Have you ever heard the phrase “the God of the Old Testament”? It’s generally used to distinguish between the supposedly angry, vengeful, and severe God of the Hebrew Bible and the “Loving Heavenly Father” of the New Testament.
Even though many Christian theologians have denounced this false contrast (after all, they say, God can’t change his substance), it persists in the Western mind. It’s linked to one of the biggest misconceptions in the history of religion: the notion that Judaism is the “religion of law” while Christianity is the “religion of love”.
That incorrect assertion has often been wielded with clearly antisemitic undertones. In many cases, however, it’s an honest mistake made by folks who see Judaism as a strictly-regulated system of mitzvot—which it is—and one that leaves little room for subjective emotions such as love—which it isn’t. This false dichotomy between Law and Love can only be believed when we ignore that, for Judaism, these two concepts are inextricably linked.
To understand that connection we need only turn to the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday celebrates, among other things, the giving of the Law by God at Mt. Sinai, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt. Intriguingly, the text we read during that festival is Megillat Rut, a Venn diagram of intersecting love stories. The Megillah follows Ruth, a Moabite woman, who, after her husband dies, follows her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, back to the land of Israel. There, a love story develops between Ruth and Boaz, a distant kinsman in whose fields Ruth is trying to glean food for her family. Boaz and Ruth end up marrying and becoming the ancestors of King David.
Hmmm… That’s an odd choice for the Holiday of the Law, isn’t it?
This choice puzzled rabbis as well and they offered a few interpretations on the matter. One is a calendar coincidence: the story of Ruth takes place at the time of the grain harvest and Shavuot is also the Holiday of the Harvest. Another relates to Ruth’s moving declaration of loyalty to Naomi and her People: “Wherever you go I will go…. Your People is my People and your God is my God.” Ruth’s acceptance of Judaism, the rabbis propose, is akin to the Israelites accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
I think there’s a deeper meaning at play. I don’t think Ruth was selected for Shavuot despite being a love story, but because of that. I believe there’s a powerful message about the role that love plays as one of the pillars upon which society must rest.
To understand the role of love in Shavuot, we have to remember that Shavuot is really an extension of Pesach; the two holidays are tied together by the counting of the Omer. On Pesach we establish freedom as a precondition for human relations. For Judaism, a society can’t exist without individual and collective freedom. Freedom is not just the absence of bondage, but the capacity to assume ownership and responsibility for one’s life and for the well-being of society.
Freedom can’t work without law. Freedom gives us power, and power gives us responsibility. All the inspiration and possibility in the world can’t guide us past our weaknesses and blind spots to live up to our responsibilities; only strong and specific norms can do that.
But law can’t work—or, rather, can work all too well to terrible ends—without love. Absent love, law will be twisted into a tool of oppression. That’s why freedom on Pesach must lead to love on Shavuot. In fact, that theme of love already begins to emerge on Pesach itself, when we read the Song of Songs, probably the most beautiful love poem ever written. It echoes themes found elsewhere in the prophets that describe the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage contract. Yes, the Torah gives us rules and regulations, but the underlying emotion, the basic foundation of it all, is love.
Love is what redeems us from our egotism and selfishness; what allows us to connect with the otherness of the other, to transcend ourselves and tie our destiny to that of others. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks aptly says, “Judaism is supremely a religion of love: three loves. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’ ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ And ‘You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a strange land.’” And I would add to that a fourth love, by quoting Albert Einstein, who said that Judaism is characterized by an “almost fanatical love of justice”.
Whether you are a believer or an atheist, the story of God’s love for the Jewish people is important. It shows that love always involves risk and that not even God can be free from the risk that love entails. It shows that even God needs to limit His power when engaging in a relationship of love. You can’t force people to love you. You must leave room for the other; you need to contemplate things from the other’s perspective. Love makes you vulnerable: to betrayal, to disappointment, to sorrow. In the Hebrew Bible, God Himself embraces, rather than rejects, that vulnerability, as if to teach us that true strength requires the courage to be vulnerable.
The love that the Bible proposes as societal principle is based on shared experiences and common purposes. Slavery in Egypt is our ultimate bonding experience—we all suffered together; we all shared the same fate. The Torah gives us common purposes: being the guardians of justice, human dignity, and compassion. As the writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry said: “Love is not looking at each other, but looking together in the same direction”.
We live in times in which society is increasingly ruled by the hatred of the other rather than by love. Love seems to be restricted to those who are exactly like us, rather than opening to those who are radically different. In many cases, we confuse kinship with love; in others, what we call love is just selfishness by other means. We don’t realize that we can’t love something that, or somebody who, is a mere extension of ourselves. We seem overwhelmed by fear of the vulnerability that love entails. Ruth became the ancestor of the messiah by daring to be vulnerable, by tying her destiny to Naomi and to Boaz with a bond of love.
On this Shavuot let us realize that no society can survive without law, but neither can it live without love, without compassion, without care and empathy for the other. Like Ruth, let us use love to overcome the fear of the unknown; like Boaz, let us be generous and open to those in need; like Naomi, let us build love out of a common purpose and a shared destiny. We are still a long way from fulfilling the mandate to love the different; we still haven’t fully engaged in the risky but magnificent adventure of discovering love for the otherness of our fellow human.
Our spring holidays—Pesach and Shavuot—mark our formative moments as a People. As such, they aim to show us the values upon which our society needs to be built. And they tell us that there’s a magnificent arc that links freedom with law, law with justice, and justice with love. The dream of a society thus built is as relevant today as it was three and a half millennia ago.