Judaism is About Two Kinds of Love

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Warren Zev Harvey

Review of Shai Held, Judaism is About Love: Recovering the Heart of Jewish Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024). Originally delivered as remarks at an online book launch, hosted by the Oxford Interfaith Forum, Oxford University, April 15, 2024.[1]

With some books, you don’t get to the major idea until the last page. With others, you have to wait until the middle to know what’s driving the author. Some books reveal their chief theme in the first chapter, and some in the first sentence. Rabbi Dr. Shai Held, in his wonderful new bestseller, Judaism is about Love, outdoes them all. His keynote idea is found already in the book’s opening dedication to his three children.  It reads as follows: “To [my children] / be-ahavah rabbah uve-ahavat ʿolam / With love abundant and abiding” (p. v; cf. 522-523).

What is this distinction between “abundant” and “abiding” love?  Held discusses it several times in the book, most significantly in chapters 4 and 15. According to this distinction, there are two kinds of love: ahavah rabbah (abundant, abounding, passionate love) and ahavat olam (abiding, everlasting, constant, eternal love). The former is a volatile emotion, the latter an enduring disposition (9; cf. 116).

The distinction goes back to a debate in Berakhot 11b concerning the “blessing of love” (birkat ahavah), one of the blessings that introduce the recitation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41). The blessing begins with the affirmation that God loves us, which is prefatory to the commandment set down in the Shema, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The love is reciprocal. God loves us, and we love Him.

While fixing the text of this blessing, the Rabbis found to their chagrin that there were two different versions. One version said that God loves us with an abundant love (ahavah rabbah) (cf. Lamentations 3:23). The other said that God loves us with an abiding love (ahavat olam) (cf. Jeremiah 31:2). What should we do? Should we say “abundant” or “abiding?” Different Jewish communities resolved this problem in different ways. The Ashkenazi practice today is to compromise: “abundant” is said in the morning service, and “abiding” is said in the evening service.

In his explanation of the difference between the two kinds of love, Held elaborates profoundly and creatively on an insight by the celebrated Hasidic master, R. Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin (1823-1900).[2]    

The two terms, Held argues, express two kinds of love and are applicable to all love relationships, including that between husband and wife, parents and children, and God and human beings. All love relationships need both sorts of love. “Abundant love” is the love of powerful, fierce passion. It represents the exceptional high moments which endow one’s life with excitement and romance. “Abiding love” is the continuous, steady, faithful, unchanging love that is present always, unconditionally, no matter what – during the low moments as well as the high. It is this bassline love that sustains the relationship and enables us to live in the real world – with its ups and downs.

Why do Ashkenazi Jews say ahavah rabbah in the morning and ahavat olam in the evening?  Following R. Zadok, Held writes: “Morning is a time of passionate hope and open-ended possibility.” The light of dawn arises with fervor and promise. Our hearts are full of abundant and abounding love. Ahavah rabbah breaks forth like the dawn! “Evening is a time of anxiety and apprehension.” It invites uncertainty and fear. We comfort ourselves by speaking of everlasting or abiding love, ahavat olam.  It is “the kind of love that remains indestructible even during the night and the darkness of troubles” (85).          

Held then goes beyond R. Zadok. What is true for the love between God and human beings, he argues, is also true for the love between human lovers. All love, he writes, “must have its share of mornings, that is, times of great passion and feeling – but it must also be durable enough to endure evenings – that is, times of crisis or weakened ardor – because every life and every relationship faces its share of evenings.” Here Held quotes Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds” (86). True love, says Shakespeare, is in effect ahavat olam!

But Held corrects Shakespeare: “I am not sure love can be truly everlasting if it does not have moments, at least, of being abounding” (86). Every true love must comprise both ahavah rabbah and ahavat olam, both abundant and abiding love, both intense eros and perpetual devotion. Each is a necessary condition of the other. Held might well have cited the popular 1955 song by Sammy Cahn, sung by Frank Sinatra: “Love and marriage…, you can’t have one without the other.” Ahavah rabbah and ahavat olam, you can’t have one without the other.

The “love” in Cahn’s song represents fervid, unchained, erotic love. The “marriage” in his song represents steady, everlasting, reined love. Marriage expresses a commitment to abiding love, ahavat olam, as formalized in a written contract. Held spells this out: “[A] commitment to remain steadfast in moments when passion is attenuated or diluted is a significant part of what constitutes the covenant of marriage” (86). This “covenantal love,” Held insists, is the same for the covenant (berit) of marriage between two human partners and the berit between God and the people of Israel, which is called by Scripture berit olam (Genesis 9:16; Exodus 31:16), an abiding or eternal covenant (316). “Covenantal love,” Held concludes, “is above all a commitment and an orientation” (86).

The Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea dramatically revealed God’s abundant, abounding, and passionate love for us. However, the covenant, which represents a commitment throughout all time, binds God and us to an ongoing, everlasting, eternal love. If the Exodus demonstrates abundant love, the Passover seder celebrated each year, year after year, demonstrates abiding love. Nonetheless, according to the Haggadah, “In every generation, one must see oneself as if one personally was liberated from Egypt” (189). In other words, “we remember” (ahavat olam) must be mixed with “we are there!” (ahavah rabbah).

The late R. Norman Lamm, who was both a superb scholar and homilist, is cited by Held (410, n. 23) as explaining the deep meaning of the word “olam in ahavat olam. The word “olam,” he urges, may be read “elem” (“concealment,” “hiddenness”).[3]  Ahavat elem thus means concealed love, hidden love – the love that is always there, even if one does not notice it, and even if one can’t see it because of the darkness! But it’s there! In the pitch of night, in tragedy and loss, God loves us with a concealed, yet abiding love.[4]

“God’s love for us,” Held writes, “is expressed in the giving of the commandments in love; our love for God, in turn, is expressed in the keeping of those commandments in love” (348). The commandments (mitzvot) express both God’s love for us and our love for Him. They represent a reciprocal abiding love, which is unconditional. But wait!  It’s not really unconditional, is it? No! It can’t be, for abiding love, according to Held, can survive only if it is mixed, even if just at rare precious moments, with abounding love. To put it paradoxically, there is no unconditional ahavat olam without conditional ahavah rabbah!

The most amazing sentence that Held writes appears when he discusses his children: At night, when putting them to bed, he sometimes says to them, “I love you so much. You can’t…imagine how much I love you… [but] God loves you so much more!” He then explains to us why he says this to his children. “I say this because I am aware of my own shortcomings” (90-91). No human being can be sure that his or her unconditional love (ahavat olam) is really unconditional. Thus, we need to be reassured of God’s unconditional love. But isn’t the Binding of Isaac (the akeidah) proof that we cannot depend even on God’s ahavat olam (59-61)? Is not the whole Book of Job proof of this (68-69, 304-305)?

I hope I’ve succeeded in, at least partially, expositing Held’s intricate distinction between abundant and abiding love, that is, between love as an emotion and love as a disposition. Held is a pleasant, engaging, relaxed writer – but he doesn’t avoid complex subjects.

Let me conclude briefly with a modest attempt to develop Held’s insight in a slightly different but complementary direction.  Just as we may distinguish between two types of love, abundant and abiding, so too we can distinguish between two kinds of faith. There is faith based on miracles. It is abundant, abounding, passionate, dramatic, powerful! And there is faith based on knowledge and conviction. It is abiding, quiet, prosaic, cerebral, and everlasting. Faith based on miracles can be weakened or erased. As Maimonides put it, one who believes on the basis of miracles has an imperfect faith (yeish be-libbo dofi).[5] The Israelites walking through the split Red Sea knew perfectly well it was a great miracle, and their faith in God and Moses was based on that miracle (Exodus 14:31). Later, given the hardships of desert life (snakes and scorpions, no fish or cucumbers, few creature comforts), they lost their faith in God and Moses and worshiped the Golden Calf. Faith based on amazing historical experiences is true, but not everlasting – for unhappy historical experiences can counterbalance it and snuff it out.

When the State of Israel was proclaimed, virtually every Jew in the world knew it was a miracle no less amazing than the parting of the Red Sea. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel ruled that the Hallel prayer be recited every Independence Day to commemorate the miracle. However, as years went on and Israel made mistakes, allowing the gap between rich and poor to expand, electing corrupt leaders, and becoming entangled in endless wars, many Jews have sadly forgotten that the existence of the State is indeed a miracle. 

In sum, Held’s thought-provoking and inspiring book explains what Judaism is truly all about – love! It is about both ahavah rabbah and ahavat olam – and the paradoxical relationship between them.  

[1]  The author thanks Dr. Thea Gomelauri, Director of the Forum, for her invitation.

[2] See his Tzidkat Ha-Tzaddik (“The Righteousness of the Righteous”), no. 200.   

[3] Cf. Tanhuma, Kedoshim 8; Rashi to Ecclesiastes 3:11, s.v. “natan be-libbam.”

[4] Chesky Kopel of the Lehrhaus editorial team draws my attention to a distinction made by the Maggid of Mezeritch (1704-1772) between the love of God expressed in the performance of the ritual commandments (mitzvot) and that expressed by doing simple everyday chores with the inner intention (kavvanah) of serving God. The former is seen by all (be-galui) and the latter concealed (be-seter), but the latter is greater. Similarly, explains the Maggid, the erotic love between a man and a woman, which is expressed in secret, is more intense than sibling love, which is expressed openly. See R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Or Ha-Emet (1899), 34b. See also Tsippi Kauffman’s analysis of this text in Be-Khol Derakhekha Da’eihu (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2009), 343-344.

[5] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 8:1-2.

Warren Zev Harvey is professor emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.