My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for May 2015: Love of God, Lights on Shabbat and Appreciating Rav Lichtenstein

Dear Rabbi
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve recited the Shema all my life, since I was a child, in synagogue and at home. I know it is made up of biblical passages and that it is at the core of our prayers. Recently, though, I started to wonder about the verse: “And you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” The two terms “love” and “God” are difficult for me to understand. I find it remarkable that the Torah instructs or commands us to have an emotion for a religious idea, to love God. Can you help me understand this?

Perplexed in Paramus

Dear Perplexed,

Love is perhaps the most complex of all human emotions. And God is perhaps the most awesome of religious concepts. Each of those is a great mystery to all beings. To love God. How can the Torah command us to engage in such an enigmatic action? You seem perhaps to feel that for you loving God may be an unreachable ideal.

What makes love so complex? For starters, there are many kinds of love. There’s at least romantic love, filial love, parental love, platonic love, unrequited love, undying love, and more. And on the concept of God, there is no end to what theology has to say.

I’ve studied much theology, but let me be honest, I’m no expert in love. Just because I am in love with someone special, because I know the intense fulfillment and the happiness of redemptive love, because I have read books and poetry and studies in psychology and science that explore love, all of that put together still does not make me an expert.

So I hesitate to give advice on this inexplicable subject. I’ll just say that I have noticed a few things about love that may help you find an answer to your question.

I have found that it is true that the object of our romantic love may be a real person, a woman whom we find beautiful and charming and energetic, or a man whom we find handsome and funny and reliable. And we may declare that we direct our love to that other actual person.

But I have concluded that is not exactly the case. I discovered over the years that actually I direct my wonderful inner emotion called love to an ideal image of my beloved that I created interior to my being. My assumption and hope is that the inner persona that I shaped closely represents the real person out there. I hope that I have not put my lover on too high a pedestal or imagined that she is more wonderful than she can be in “real life”.

I feel strongly that I love the real object of my affection through that imagined figure that I crafted in my mind.

And so with this premise, let me come back to your inquiry about loving God. We ought not expect to love a tangible deity directly. When we love God, that love is filtered through our ideas, notions that come to us through our traditions.

When we read in the verse of the Shema, “And you shall love…” it instructs us to direct our fundamental human emotions toward the ideas of a deity that we have formulated. In the Shema, the ideas of God describe a personality who cares for us individually, who keeps track of every action that we perform, who rewards and punishes us. Elsewhere in Tanach we learn about God’s heroic acts on behalf of our ancestors, his reliable promises to protect and redeem us as a people, his handsome mystical majesty, and much more.

How remarkable. Twice daily we are reminded in our prayers to direct our emotion of love toward an abstract entity that we will never see in real time. And we do that by pointing our love toward our inner ideal pictures of an awesome and loving God.

In addition to that direct action itself, there’s a wonderful added benefit to practicing the love of God. I have thought from time to time how being actively mindful every day of loving my inner image of God helps me keep strong my ability to love the images I have fashioned of the other significant entities in my life. Through the mechanisms of all of my inner representations, I seek to connect my real and vivid emotions to those special real people whom I dearly love.

Dear Rabbi,

I read about a new invention: a rabbi-approved light switch that allows Orthodox Jews to turn lights on and off on Shabbat. The convenience of having such a switch on Shabbat could be a significant gain for Orthodox Jews. At first I thought it was a great idea, and I understood that rabbis approved it. Then I heard that some rabbis oppose the innovation. I don’t understand why anyone would oppose it. What’s your ruling on this subject?

Turned on in Teaneck

Dear Turned on,

Your question is grounded in the common sense of our Western culture, which values convenience. You assume a more expedient option for living will be adopted quickly, and you ask me to give you a ruling that accommodates that assumption.

I’m not going to do that. I’ve said here in the past that I don’t aim to render decisions on Jewish law in this column. For that you will have to seek out a halachic columnist — an engineer of the Jewish tradition — who will provide you with a decision of law. Here I’ll offer you talmudic insights — some of the science on which our practices are based — and I’ll leave the application of that to others.

The Talmud offers many principles for defining work on Shabbat. Most of them are technical. Some are ethical. The Shabbat switch inventors claim to have created a device that avoids all the technical taboos and therefore allows the use of electricity on Shabbat. The inventors claim that by using their switch, a Jew will not perform forbidden labor on Shabbat.

So what then makes rabbis object to this easing of the taboos? Apparently some rabbis don’t accept the engineering claims. They believe that Shabbat work restrictions are violated when using the switch. Other authorities don’t find fault with the engineering of the switch. They object to changing the “sacred character” of the Shabbat and to easing the quasi-wilderness experience that the Shabbat rules help create.

Many people of all faiths enjoy recreation, when they can voluntarily go out camping and forgo the conveniences of modern life. Rabbis believe that a similar diminution of modernity defines a special nature of the holy day of rest. It harkens back and binds us to the time of yore, when the Israelites and ancient Jews had no electricity or other appurtenances and conveniences of innovation.

I like to go camping and I do value convenience. And I’m sorry but I won’t decide for you what to do in this case. Ask a rabbi who does the applied engineering of Jewish laws what they prefer that you do. And then I advise you to act according to your ethical imperatives.

Dear Rabbi,

This is not actually an advice question. I was wondering who you think was the greatest rabbi of our times?

Rating our Rabbis in Rockleigh

Dear Rating,

I’m glad you asked this. There are no objective criteria to determine who is the greatest, no elections, contests, playoffs, Super Bowls, or World Series of rabbis. It’s a highly subjective question and one that is based mostly on opinion.

I have several personal favorites among those rabbis who lived in recent years. I’ll tell you about one rabbi who just passed away, someone who made a great difference in my life.

I had the privilege of studying in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s Talmud shiur (class) at Yeshiva College for two years, beginning when I was 16 years old.

He was one of the finest teachers that I studied with in college — a genius as an educator and a sincere and compassionate human being. He is the person whom I chose to personify the quintessential scribe personality of prayer in my book “God’s Favorite Prayers.”

Rav Aharon was a special teacher who imbued me with indelible lessons that I have taken with me throughout my life.

Rav Aharon taught me that you could be both a humanist and a talmudic scholar, a lamdan. He clearly loved English literature, which he had studied at Harvard. He often and freely quoted poets John Milton and Edmund Spenser. He happily contrasted the ideas of the enlightenment with those of the Torah. But all the time it was clear to me that literature was his avocation and that learning Torah was his true vocation.

Rav Aharon also taught me that you could critically study and deeply love the lifestyle instructions — called the hashkafah — of the Torah. Each week, we read and discussed a chapter in Rabbi Elimelech Bar Shaul’s inspirational Hebrew treatise, Mitzvah Valev (Tel Aviv, 1956), which means the commandments and the heart. Through that work, Rav Aharon taught us that the cognitive understanding of a commandment had to be joined to the emotional commitment of one’s heart. His lessons had a profoundly powerful and positive impact on my faith.

Rav Aharon taught me that you could be a vitally creative pedagogue even in the most traditional subjects of learning. The college administration told him that he had to give us exams in Talmud, the main subject that he taught us. He used that as an opportunity to teach us more. He gave us thought-questions. Based on something we learned previously, he would ask us to resolve a new scenario. Or he would give us text-questions. He would have us examine a brand new text, related to some passage we had learned before, and then he asked us to parse it and to comment on it. We had to decide what commentary he had plucked the text from, tell him what the text meant, and then explain why we came to our conclusions. That was hard.

That is how Rav Aharon taught me that an exam could do more than ask a student to regurgitate what he had learned. The rabbi tested my knowledge and my thinking powers at the same time, and he was the only teacher I ever had who truly knew details of my personal styles of learning and of my own intellectual strengths and weaknesses. I happily confess that I used elements of Rav Aharon’s methodology of thought-questions and text-questions in many of the Talmud and Jewish studies courses that I taught over the years at the University of Minnesota, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and elsewhere.

After I went on to become a professor, I would take extended leaves to work on my research in Jerusalem. My family owns a Katamon-neighborhood apartment that we inherited from my grandparents, who moved to Israel from New York City in the 1950s. That is where I lived while in Jerusalem. In the mornings, I frequently would go to the Shacharit morning services at the shtiblach nearby.

The shtiblach was a veritable prayer mall, a busy set of connected, one-room prayer-halls in a modest neighborhood building. I would often see the saintly Rav Aharon at one of the services there. I would sit near him and thereby join him de facto at prayer. That would lift my spirits for the day.

Because Rav Aharon embodied the ideals of a primary archetype of praying, I considered him to be a remarkable model of prayer, of study, of teaching, and of Jewish living. For me, Rav Lichtenstein was the greatest rabbi of our times. He died on April 20.

Zecher zaddik levrachah.

Tzvee Zahavy received his PhD from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these Kindle Edition books available at Amazon.com:  "The  Book of Jewish Prayers in English," "Rashi: The Greatest Exegete," "God's Favorite Prayers" and "Dear Rabbi" – which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

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