Love is defined in Hebrew as ahavah, which is rooted in the Aramaic word hav and literally translates as "give." Rather than translate B'reisheet, the first words of the Torah, as "in the beginning," one can say "in the first gift." Creation originated in the Creator's will to give. We refer to the nature of this gifting as love because it involves not only giving of oneself, but also stepping back to enable the existence and flourishing of the other. God thus models what love entails; selfless gifting accompanied by withdrawal to enable the other to emerge. Therefore, the ancient rabbis defined authentic love as not contingent on any factor because if it is, and then that factor is gone, so is love. But romantic love does have contingencies. It requires compatibility and trust because it involves intimacy. The Talmud admonishes, "A man should never marry off his daughter but to the one whom she finds favorable." Is romantic love then a step down from altruistic love? Not at all. It is rather a step into the inner sanctum of love, a sampling of the World to Come, where love is not merely a state of grace but a state of bliss.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
What is love? An emotion? Is it defined by what it is not? The opposite of hate? Like the theological challenge of defining God, does love defy being pinned down? Perhaps the most familiar references to love in our tradition come from two verses; "Love your neighbor as yourself," (Leviticus 19:18) and "You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might," (Deuteronomy 6:5). I have always been intrigued by the idea that love could be mandated. I thought true love was voluntary, from the heart. Rashi, the 12th-century commentator, seems to have understood my problem. He distinguished between acting out of fear and acting out of love. Fear may induce basic obedience, but it won't build loyalty. Love, on die other hand, will be met with love and a readiness to give back even more in return.
For Rashi, "love your God" meant "performing commandments out of love." What matters is how we carry ourselves, how we treat others, how we act with loving intentions. The mandate isn't necessarily a mandate to love God. In fact, God doesn't even need to be part of the equation and is conspicuously absent in the instruction to love our neighbor as ourself.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
The Torah commands: Love God "with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might," "love the stranger" and "love your neighbor as yourself." You are asked to receive God's love in the form of Torah, community, history and the wonders of nature. These commandments constitute the most simple and the most complicated challenge of living a holy life. Love is the "measure" for my Jewish practice. Every mitzvah I keep, every prayer I say, is done and said with the intention of adding more love to this world, opening my heart, connecting myself to the divine essence that is hidden in all things. Psalm 34 asks, "Who is the one with a passion for life, loving every day and seeing the good?" Jewish wisdom ignites my passion for life, reminds me to pay attention to the quality of my loving every day and points me toward the essential goodness of being. Learning to love and be loved is the most rigorous spiritual path there is. Every day, we must ask, "How do we love God and receive God's love through this world?"
Rabbi Shefa Gold
Director, Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice
Jemez Springs, NM
For romantic love, see Song of Songs. But the word love in Torah is primarily an activist commandment: Love your neighbor and the stranger; love God. …