Followers

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

CAN YOU COMMAND "LOVE" OF GOD?



In the Hebrew Bible we are often told “to love” God, such as “Love (AHB) the Lord, all you faithful? (Ps. 31: 24), or “You shall love (AHB) the Lord your God” (Deut. 6: 5). 


Here we can raise two issues: 1. Can you command love? , and 2. Even though some people easily understand that one can “love” a spouse, a child, even a country, many have a hard time conceptualizing what it means to “love” God. 


Historically speaking, the concept of “loving” God comes from the treaty terminology of the Ancient Near East, and simply means “to be loyal to.”  Especially in ancient Anatolia, many Hittite rulers signed treaties with their vassals requiring them to “love” their overlord. Similarly, in the Amarna letters we find that Rib-Abdi of Byblos stating that the city is divided into two: “half of it loves the sons of Abdi-Ashirta, and the other half (loves) my lord” (EA 138:71-73), or in the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon we read: “If you do not love the crown prince designate, Ashurbanipal,….”(here some curses follow; See ANET, 537). We have a reflection of this meaning in the Hebrew Bible, when it states that “Hiram [King of Tyre] loved (AHB) David always” (I K 5: 15). The Latin-Vulgate translation uses here the term “amicus” [friendly]. In the Canaanite Akkadian of Amarna, the verb ramu, the functional equivalent of AHB, meant “to favor.” So, in the past, “to love” primarily meant “to be loyal.” It had nothing to do with the emotional content that the verb “love” implies today. 


What about in Jewish sources? In the early ones, such the Talmud, to “love” God simply meant to study rabbinic texts, minister to scholars, and generally do God’s will by carrying out the Mitzvot (See, for ex. Yoma 86a). During the medieval times, the mystics (like Bahya ibn Pakuda) stressed that to “love” God is to have an intense longing for the nearness of God and a desire for communion with God, whereas many rationalists argued that “loving God” simply means to have a knowledge of God. Maimonides puts it this way: “According to the knowledge so the love” (Mishne Torah, Repentance 10: 6). 


What about us today? I maintain that, even though love cannot be commanded, actions leading to love can be ordered. As W.G. Plaut’s Torah Commentary puts it, “Each Mitzvah [commandment] done in the right spirit is an act of loving God” (p. 1211). Thus, our practice of Judaism must be done in the highest spirit of loyalty to our Jewish tradition, a tradition that should be maintained, strengthened and, at times, adapted to the needs of our times. Our prayers must be offered with devotion, our holidays observed with appropriate joy, and our rituals carried out with a sense of reality and necessary re-interpretation to make them relevant to our needs today.  


As to the second issue, I am more comfortable with the Maimonidean rationalistic approach that states that thinking and studying about God is to love God. In my non-theistic view, to love God is to find out what God stands for. This is manifested in the commitment we make to discover of the mysteries the universe, and the realization that we stand in awe before the awesome energy, namely God, that keeps it going. 


How do we get there? Hassidic masters have taught us that the Torah commands us three times to love; twice our neighbors (Lev. 19: 18, 34) and then God (Deut. 6: 5). We love humans first and then we love God. Not the other way around. Only after we have learned how to love people can we come to the “love”-namely, the understanding and appreciation of God.


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Nov. 2016
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Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)





Thursday, October 27, 2016

SONSINO'S BLOG: HONORING PARENTS; WHAT ABOUT LOVING THEM?

SONSINO'S BLOG: HONORING PARENTS; WHAT ABOUT LOVING THEM?: In the Ten Commandments, we are told to “honor (KABED) your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5;16). Some English translations ...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

HONORING PARENTS; WHAT ABOUT LOVING THEM?



In the Ten Commandments, we are told to “honor (KABED) your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5;16). Some English translations render KABED as “respect” or as “regard (treat with honor, due obedience and courtesy).”  Similarly, in the Apocrypha, Tobit tells his son Tobias, to “honor (your mother) all the days of your life” (4: 3).  In Lev. 19: 3, the term is even stronger: “You shall revere your mother and father.” The Hebrew word here is YARE, and means, almost “fear, stand in awe.”  In the New Testament, children are required to “obey” their parents (Ephesians 6: 1; Colossians 3: 20). 

The Hebrew Bible expresses the hope that by honoring your parents, “you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.” In other words, you will live longer. We find a clear rationale for the dictum in rabbinic literature: you need to honor them “because the father and the mother are the reason for your existence” (Sefer Ha-Hinukh, 33). 

Two questions: 1. To whom is this commandment addressed? Parents can easily impose themselves on their children when they are young. The Talmud asks: What does honoring mean? It answers: “Providing them with food and drink, clothing and covers, and taking them in and out” (Kid. 31b). My impression is that the instruction is directed to adult children who are responsible for the wellbeing of their elderly parents who cannot fend for themselves. It is then that honoring becomes more relevant.

2. The verb “honor” here is noteworthy. One would have expected to find “you shall love your parents.” Is this on purpose? Could that mean that we must “honor” our parents, but not necessarily “love” them? 

Jewish literary sources put a high emphasis on the necessity to show respect for the parents, but parental authority on the children is not absolute. For example, according to Jewish law, “a man should never terrorize his household” (Git. 6b). If a father orders his children to break a Torah law, the children can ignore his demands (Shulhan Arukh, YD, 240: 15). If the father objects to his son’s marrying someone of his choice, the son can disregard the father’s objections (Shulhan Arukh, YD 240: 25). 

On the other hand, Jewish sources also show that, honoring the parents is an obligation even if there is no loving relationship between children and mother/father. For, as  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the medieval times, once wrote to Obadiah, the proselyte, saying, “It is possible for a person to honor, hold him in awe and obey one whom one does not love.” 
 
Years ago, when I was in congregational rabbinate, I had to confront the dilemma of “honor” vs. “love” in a concrete life situation: Once a woman came to see me in my office, and told me that her father was ill, and needed personal attention. Her question to me was whether or not she had to comply with his requests. I said, the Decalogue instructs us to look after our parents, and, as the Rabbis add, “even if you have to go around begging for it “(JT, Peah, 15d). She retorted: Rabbi, you do not know all the facts. My father sexually abused me when I was young. I cannot touch him! 

Upon reflection, I said to her: I don’t expect you to help him out physically and personally. The biblical text tells us to “honor” our parents, not necessarily to “love” them. We are not obligated to love a parent who has been abusive. If you cannot do the job yourself, you are still obligated to take care of him. Just hire and pay for another person, maybe a nurse, to look after his wellbeing for the rest of his life. She liked the idea, and followed my suggestion.

I posed this dilemma to my Ethics class at Framingham State University, some of whom had indeed experienced abuse by parents, and they, overwhelmingly, voted to abandon them at the time of their need. “Let him rot in hell,” said one. Jewish law, as I understand it, is otherwise. I would argue that we still have responsibilities towards abusive parents, but we must find other means to carry them out. 

What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. 

Oct. 2016
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Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)




Wednesday, September 28, 2016

AN ETHICAL DILEMMA: WHOSE LIFE COMES FIRST?



I teach Ethics at Framingham State University, and every year I place the following rabbinic moral dilemma before my students: 


Judaism places a high value on life. On the one hand, the ancient Rabbis teach us that the saving of life must be placed at the top of all the commandments, superseding even the laws of the Sabbath (Yoma 84b). On the other hand, however, Satan in the Bible reminds us that “all that a man has, he will give up for his life.” (Job. 2:4). In other words, it is good to be altruistic but physiological egoism reminds us that ultimately all human beings are motivated by self-interest. So, if your life conflicts with someone else’s life, whose life should come first? 


The Rabbis discuss this tension in a remarkable talmudic passage (BM 62a):  

Two people, A and B, are on a deserted road, presumably far from civilization. They have only one bottle of water; if both drink, both will die; however, if A drinks, B will die, but A can reach a place where water is available and will survive. What should they do? 


          One scholar, ben Petura, otherwise unknown in the rabbinic literature, argued that ‘it is better that both should drink and die, rather than one cause the death of the other.’ He based his reasoning on a biblical text that states that “your brother may live with you” (Lev. 25: 35).  However, Rabbi Akiba, a 2nd cent. CE scholar, perhaps a contemporary of this ben Petura, going against his colleagues maintained that “your life takes precedence over his.” That is, you should drink and let the other one die. His argument is based on his reading of the biblical text that highlights “with you.” Your life comes first. 


          Rabbinic scholars “use” biblical verses for their convenience, often quoting them out of context. In our case, the original verse dealt with an Israelite whose kinsman, most likely another Israelite, has financial problems and cannot pay his rent. The law states (in Lev. 25: 35-38) that you must be kind to him, i.e., not evict him, and, on the contrary, allow him to remain at your side (“live with you”) as a member of the community. But the ancient Rabbis quote this text to bolster their respective positions in the ethical dilemma mentioned above, assuming that the text is divine and therefore providing guidance for all occasions. 


          Even though the Talmud never resolves the ethical problem as to what is the proper behavior in our dilemma, later commentators have overwhelmingly sided with Rabbi Akiba, with three exceptions: your life comes first, yes, except in cases of murder, idolatry and incest. In these cases, you should prefer death rather than commit a heinous crime. 


          Ben Petura’s view is highly altruistic, but Rabbi Akiba’s position, though more self-centered, is more realistic. Isn’t this the way we have to act today when we are on a plane and the airbag comes down because of a drop in pressure? The stewardess tells us, “please put your seat belt on first, and then, attach it to your child.” The rationale is this: Your life comes first; if you can take care of yourself, you can then help others. Not the other way around.


          Two caveats: 1) From the reading of the rabbinic text in the Talmud we can deduce that the position of ben Petura was dominant, “until Rabbi Akiba came and taught.” Often, there is more than one way to resolve an ethical dilemma. In this case, with the Rabbi Akiba, we see a major change in attitude.


 2) The Rabbis do not “obligate” A to drink, letting B to die. They only say that your life comes first. And you should not feel guilty about it. But you may decide to sacrifice your life for another, depending on the circumstances. For example, if B is your child, most people would willingly give the bottle to the child, thus allowing the youngster to live. But what if B is your older parent?  What if B is a total stranger?  (In both cases, I would stay with Akiba). What if A has an acute case of cancer, and B is healthy and has a chance to survive, would B be acting morally if he /she were to take the bottle away by force? (I would say B has the right to do that). 


          I do not believe in absolute morality but in situational ethics. The German philosopher Kant (d. 1808) talked about “categorical imperatives;” that is, you should act in such a way so that your deed be viewed as praiseworthy and universal. I believe in this basic principle, but still allow for deviations when appropriate.

What do you think?


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Framingham State University

Sept. 2016

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Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)

DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)

SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner))

THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)

VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)

MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)

MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)