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God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness

By Meir Soloveichik

Jews and Christians disagree about what love is.


It is wrong, Nygren insists, to say that God loves the righteous because they are righteous. For God loves no one because of who he is; rather, he loves all despite who they are:
When God’s love is shown to the righteous and godly, there is always the risk of our thinking that God loves the man on account of his righteousness and godliness. But this a denial of agape—as if God’s love for the “righteous” were not just as unmotivated and spontaneous as his love for the sinner! As if there were any other divine love than spontaneous and unmotivated agape! It is only when all thought of the worthiness of the object is abandoned that we can understand what agape is.18
God, therefore, according to Nygren, cannotlove humanity as human beings love each other. His love could not possibly be grounded in a specific, love-worthy aspect of his beloved. It is instead an ethereal, un-human, unmotivated love that God bestows upon humanity. “To the question, ‘Why does God love?’ there is only one right answer,” Nygren concludes: “Because it is his nature to love.”19
Judaism, in contrast, argues against such a sharp distinction between divine and human love. After all, man was created in the image of God; the way we love is a reflection of the way God loves. Thus, as with human love, God can desireto enter into a relationship with us; he can indeed be drawn to some aspect of our identity.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Bible’s depiction of God’s love for Abraham. God’s motivation in electing Abraham has long been subject to speculation. Some theologians, such as Wyschogrod, suggest that the Bible is deliberately obscure about God’s reasons for loving Abraham, for love is often unexplainable.20 Yet traditional Jewish exegetes have argued that God states quite clearly why he loved Abraham, and why he chose him to found a righteous family:
And the Eternal said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do—seeing that Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Eternal, to do what is just and right; that the Eternal may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him.21
It was precisely, then, because of Abraham’s love of “what is just and right,” and his desire to communicate these principles to his children, that God chose him to father a nation that would communicate these principles to the world. The medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) argues that in these verses, God is not merely explaining why he chose Abraham, but why he longs for and is drawn to him:
For I know him: A loving phrase, such as “known to her husband,” “does not Boaz know us,” “and I shall know you by name,” and the essential meaning is one of knowing, for one who loves a person draws him near and knows him and recognizes him. [God thus says:] And why do I [draw Abraham close] to know him? Because he commands his children regarding me to keep my ways.22
This, then, is the Jewish understanding of Abraham’s election: God fell in love with Abraham because he loved Abraham’s desire to found a faithful and righteous family. God was drawn to Abraham’s character and his hopes for the future. Most importantly, God desired to enter into a covenantal relationship with Abraham—to make Abraham’s family his own family, Abraham’s dream his own dream, and Abraham’s children his own children. In forging a covenant with Abraham, God expressed his desire to be, along with Abraham, a father to the Jewish people, and it is on this familial basis that God’s love for Israel is founded.
Throughout the Bible, God declares that when Israel imitates its ancestor Abraham and pursues righteousness—such as during the reigns of David, Hezekiah, and Josiah—God will bless and strengthen Israel. When Israel fails to live up to Abraham’s legacy, such as during the reigns of Jeroboam and Manasseh, then a betrayed God will punish Israel. Nevertheless, God emphasizes throughout the biblical texts that even when Israel is punished, it will never be fully abandoned. God will stand by Israel as a father stands by his children, in expectation that the Abrahamic trait of pursuing righteousness and justice will ultimately prevail.23 While the God of the Gospels bestows love freely upon all, Hebrew Scripture speaks of preferential love, but conveys thereby the following extraordinary notion: God loves man because of who we are, not despite who we are.
We can now understand the distinct approaches of Judaism and Christianity to divine love. If God’s love is unmotivated—if it is not grounded in anything unique about us, but granted freely to an otherwise doomed and wretched humanity—then divine love by definition cannot be exclusive, and must be universal. If, on the other hand, God loves human beings because he is drawn to something unique about them, then his love must be particular, and cannot be universal. That is to say, God finds something unique about an individual or a people that he does not find in another individual or people. As Wyschogrod writes:  
Undifferentiated love, love that is dispensed equally to all, must be love that does not meet the individual in his individuality but sees him as a member of a species, whether that species be the working class, the poor, those created in the image of God, or whatnot…. The divine love is concrete. It is a genuine encounter with man in his individuality and must therefore be exclusive. Any real love encounter, if it is more than an example of the love of a class or collectivity, is exclusive because it is genuinely directed to the uniqueness of the other, and it therefore follows that each such relationship is different from all others. But difference is exclusivity because each relationship is different, and I am not included in the relationship of others.24
A love directed at all humanity that is not grounded in one’s unique identity, Wyschogrod concludes, is a love “directed at universals and abstractions rather than real persons.” A child who is loved by his father only with universal, “unmotivated” love, and not because of anything unique about him—such as his shared kinship or his unique virtues—could correctly claim that he has not truly been loved. In a similar fashion, God loves human beings because he is drawn to them, and therefore God approaches man in all his uniqueness. And in approaching every member of the Jewish nation as an individual, and in loving what makes him unique, God cannot ignore one important facet of this nation that makes it stand out: Its Abraham-ness, the fact that its members are the descendants of Abraham, in whom both God and Abraham invested so much hope. God approaches Jews as a lover who “sees the face of his beloved in the children of his beloved.”
 
III

At this point the objection may understandably be raised: Does this mean that Judaism rejects the equality of man before God? Can a Jew indeed affirm the democratic ideal, according to which “all men are created equal” on account of rights “endowed by their Creator?” The answer is that while Judaism argues against the universality of God’s love, it does insist upon the universality of God’s justice,and affirms the equality of all men before it. While love requires focusing on one’s beloved in his or her absolute individuality, justice involves looking beyond individuality, to what we all share as members of humanity. Thus one would assume that a father who does not love his child for his own unique attributes does not truly love him, but a judge who favors his son over another because of the ties of kinship acts unjustly.
In one of the most famous passages in the Bible, Abraham appeals to God in the book of Genesis on behalf of the doomed residents of Sodom. He does not focus on God’s love for all humanity; he does not ask God to love the Sodomites “as you have loved me.” Rather, in pleading for Sodom, Abraham stresses a very different attribute of the Almighty:
Then Abraham approached him and said: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?25


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