What Jew doesn’t know the Shema with its following “V’ahavta,” the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might? We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?
What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?
Some people reason their way to God — like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.
But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.
Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad, Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone”; v’ahavta… “Love God with all your heart, soul, and might.”
The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.
Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason — that’s what philosophers do — but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.
All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).
We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”
We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, most successful, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment somehow eludes us. Life is still tenuous, we discover: we are successful, but wonder if that is all there is; good health eventually fails; we live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today but gone tomorrow. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster.
So our era is awash with people seeking inner peace, a deeper love, a spiritual perspective to give life meaning beyond our momentary joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We look for it in Eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. And yet….
Yes, and yet: Judaism already has it, if we take the Shema seriously. Maimonides warned us against picturing God: we’ll never know just what God is. But we cannot avoid imagining God as something: As a person? A friendly presence? A force for good, perhaps. Jewish thought offers all of these, and more.
Whatever picture we prefer, however, “God” is the name we give to that which is eternal, trustworthy, loving, and good. Loving God is first and foremost a spiritual perspective: it is the Jewish term for anchoring ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, loving, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.