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How do Jews love?

The answer is: With everything they've got.
A Religious Jewish woman attends a prayer organized by the "Women of the Wall" at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The WOW organizes women's prayer groups at the Western Wall at the start of every new Jewish month (Rosh Hodesh). Jewish ultra orthodox communities oppose women's singing in the presence of men, reading from the Torah, and wearing the ritual garments and objects traditionally associated with men. December 08, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90  *** Local Caption ***
A Religious Jewish woman attends a prayer organized by the "Women of the Wall" at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The WOW organizes women's prayer groups at the Western Wall at the start of every new Jewish month (Rosh Hodesh). Jewish ultra orthodox communities oppose women's singing in the presence of men, reading from the Torah, and wearing the ritual garments and objects traditionally associated with men. December 08, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90 *** Local Caption ***

Like the Inuit know snow and New Yorkers know commuting, the ancient Greeks knew how to talk about love. They didn’t have a single word for it, but at least six different words, each describing a different aspect of love: Eros (sexual passion), philia (friendship), agape (selfless love), ludus (playful love), pragma (mature love), philautia (love of self). More than any people of which I am aware, the Greeks added depth and nuance to our vocabulary for love.

Different religious communities have also developed unique understandings of love, though each one has framed it differently. Many Christians believe that God gives unconditional love — and might even be the embodiment of love itself. Many Muslims see Muhammad and his wife Khadija as exemplifying profound love in their relationship as spouses.

This leaves me wondering how we as Jews understand love from our sacred texts and rituals. Is love a Divine idea, a human idea — or both?

In prayer, Jews regularly speak of God’s “eternal love” and a “great love” for the Jewish people and humanity. Love can be seen as emanating from God. Yet it is not solely of God.

The V’ahavtah (which we recite as part of the Sh’ma twice per day) indicates the hope that humans can love God – and thereby learn to more fully love others.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaetchanan, we read its resonant words (Deuteronomy 6:5):

You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Our sages indicate that this is a tripartite aspiration for us as human beings. Full love requires the giving of might, soul, and heart. The Mishneh (Berachot 9:5) describes each one:

“With all your heart” means with your two inclinations, with the inclination of good and the inclination of evil. “And in all your soul” – even if God takes your soul. “And with all that you have” [all of your might] – with all your money. Alternatively, “With all that you have” – with every measure that is measured for you thank God very much.

Most interesting among these is the idea that we have love in our hearts from the “inclination of good” and the “inclination of evil.” The medieval commentator, Rashi, goes on to suggest that “your heart should not be divided” when it comes to God. All of you – the impulses and the deeper intuitions, the draws of ambition and draws of altruism – are all ideally present in our love of God. Selfless love and love of self, mature love and playful love, friendship and even passion should be present.

This kind of love, which we are commanded to (try) and feel towards a Higher Power can also be lived out in our deepest relationships with other people. The essence of love in our tradition, at least insofar as it is described in one of our central prayers and a verse of Torah, is not defined by its narrowness but by its breadth. The ancient Greeks parse the nuances of love, while Jewish tradition amalgamates them with intention. Even a single relationship can embody many aspects of love and evoke them in different measures at different times. The idea of loving God is intended to teach us how to more fully love other people.

Most people have known love. It might be romantic, or it might not. It might be familial, or it might not. It might be in friendship, or it might not. But somebody cares about us – and validates our humanity by showing us how much we matter to them.

We often don’t know how to describe our emotions, but love can feel all-encompassing. Our existential angst dissipates, and we can sense viscerally that we have a reason for being. Jewish tradition affirms that love at its fullest is a confluence of these powerful emotions.

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.
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