Love for God and love within the family according to Jewish thought

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Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on what familial love means within Jewish thought.

In my previous article about Rabbi Shai Held's new book, Judaism is about LoveI talked about how Judaism is not simply about law, but also about love. In Judaism love and law work hand in hand. Judaism's core prayer, the Shema, which is the most internalized by children at a very young age, speaks about G-d's love for us and our love for G-d in everything we do, and also the way we go about loving G-d. This is what is called 'the path' in Judaism.

The second part of Shai's book gets down to practicalities. Where should we start with our love of G-d, and in fact, can we be educated in love?

Shai starts with a chapter entitled: 'Learning to Love and be Loved: The Family.' In the experience of many outside the Jewish community love appears mainly in the abstract, the ideal being the love of humanity. In other words, if we all sit down together and sing communal hymns, then everything will turn out OK. Sadly this ideal turns out to be far from the truth, as we are experiencing at the moment.

So, amazingly no doubt for many of his Christian readers, where love is concerned, Shai starts with those nearest to us in both proximity and sentiment, i.e. the much-derided family. Shai tells us that G-d's love is mediated for us through 'human caregivers', which is American for those who nurture us, i.e. parents.

Families are 'schools of love'. In order to become G-d's partners, we need to be nurtured in love from childhood onwards. Later, marriage is not a 'weakness' but a 'blessing'. We are social animals who thrive on relationship. The interesting word to 'cleave' which is used of the marriage between a man and a woman has two meanings in English. It means to become attached, but at the same time to separate. So, to 'cleave' to your spouse implies retaining your own separateness while working together in partnership.

And the word for partnership is also very interesting and hard to translate accurately. On that very interesting Hebrew phrase ka-negdo, G-d says in Genesis 2:8, 'It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.' Other translations include 'a helper as his partner', 'a helper suitable for him', 'a sustainer beside him', and the King James version of around 1610, 'a help meet for him'. The King James is actually probably the most precise literal translation. A spouse is someone who encounters her partner and assists him, just as G-d is often depicted, e.g. in Psalms 121:1, as our assistant. This is incidentally the psalm we are currently reciting daily during the dreadful hostage situation in Gaza: 'I lift my eyes to the hills from where my help comes/from where does my help come?'

Modern interpreters want to emphasize the equality of the spouse with the man, so another translation is 'a helper who is a counterpart.' But the connotation of ka-negdo remains one in which there is a hint of encounter, encompassing encounter's positive and negative connotations. To encounter someone can be a positive experience, but may also betray a hint of menace, or at least have the unexpected about it. An example is when Jacob encounters the 'man' for instance. Is 'the man' an angel, the better angels of our nature, or as some have said, Jacob's betrayed nemesis, Esau in disguise (Genesis 32:25 ff)?

However we translate that particular phrase, all are agreed that marriage is a covenantal relationship between two parties. As the greatest Jewish writer on relationship, Martin Buber (1878-1965) has stated, 'In the beginning is the relation', and also 'the other is unique.' In Jewish mysticism G-d contracts to make space for creation, including for human beings. However, for the earlier midrashim (very early rabbinic interpretations) G-d actually moves into space to make His presence known to us. Two opposite movements are described as taking place in G-d therefore, connoting both absence and presence.

The love of a couple for each other can also be redemptive for the community and for the wider world. This is depicted by the chuppah under which the Jewish couple marry, often outside in the fresh air. The chuppah is a canopy with no walls; it is open to all, in emulation of Sarah's tent (Genesis 18), to which everyone was welcome. Marriage can therefore be a training ground for the exercise of care in the world. Marriage can make us not more insular, but more fully present and therefore more open. Marriage is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Children are a blessing. We should shower blessings on them, as G-d showers blessings on us, with unconditional love, in emulation of G-d's love for us. The prophet Hosea makes clear (11: 8-9) that G-d never gives up on us. Similarly, we should never give up on our children. And yet, each child is unique, and we should respond to each individual child not in the abstract, nor in our own image. Obviously this parental undertaking is very difficult indeed. But even G-d had difficulty with human beings, His own children, as Hosea and others make clear.

As it states in Proverbs 22:6: 'Train your child on the way he should go.' (al pi darcho). This phrase has often been interpreted as advocating a strict training in one particular track, according to the ideals of a particular dogma. But the Hebrew verse makes perfectly clear that the emphasis is on the child's own way or path, which is unique to that particular child, and in fact the English verb is an unnecessary addition. Incidentally, there is no word for 'dogma' in Hebrew!

Therefore, a better translation might be: 'Educate for the child according to his or her own particular way.' As strict a commentator as the German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) stated: 'The verse demands a totally individualized education.' For Rabbi Hirsch the ideal of a Torah life is universal, but 'the paths that get each young person there are different. They depend on the child's distinctive inclinations and capacities. No one educational approach is appropriate to each and every child.'

The Malbim (1809-1979) 'points out that the verse from Proverbs actually commands two things: first, that we actively guide our children and train them in good actions, attributes, and ways of thinking, and second, that we pay careful attention to their unique interests, yearnings, and predilections, and guide them accordingly.'

Therefore, there can be no generic education. It should be added that both rabbis were strictly Orthodox and highly respected in their communities, as they both still are in strictly Orthodox communities today, and their teachings continue to be disseminated widely in our contemporary synagogues.

Healthy parental love therefore builds up the child and this early love gives rise to what we call the 'self' and also makes us feel fully alive. At the present time of year, from Pesach to Shavuot (Pentecost), we are encouraged to read the popular Mishna Pirke Avot (Sayings of our Ancestors), preferably with our children. In the Talmud it states that a father is obliged to circumicize his son, redeem him, teach him Torah, see him be married, and teach him a trade. Also added is the injunction to teach his child to swim. Teaching to swim fosters resilience.

Circumcision (brit in Hebrew) is also the word for 'covenant'. Circumcision therefore brings the male child into an intimate and enduring relationship with G-d, Torah and the Jewish people. Covenantal living is intergenerational in that it relates us to our ancestors and looks forward to our becoming, in our turn, the ancestors of descendants in a world of dignity, where G-d is manifest.

Redemption of the first-born child introduces us to the simple words of the Pesach Haggadah, which we have just finished reading: 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt, but now we are free,' which, by the way, we intone leaning, like the wealthy Roman upper classes, reminiscent of the Egyptians who enslaved us.

The story of Egypt and the Exodus teaches our children, together with us, their parents, that we are all a people shaped by the memory of suffering, called to lives of empathy and service of G-d. The story further teaches that G-d champions the widow, the orphan and the 'stranger'. We can't enter our future redemption as free people without internalizing the history of our past throughout the many millennia since the Exodus from Egypt, including in our own day.

The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93) stated that part of raising children is 'befriending [them] with [their] Maker.' And nobody did more for American Jewish education than Rabbi Soloveitchik himself, who, new to the US from eastern Europe via Berlin, together with his wife, Tonya, founded a number of schools in the Boston area and he himself ordained more rabbis than anyone in American history. Rabbis, of course, are primarily teachers and educators so Rabbi Soloveitchik certainly practised what he preached!

Teaching Judaism to our children is, then, 'the inexhaustible conversation' which is just as interested in the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing'? as in 'If I damage your property, how do I compensate you?' Yes, Judaism, as taught to our children from a very early age, discusses both the highly practical and mundane, and also the most arcane and often unanswerable philosophical questions. Judaism isn't either or; it is both and. This sort of question and answer system, started at a very young age, leads to a love for community service and often to work wider afield, embracing what we now call 'the global community'. But the starting point is always with the very mundane questions surrounding the home and close community.

In other words, the family conditions may be created which 'foster the psychological capacity to love.'

Children of course do not only differ from one another: they also differ from us, their parents. Children are not an extension of our will, and we have to learn to 'let go', while still being around when needed. This is a very difficult task indeed! But freedom is not simply freedom from slavery; it is also the capacity to live what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls 'a separate, non-slave life.'

Most important of all, maybe, is that love should not be dependent simply on emotions, but should be a 'disposition', a way of looking at the world. If that disposition is in play most of the time, whenever we don't feel emotionally up to it, we can at least revert to the dispositional source, something in which we ourselves must first be educated. 'Good parenting therefore requires a steadfast commitment to self-awareness.'

So, to sum up this first chapter of Part Two of Shai's book, loving can only be learned. However, it is not really a top down enterprise from parent to child, but more a horizontally-based exercise in relationship, with give and take, questions and answers, and continual education for the parent figure. Even when on occasion we may feel ambivalent, we have to continue in constancy, even if our own feelings ebb and flow.

It is an astounding fact that the Hebrew word translated as 'Amen' in English stems from the root ''men', depicting faith, both in G-d, and generally. However, 'men also means 'nurture' and is related to the word 'mother'. Fidelity and faithfulness, child-rearing and nursing all go hand in hand with the constancy that only a mother can give. And in Hebrew all these words derive from the same root. Bringing a child into the world in order to love them is an act of imitatio Dei.

No-one said it is easy. But this kind of interaction will hopefully lead to the love of neighbour and stranger that have become the hallmark of Christian doctrine, most often without any awareness either of this doctrine's roots in Judaism, or of the exact role it plays in Jewish life, something I hope to continue to discuss in more detail in later articles.