Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Loving like God – conditionally

Unconditional love sounds like a wonderful thing. It evokes a sense of true and unshakeable love. It is seemingly ideal because it is reassuring and comforting to know that, despite whatever flaws we have or errors we commit, we will be loved.

Pop star Katy Perry is a superb musical artist, in my opinion. She has great songs, infectious melodies, and a deep understanding of the performance side to musical entertainment. That being said, I do not agree with the lyrical idea behind her song, Unconditionally.

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally


Come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you, I love you

As I said, I don’t agree. Yes, if you love someone, you encounter the bad as well as the good. It’s human nature. But I don’t believe that dealing with bumps in a relationship means that your love is unconditional – and I don’t believe that it should be.

Conditions in the Parasha

This Shabbat, in Parashat Matot-Mas’ei, we’ll read about how the tribes of Gad and Reuben wanted to stay behind and not join the other tribes in battle. Moses reminded them that they, like all the Israelites, had made an agreement with God and so:

If you turn away from Him…
you will bring calamity upon all this people.

Numbers 32:15

And a little later, Moses continues to speak to the Gadites and Reubenites:

If you do this…
you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel;

and this land shall be your holding under the Lord.

Numbers 32:22

Actions have consequences. Those consequences can be disastrous. Step back a few verses and read:

The Lord was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the Lord’s displeasure was gone.

Numbers 32:13

God’s love is conditional. God’s commitment to the people of Israel endures but the relationship is a turbulent one. The forty years of wandering, the idea that Gad and Reuben would be dispossessed of their land and that all the other tribes would pay for the disloyalty of these two tribes, are indications of the conditional nature of God’s love.

Jeremiah on God’s Conditional Love

In the Sephardic rendition of this week’s Haftarah, the second Haftarah of admonition leading up to Tisha B’Av, the prophet Jeremiah speaks on behalf of God and tells the people of Israel:

If you return, O Israel – declares the Lord –
If you return to Me,
If you remove your abominations from My presence and do not waver,
And swear, “As the Lord live,”
In sincerity, justice, and righteousness –
Nations shall bless themselves by you
And praise themselves by you.

Jeremiah 4:1-2

Again, God’s love is conditional. God answers Israel’s abandonment with disfavour and calamity. However, and this is key, God is forgiving. There is a way back. But this way back is not because God’s love has no conditions. It’s precisely the opposite. Only if Israel returns to God and acts accordingly will they merit God’s favour, God’s love.

Modern Love

I’ll take an example of someone who’s been making the news lately, legendary comedian Bill Cosby. I can’t tell his wife what to think or feel. I will, instead, talk about what I would do or feel if it were me. If the accusations against him are true, and I believe that they are, I would not continue to love him. I would hate him. Of course, there aspects of his character and personality that I would still respect and admire. And perhaps there would be a degree of love that would be a result of the years of being together. But, if they are true, I would despise his actions. I would find them contemptible. My love would be conditional.

British rock star Gary Glitter has penned some classics. One of them, Rock and Roll Part 2, is played at hockey games and other occasions. It’s a rousing anthem. Here’s a link: Rock and Roll Part 2. Earlier this year, Glitter was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing three young girls between 1975 and 1980. If you were in love with him, would you continue to love him? I wouldn’t.

I would also hope that God wouldn’t.

Love is wonderful. If it’s unconditional, you don’t have to do anything to earn it. Isn’t love more meaningful if it is something that is merited?

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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