Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

The three little words that Jews never say

From The New Yorker

God loves you.

There. I’ve said it.

I know what some of you are thinking: This is supposed to be Martini Judaism – not Martini Christianity. Jews don’t talk that way – that whole “God loves you” thing.

I can’t say I blame you.

Because, let’s be honest. It’s not how the world views Judaism.

Consider that terrible slur against the so-called God of the so-called Old Testament, who is the god of harsh judgment – as opposed to the God of the New Testament, who is the god of love.

It’s just one step from there to Christians good, Jews bad.

It’s also not how Jews view Judaism, either.

Once upon a time, it was.

But our history has bruised us and battered us and it has forced us to be deaf to our own beautiful traditions.

Once upon a time, we saw ourselves as the people that God loves.

Now, to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: too many Jews define themselves as the people that gentiles hate.

This is a pathetic distortion of our faith and our fate.

Do you know why countless generations were able to stand up to Jew-hatred? Because no matter what befell them, they had faith in God’s love.

But somehow, this entire idea underwent a false conversion.

To prove this, I googled the words “God loves you.”

Within a nanosecond, I got 13 million hits.

I’ve been going through them very slowly, and as of today I can safely report that every time that term appears, it appears on a Christian web site.

Having obviously far too much time on my hands, I then googled the phrase “God loves the Jews.”

837,000 hits.

And all of those hits are also on Christian web sites.

Think of it — the only people in the world who are saying that “God loves the Jews” – are non-Jews!

But, hold on a second.

Christianity did not invent the idea of a loving God – it was Judaism.

There isn’t enough space here to list all those moments in the Bible when God proclaims love for us.

Our liturgy proclaims it very clearly: With a great love You have loved us; with eternal love You have loved us. In the Kiddush, we chant that God gives us Shabbat b’ahavah, with love. In Avot, we chant that God will bring us redemption for the sake of our ancestors b’ahavah, in love.

Henry Slonimsky, one of the most unheralded Jewish teachers of the last century, put it this way: “God is primarily a great heart, caring most for what seems to be important and sacred to us, namely, our loves and aspirations and sufferings.”

That is how Judaism starts, and that is how Judaism has unfolded. Why does God choose Abraham? We don’t know. The Bible does not tell us. Let’s just say that God fell in love with Abraham.

Here is biblical Judaism — short version. The greatest love story ever told.

  • God meets people. That is the patriarchal period.
  • God and people date. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the matriarchs — all have conversations with God.
  • They’re out of touch for a while during our sojourn in Egypt.
  • God hears the cries of the beloved.
  • They fall in love. Yes, it took the Red Sea parting to make that happen.
  • They get married at Sinai (which is why on Shavuot some communities set up a huppah and write a ketuba between God and Israel).
  • People disappoints God with the Golden Calf.
  • They argue like in any marriage.
  • The people endures centuries of God’s perhaps petulant or even passive-aggressive silence. Like, a big chunk of the Jewish Bible. God says nothing.
  • People experiences occasional tough love from God (as David Blumenthal has written).
  • God and Israel re-invent their relationship over and over again. The Temple is destroyed; the Jews rebuild it; the Romans destroy it again; the Jews figure out new ways of doing the God love thing.

That’s our romance with God. The ancient rabbis were sure that the erotic Song of Songs was actually an allegory for the God-Jews love story.

And how do we love God back?

Three ways.

  • We study Torah, which is a sign of God’s love. We read every word of Torah, listening to its nuances and wondering aloud and in sacred community about its meaning — the same way that we read the email or listen to the voice mail or read the text message from our lover and wonder about what he said and she did not say and the way he said it and the pauses when she said it. “What did he mean – ‘see you on Friday, I guess’? What kind of message is that? What does ‘I guess’ mean?”
  • We do mitzvot. They remind us of God’s love.
  • We love each other. Therefore, Jews must love each other as family (even, and especially, when we don’t find each other terribly likeable) and then they must reach out and love the world.

The French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas said that our duty to the Other begins when we see the Other’s face and we realize that in that face there is the reflection of the image of God and the love of God.

So, if you are celebrating Valentine’s Day, think about God’s love, too.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

ADVERTISEMENTs