Why Rabbi Shai Held says love is the cornerstone of Jewish belief and practice


(JTA) — More than two decades ago Rabbi Shai Held was lecturing to a class of  fifth-year rabbinical students when he remarked in passing, “Judaism revolves around the claim that God loves us and beckons us to love God back.”

Said one skeptical student: “That sounds Christian to me.” 

Held recalls thinking, “I was just quoting the morning liturgy: bechol levavacha” — “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” as it says in the Veahavata section of the Shema

And yet generations of Jews have been taught that while Christianity is about love, Judaism is about — well, take your pick: justice, law, study, action, obedience. 

Experiences like that, Held told me, “drove me to write this book.” The book is “Judaism Is About Love: Recovering the Heart of Jewish Life,” and it comes out this week. Held calls it an “act of recovery.” In 15 chapters — backed up by 130 pages of notes and citations — it sets out to restore the idea that Judaism is animated by love, no matter what the reader might have heard about a fierce, vengeful “Old Testament God.” It’s a love that manifests itself in acts of “loving kindness,” in the way Jews are supposed to behave with family and neighbors, and how Jews practice their responsibility to the wider world.

“My aim,” he writes, “is to tell the story of Jewish theology, ethics, and spirituality through the lens of love and thereby to restore the heart — in both senses of the word — of Judaism to its rightful place.”

Held, 52, is the dean and president of the Hadar Institute, a yeshiva and think tank that many consider the flagship of the “independent minyanim” movement: lay-led congregations that function independently of the Big Four American Jewish denominations. 

Held, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of two other books, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” and the two-volume “The Heart of Torah,” a collection of essays on the weekly Torah portions. 

We spoke about how Judaism has been shaped by the enduring legacy of antisemitism, the limits of universalism, and how Jewish hearts risk being hardened by the tragedy of Oct. 7. And while he only briefly alludes to it in the book, I also asked Held about how his own health struggles — he’s written publicly that he has chronic fatigue syndrome and a series of related ailments — have shaped his thinking about love.

The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

shai held book

Rabbi Shai Held calls his new book a “recovery” of Jewish theology and practice often obscured by the shadow of Christianity. (Farrrar, Straus and Giroux)

You note in your book that “generations of American Jewish children have been taught that Judaism is about something other than love.” Why do you think Jews tend to run away from the notion of love as a Jewish priority?

There is very deep, internalized anti-Judaism here. Thousands of years of being a minority culture really do have an impact. I was just recently looking at some psychological literature about how minority groups often end up seeing themselves through the lens of how the majority sees them. So that’s one piece. 

The other piece is that Jewish tradition has rightly emphasized that emotions manifest themselves concretely in the world or they’re not worth very much. If someone says “I’m the most compassionate person in the world,” but never does anything for anyone, you obviously begin to think that their compassion is fraudulent. Judaism’s ideal is that the inner state is expressed in the external action. And what ended up happening in a lot of Jewish educational settings is a focus on the external action. 

I’m reminded of the joke about the guy who asks the rabbi, “Who’s better, the person who gives $10 to a beggar with a generous spirit or the person who gives him $100 grudgingly?” and the rabbi answers, “Ask the beggar.” But you are saying that the idea Judaism doesn’t care how you feel about the poor as long as you do something about it is a distortion.

It’s funny because the Talmud actually says that the reward we receive for an act of tzedakah depends on how much effort went into the giving. So there is that side. 

But yes, to your question, I think that that’s a gross distortion of how rabbinic tradition thought about it. Its ideal is very much that “I feel compassion and act compassionately,” and out of that feeling of compassion, there is a virtuous circle. Compassionate action elicits compassionate feeling, which in turn elicits compassionate action. Action and emotion are constantly nourishing each other.

I remember when I lived in Cambridge in an area where there were a lot of homeless people. And I would say to them on Friday night, “I’m really sorry, but I don’t carry money on Shabbat,” and a number of times people would say to me, “Thank you for acknowledging me.” It was really poignant to me. That’s where things like sever panim yafot (Pirke Avot 1:15) — meeting people with a warm face, a warm smile — really does matter a lot. If you gave most rabbinic sages a choice between someone who feels something but does nothing and someone who feels nothing but does something, they will always pick the latter. But the ideal is walking in God’s ways, which means being merciful and doing acts of mercy, not one or the other.

Let’s maybe get some definitions down. We’re clearly not talking, or just talking, about romantic love. What is this love that you are talking about, and how is it manifest in the world? 

First, it’s probably important to say that love is not primarily an emotion. Love has an emotional manifestation. But love is an existential posture. It’s a way of comporting ourselves, a way of orienting ourselves in the world. That’s really important because you cannot build a spiritual life on a feeling. Feelings come and go. I can be a compassionate person even if at this moment what I’m feeling is frustration.

Love is an umbrella category in which I include things like compassion, mercy, generosity — what psychologists called prosocial emotions. In the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud, there is no way to distinguish compassion from love. The root of the word for both is r-h-m, as in Rahamana, a name for God which can mean “the Merciful One” or “the Loving One.” I try to argue that, for the rabbinic tradition, the highest ideal is compassion for people in vulnerable moments of their lives. That’s visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, burying the dead, et cetera. That is what the sages think it means to say that we are mandated to walk in God’s ways. So a Judaism that fulfills its purpose is a Judaism in which we are all moved to greater acts of love and kindness than we might otherwise be. That’s the project. 

And then I would also add, because it’s really challenging to me, is what would it really mean to love a God who loves widows and orphans? How would it orient my life if I really meant that? A Judaism that fulfills the Torah’s vision of God is very much a Judaism that is concerned with the downtrodden, the lonely, the vulnerable. You can’t have a Judaism that is self-contented.

Graffiti in Jabotinski Street in Ashdod, Israel reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself, ” Dec. 23, 2023. (Nizzan Cohen/Wikimedia Commons)

Who do you think might most object to the assertion of your book, and why? I’m thinking it’s the person who says, “Judaism is really about justice.”

I don’t mean to say that Judaism is about love to the exclusion of other things. It’s that you can’t understand Judaism’s commitment to its core values without understanding love as being at the center. I do expect some to say Judaism is about justice. To which I would say, in Jewish thought, one of the most important animators of those who have a passion for justice is love for the world. I’m not sure love and justice are always meant to be held as a dichotomy or even a dialectic. Sometimes love feeds justice. 

I think in terms of human development, no one can grow up and care about justice unless they’ve been loved at least somewhat as a child. We need love in order to become the kind of people who can even be oriented towards justice. Love really is fundamental. I don’t think you can bypass it. And I think people who think about justice without love can often become rigid and brutal. 

I want to talk about circles of obligation. Does this notion of Jewish love — as in Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself” — extend beyond the circle of Jews? Is this a universal feeling, or does it apply only between Jews? 

One of the things that I tried to develop in this book is what I call Judaism’s particularist universalism, which is the insistence that Judaism does believe in family first, but it emphatically does not believe in family only. I think many Jews have gone astray by picking one or the other: “Oh, well, you know, we believe in universal love, and we’re trying to transcend our ethnicity and our particularity.” Whereas the Jewish tradition insistently holds on to both. Love starts local, but it’s insistently global as well. I really do think that that is the dominant, traditional Jewish view. 

I want to be careful to say that this is also a little bit of the legacy of anti-Judaism, which is Christians accusing us of being parochial. And this is also one of the places where Judaism and Christianity think differently about love. For some Christian thinkers — certainly not all — love of neighbor means loving everyone equally, and there is no space for loving your kids more than other people’s kids. No Jewish thinker ever would entertain that view. Because Judaism always insists on starting close to home. And the challenge for all of us is not to get stuck only at home. Family first often deteriorates into family only. But I think Judaism’s ideal is that we learn to love and be loved in a family. We carry that love out into the world.

That’s the simple meaning of a wedding huppah, that by not having walls [it symbolizes] that the love is supposed to radiate outwards, beyond the home, that we can’t have love enclosed only by four walls. 

You also challenge the stereotypical notion that the idea of divine love is somehow Christian, or at least “unJewish.”  

Judaism tells us that love is essential to who God is. There’s an incredible moment in the book of Hosea where God is portrayed as saying, “I wish I could abandon you, Israel, but I am God and not a person” (Hosea 11:9). What makes God God are the inextinguishable and unfathomable depths of God’s love. Now, I understand that is not the way most of us experience the world. And it’s also not the way many of us were taught the Jewish tradition. But I’m trying to engage in an act of restoration, of recovery.

Did you think about the risks of framing Judaism from, let’s call it, a defensive crouch — that is, responding to a critique forced by Christianity? Did you have any qualms about that, or worry that you would be overcorrecting the other direction?

I did. And I think that’s one of the reasons why, at certain points in the book, I go out of my way to point out that I’m not suggesting that Judaism tops Christianity on the ledger, but rather there are ways in which the way Jews think about love that are really different from the ways Christians think about love. It felt very important to me to not end up saying, “Oh, Judaism is about love, too. We say whatever Christians say” — but actually to speak in a rooted way and be willing to say, this is where Jews and Christians disagree. 

You deal at length with the notion of when love becomes difficult, especially in loving one’s enemy. I think we’re in a moment, since Oct. 7, where more Jews are talking about anger than love. I imagine a lot of people will read your book looking for answers to a question like, “I’m feeling so much hate in my heart right now because of what was done to my people. Am I getting something wrong here?”

The galleys of the book arrived at my house on Oct. 14, exactly a week after the massacres, and my main reaction was indifference; I told my wife, “I don’t care about this book one bit.” And then something really interesting started happening in the weeks that followed. I would tell people that I felt apathetic towards my own work, and they — students, teachers, friends — would tell me that I had it backwards. Many people started saying to me, “Oh, I want this book now more than ever.” I heard quite a few people say that, in the wake of the attacks and the war, and in the face of the anger and grief they were feeling, they wanted to talk about love that much more urgently. And more than that, they wanted to have a vision of Judaism that’s not primarily about learning to fight antisemites but about embracing Torah and Judaism. There’s a really deep hunger there that I think is quite interesting. 

A woman prays aloud for the Israeli hostages outside the Harvard Divinity School, Oct. 25, 2023. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I think anger and indignation about what was done to our people — our family — is totally legitimate and understandable. As I discuss at length in the book, I think it’s okay, and even good, especially in moments of deep trauma, to think of our family first, before we think of others. (I again hasten to add that family first does not mean family only.)

All of this said, it’s crucial to emphasize that compassion is never a vice. We have to resist the coarsening and the hardening of our hearts that our pain can sometimes cause. The suffering of innocent people, even when a war is just, makes a claim on us. Anger cannot be allowed to obliterate compassion. More than that, dehumanization of our enemies is a temptation we must always resist, not least because dehumanizing people gives us moral license (or the illusion of moral license) to act without moral restraint. That is a path we always have to avoid. As we know all too well, people who are created in the image of God can do unimaginably horrific things, but they don’t cease to be images of God when they do. That is a very hard teaching to accept sometimes but I think it is essential.

I don’t think you can read this book without asking, Am I living up to this? Do I want to live up to this? Where do I manifest love in my own life? Where do I fall short? I can only imagine in writing this over how many years you had some of those thoughts. What was really difficult for you in writing this?

During the process of writing this book, I felt pulled in one direction by the work I was doing on this book and another direction by the experience of deteriorating illness. Because the deteriorating illness has pushed me to close in on myself in all kinds of ways. Your body literally becomes constricted. And the book is all about open-heartedness. It’s always a real struggle for me between those two experiences going on simultaneously. 

But I regularly asked myself, What audacity does it take to write a book about love? And there’s a passage from a Catholic theologian that really helps me a lot where he talks about how writing is about reaching for what is beyond who you already are. I call it writing beyond our being. I am not the embodiment of all the chapters in this book, to be sure, but they are kind of a lodestar for me. 

 All the chapters of this book resonate with me all the time in my life, as challenges as critiques of myself, honestly, as questions about my political views. I definitely feel pushed to love more deeply and more expansively in all kinds of ways by the process of working on this book. And I also had to work on myself to find the ideas in this book a challenge and inspiration, rather than grounds for endless self-castigation. 

In the book you write that when we are faced with suffering, we must respond with love. And to me that also seems like a really hard challenge for people in the depths of despair. It doesn’t have to be Oct. 7. It could be an illness, like your own, or the loss of a loved one. How do you reconcile suffering and still hold on to a capacity for love?

For many people, suffering elicits very conflicting impulses, like an impulse to compassion, or an impulse to entitlement — an impulse to say, I want to grow in love, and an impulse to say, I don’t owe anyone anything. It has been an interesting (and very difficult) experience for me in the last few years to become more honest with myself about the ways that illness has made me angry. I spent so much time thinking about and sincerely working on trying to learn compassion from my illness, that I think I partly blinded myself to the ways that the sheer relentlessness of illness had also made me angry. And so now it feels to me that the more mature work is how do you choose to nurture the loving compassionate side but not deny the other stuff because what we deny will hurt us and other people? 

Part of what it means to learn love from illness is to learn to love the parts of you that are wounded and angry and hurt. I regret that I didn’t do more in the book about what active, day-to-day self love looks like. I think it felt like this would require a book of its own. But the questions are so essential: What is healthy self love, not narcissistic self love? Another way of saying this is if you don’t have compassion for your own suffering, you will probably fail at some point at having compassion for other people’s suffering. 

As I’ve said, one of the challenges of illness is that it can close us in on ourselves. You feel like you’re trapped in a kind of private world of suffering. And, you know, I think one of the challenges of spiritual tradition is to understand why you feel that way and also to resist being governed by those feelings. It’s important to me that there are moments in my life where I’m the one taking care of people, not the one being taken care of.

Join Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and Rabbi Shai Held on Tuesday, March 26, 7:00 pm ET, for a conversation on “Love, Compassion, and the Future of Jewish Life,” hosted by B’nai Jeshurun of New York City and The New York Jewish Week, and moderated by Abigail Pogrebin. Online and in person at B’nai Jeshurun, 257 West 88th St., New York, New York.

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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