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.