding God of Israel" (192).

In this sense, law becomes a commandment, commandment as event, and that event is election, the divine and mutual gifting of God with the community that maintains such an open posture that makes the gift of the law and human gratitude for it one and the same thing--the love of God.

 This review forthcoming in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry.

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