The Love of God

Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism

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Jon D. Levenson
Library of Jewish Ideas
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2015.
     264 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691164298.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jon Levenson, who holds the Albert A. List Professorship of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, takes the reader on a path through Jewish covenantal thinking from the biblical period to the modern era. Written in a style that is accessible to both the scholar of Jewish studies as well as the lay reader, The Love of God examines the fundamental nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Levenson’s contention is that we can truly understand this relationship only if we grasp its inherent communal nature, as well as the divine intimacy it entails. This latter point is especially important for Levenson, who argues that the erotic dimensions of the biblical tradition are key for an appreciation of the affective dimension of God’s love for the people Israel. We lose sight of the depth of this covenantal love if we fail to recognize its communal and affective dimensions.

The opening section of the book offers a succinct but masterful summary of the best biblical analysis of covenantal love as it emerges from key books such as Deuteronomy. Indeed, this is one of the best summaries available in print today. As Levenson continues his analysis it becomes clear that he wishes to establish covenantal love rather than merely the performance of mitzvoth as the core of the Jewish religious perspective. The obligation to perform mitzvoth, incumbent on a Jewish believer, cannot be understood apart from a fundamental grounding in covenantal love. In that sense Levenson is making the point, at least indirectly, that the classical contrast between Judaism and Christianity promoted in many sectors of Christianity—that Christianity is a religion rooted in love while Judaism is a religion fundamentally based on law—is without foundation.

Levenson underscores one key point that has sometimes been controversial for non-Jews and even to some liberal Jews:  the chosenness of the Jewish people for God’s covenantal love. Levenson stresses that chosenness does not imply superiority. Rather it involves an heightened sense of responsibility. This is an important clarification, particularly for the non-Jewish reader. Nonetheless Levenson does not pursue a critical issue in our era of interreligious relations: Does the sense of covenantal love that he maintains as central to the biblical heritage appear in any other spiritual community? What about Christianity, and even Islam, religions that are linked to this biblical tradition (though in considerably different ways)? Can their members experience this sense of divine intimacy and communion? As a traditional Jew, Levenson is no doubt loath to pursue this question. But if Judaism is not to isolate itself from the remainder of the global religious community, the issue needs discussion from the Jewish side.

Another limitation of this otherwise fine volume is the matter of how divine intimacy is perceived through a feminine lens. Levenson highlights the sexual imagery involved in the biblical understanding of covenantal love. He admits that it may appear that the imagery generally conveys a sense of male dominance in the divine male-human feminine relationship. While Levenson raises the issue he does not pursue it. Again it is a question that requires further exploration in terms of contemporary divine imagery.

Levenson clearly maintains that Israel’s experience of divine covenantal love is, ultimately, a gift. But he adds that there is some sense in which God also needs this relationship. Here Levenson is tying into an increasingly asked question in discussions of theodicy. Does God need people? More and more frequently, the response is affirmative. But it is unclear how far Levenson is willing to go in this regard. Would he affirm Pope John Paul II’s assertion that the human community must be recognized as sharing in divine creatorship activity? This question takes on greater urgency in our time with the challenge of maintaining creational sustainability.

In the latter section of the book Levenson looks at postbiblical descriptions of the divine-human relationship. He focuses in a special way on the writings of Buber and Rosenzweig. But in the end he finds their vision wanting. What is lacking in their works is adequate treatment of the affective intimacy found in the biblical perspective. This can be recovered, Levenson believes, through an enhanced focus on spirituality. I tend to agree with Levenson on both points. But the subject needs further development beyond what he offers us in this relatively slim volume, including some discussion on how the Shoah might impact the continuation of the biblical understanding of covenantal love, something Levenson totally ignores.

Overall this volume is well worth a serious read despite its limitations. It does open a serious discussion on key points in understanding God in our time. For that we should be grateful for Levenson’s clear, in-depth presentation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John T. Pawlikowski is Professor of Social Ethics and Director of Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).

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