A Tour of Love: Jewish Roots Style
By Ed Vasicek
Never underestimate the importance of love. Although all creation will glorify God by hook or crook (Rom. 9:22-24), our love for God and others is the volitional focus of the Christian life (Col. 3:14). There are too many passages to site, but reading 1 John or the Gospels (Luke 10:26-28, for example) should make the point.
I am not going to tackle the Hebrew word hesed, nor the Greek word agape. There is a place for that, but today we are going to look at love in relational fashion.
We were created to love. Love affects our entire being, even our physical health. For example,
The experimental group wrote with affection about one person in their lives for 20 minutes on three occasions over a five-week period. The control group wrote mundane descriptions of their activities over the week, jobs they had done and places they had lived…. After only 25 days, the experimental group who had written affectionate notes, showed a significant reduction in cholesterol. (Affectionate Writing, www.spring.org.uk/)
Romantic love is one type of love; so is the love for a family member, a fellow believer, and a neighbor—even an enemy. Love can be defined as doing what is in the beloved’s best interest, including—but not limited to—our sympathetic response.
We cannot examine all the kinds of love or aspects of love in a single article. But here is my attempt to present love from different angles. Let’s begin with vertical “downward and upward” love.
1. Downward and Upward Love
The love of God for us is downward love, the love of redemption. (John 3:16; Romans 5:8) God himself became man to die for our sins. We might call this downward love a sacrificial love from God himself.
Our love for God is a response: upward love based upon his downward love. “We love, because He first loved us,” writes the apostle in 1 John 4:19. Often God’s love for us in unrequited. He showers His love upon us, but we do not return any love to Him. This is particularly true of the non-repentant.
The importance of love is seen within Judaism as well. We should expect this because the two great commandments find their source in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). In Jewish liturgy, it is common to repeat the passage from Deuteronomy 6 in Hebrew and the local language (English in our case).
Additionally, we read in the Talmud:
What difference is there between one who acts from love and one who acts from fear?… The difference is that indicated in this teaching: R. Simeon b. Eleazar says: “Greater is he who acts from love than he who acts from fear.” (b. Tractate Sotah Folio 31a)
Our love for God is foundational to solid love for others. The ESV leaves 1 John 4:10 open ended, following the Greek: “We love because he first loved us.” The King James Version adds “him” in an attempt at smoothness and clarity, but, in my opinion, confuses the issue. Our love for God and our love for others finds its source in God’s love for us. I understand it as follows: “We love him, we love the brethren, we love our neighbors, and we love our enemies because He first loved us.”
2. Inward Love
Upward love based upon downward love is a good foundation, but we also need to look at inward love. We are nowhere in Scripture told to work at loving ourselves; the idea that we love ourselves is assumed. “Love your neighbor as yourself” has little meaning if we do not already love ourselves. Logically, if we hate ourselves, loving our neighbor as ourselves would mean hating him.
Paul’s words in Ephesians lose meaning if loving ourselves is somehow bad:
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church. (Eph. 5:28-29)
Rather than focus on self-love, which is assumed in Scripture, we might focus on self-respect. The Apocryphal book of Sirach 4:28-29 is not Scripture and thus not authoritative; even so, I think these verses capture an important truth, as well as demonstrating the thinking of some Jews before Jesus’ time:
My son, in all modesty, keep your self-respect and value yourself at your true worth. Who will speak up for a man who is his own enemy, or respect one who disparages himself?
Self-respect is the fruit of doing right. When we do God’s will and conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Lord, we feel better about ourselves and respect ourselves. Cain is perhaps the anti-example. Because he did poorly then resented God’s correction, he killed his brother, probably viewing him as a competitor (Gen. 4:1-8). To me, it seems obvious that people who do not respect themselves put others down to elevate themselves. Cain put Abel down—literally!
3. Near Love
We have looked at upward love, inward love, and now it is time to look at near love. For many of us, near love begins with our spouse. We noted the Ephesians passage above, encouraging men to love their wives. The New Testament teaching about loving spouse and family is a continuation of the Jewish teaching. This passage from the Talmud communicates the ethic:
Our Rabbis taught: Concerning a man who loves his wife as himself, who honors her more than himself, who guides his sons and daughters in the right path and arranges for them to be married… Scripture says, “And thou shalt know that thy tent is in peace.” (Talmud, Yebamoth 62)
When you love your wife and kids, you love an extension of yourself. Paul makes it clear in the Ephesians passage that loving your spouse is loving yourself. Children are obvious extensions of you. Although adopted children may not carry your genes, they carry your influence and, in most instances, your philosophy of life.
Because we view those close to us as extensions of ourselves, it is hard to be objective about them.
Brain expert, Dr. Richard Restak, in his book, The New Brain informs us that when we reason about ourselves or someone very close to us, the emotional parts of our brain light up; when we are weighing matters involving a non-related third party, the reasoning parts of our brain go into action.
The ancient Rabbis realized that love could quell our ability to be objective and fair.
R. Papa said: “A man should not act as judge either for one whom he loves or for one whom he hates; for no man can see the guilt of one whom he loves or the merit of one whom he hates.” (b. Kethuboth 105b)
4. Mid-range Love
When we deal with extended family, the nature of our love varies. I refer to this as mid-range love. We may experience a special love between siblings. Perhaps this is why we call fellow believers “brother” and “sister.” This kind of sibling love is to extend to our spiritual brethren.
I would place close friends in this category. We may experience the love of camaraderie. David and Jonathan experienced an intense form of this love (1 Sam. 18:1), perhaps similar to the love between soldiers fighting side by side, sharing barracks, and risking life and limb for one another.
One term for fellow believers in the New Testament is “friends.” Sometimes we grow hand in hand with a particular brother or sister and bond because we have prayed, memorized, and studied together. I put it this way in my first book, The Midrash Key:
Since disciples would study with one another, they would have considered some fellow disciples haverim (friends). The term haver (singular) is defined as, “A student who partners with another in study to discuss a religious text and aid each other in learning. A female study partner is a haverah” (from Sitting At the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Spangler and Tverberg). This concept could unlock the meaning of the term “friends” used of the early Christians, as seen in 3 John 1:15 (NIV), “Peace be to you. The friends greet you Greet the friends by name.” The early believers were haverim!
5. Distant Love
Distant love is our last category. This includes the command to love our neighbor, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is a concerned love that does not pass by.
Loving of enemies is even a more distant love. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus tells us, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Exodus 23:4 sets the tone for loving our enemy, which involves primarily duty, the duty we owe any human being: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.”
The great Rabbi Hillel, who died about the time Jesus became a teen, coined his famous rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” (b. Shabbat 31a)
Jesus made this idea pro-active with what we call the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).