Of God's Love and Jealousy

By Yehuda Liebes

The dangers of divine affection.

The love of God is a fundamental principle of Judaism. As such, it has consumed the thought of scholars and teachers, who in turn have fixed it firmly in the consciousness of anyone concerned with this religion. Yet such thinking centers on only one of the two possible meanings of the phrase “love of God.” Syntactically, God can function as either the object or the subject of the verb “love.” To use Latin grammatical terms, he can be either the genetivus obiectivus or the genetivus subiectivus, and of these two interpretations, religious consciousness overwhelmingly favors the first. 1
In what follows, however, I shall attempt to demonstrate how fundamental and necessary the second interpretation is to Judaism, namely, how man’s love for God derives from God’s love for man. But if so, why has the loving God been marginalized in the believer’s mind? Why has God’s love become dull and faded, a mere poetic or literary expression bearing no theological or mythical significance whatsoever?
The answer, I believe, lies in the dialectic duality that is the very essence of religion: the dialectic between the personal, experiential level, in which man encounters God, and the communal level, which seeks to impart the individual’s experience to the entire nation. The latter is made possible by the “translation” of the personal element into a system of laws, rituals, and beliefs. This process naturally causes a shift of focus from God’s character to man’s obligations, reducing the double meaning of “love of God” to “man’s love for God.” Such a change may also be inspired by philosophical arguments, such as the notion that God is too exalted to have the feeling of love attributed to him (a notion that has found its place in certain philosophical systems).
All this, however, could not completely rid the Israelite religion of the idea of a loving God. Preserved, most likely by the sheer force of its vitality, as the origin of the religious core of Judaism, this idea continues to reemerge in tradition—although it is sometimes barely recognizable through the many layers of disguises, euphemisms, and sublimations imposed on it in an attempt to make it more palatable to the masses. At times, the concept of a loving God is not only obscured, but significantly altered. Nevertheless, it has various stubborn elements—stemming, no doubt, from certain fixed patterns in the religious soul, and enhanced by literary and oral traditions—that refuse to die out, instead resurfacing time and again.
The different incarnations of this concept are intimately connected with the literary genre, philosophical context, and historical period in which they each appear. In general, Jewish thought and practice do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of the surrounding culture (and are not only influenced by it). One cannot, then, understand the idea of the love of God, either in its earlier or its later formations, without considering its expressions in the general culture. It is only through an examination of their common aspects that the particularities of each religion may be discovered.
This essay does not propose to explain how the God of Israel came to be portrayed the way he did. Some, I am sure, will claim that this description of God reflects the self-perception of the Israelite man who molded his divinity in his image. But I shall remain within the framework of Jewish thought as we have come to know it through the religious texts we have at hand. God, after all, is in heaven, and I am on earth; therefore, my words will be few.
What makes Judaism unique, I believe, is the intensity of the love of its God. It is a love that is both obsessive and possessive, unyielding and humorless, born of nothing and ending only in death; it is a love that consumes and obliterates itself in a fire of jealousy—and with it its object, and everyone else besides: “For love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave. Its flames are flames of fire, a most vehement flame.”2
Those who saw monotheism as the main contribution of the Israelite religion to the world may have been right. Yet this monotheism is not, as some have defined it, “ethical monotheism,” nor is it ontological or philosophical monotheism (worldviews that originated in “pagan” religions such as Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and Orphic mythology, and never had a strong hold on Judaism). Jewish monotheism is, at heart, distinctly mythical. It portrays God’s personality, the strength of his love and jealousy, and his categorical demand for human response: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”3
This is also the source of the dominant halachic thrust of the Jewish religion. The loving God does not tolerate any distraction from him, hence the numerous commandments that enfold man at every step, in every day of his life. For God, the most desirable relationship with his people—his beloved—is one of total dependence. In the words of the prophet, “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holiness to the Lord.”4 Any diversion of thought from God is tantamount to infidelity, is tinged by the gravest sin of all: idolatry. This transgression is not so much an ontological error (the denial of the existence of other gods is not consistent within the Bible; Jephthah, for instance, says to the king of Ammon, “Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the Lord our God takes possession of before us, we will possess”5). Idolatry is, rather, a sin of unfaithfulness, often compared in biblical phraseology to a woman’s adultery. It is not for nothing that the Ten Commandments, the cornerstone of the Jewish religion, begin with the words “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness ofanything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.”6
The history of the People of Israel, as recorded by the canonical texts, is nothing but a chronicle of God’s love and jealousy. The biblical descriptions of love, intensified in the writings of the talmudic sages (as for example in the allegorical interpretation of Song of Songs), are very often accompanied by expressions of violent possessiveness and hatred. Following the sin of the golden calf, for example, the first of the adulteries of Israel (who is likened by the Talmud to a “bride who plays the harlot beneath her bridal canopy”7), God says to Moses, “Now therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”8 And although he did not annihilate them at that time, there have been many occasions since when the People of Israel were diminished until only a small remnant remained. This remnant survived only because of the tension within God’s own soul, because of his passionate love, which engenders jealousy, which engenders hatred—and which, ultimately, reawakens love, because if Israel were to be completely obliterated, upon whom would God lavish his love? In the fierce words of the prophet Ezekiel: “What you have in your mind shall never be, when you say, ‘We will be like the Gentiles, like the families in other countries, serving wood and stone.’ As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, I will rule over you.”9

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