Rabbi Jonathan Sacks raised an interesting question when in conversation with the philosopher David Brooks on a BBC series about moral challenges of the 21st century. How can we reconcile the legal, halakhic content of much of the book of Devarim with the passionate declaration of love by God for the Jewish people and the love that is required from the Jewish people by God? How do love and rules go together?
Sacks and Brooks agreed that love needs restraints. Brooks said that ‘My favourite definition of commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behaviour around it for the moment when love falters’. So, I think really saying that you can’t get love without working at it. A bit like playing the piano – if you want to really enjoy and love playing the piano, you have to learn the techniques and practise every day.
Judaism is an attempt to build a society of goodness. A society of justice, compassion, respect for human dignity and the sanctity of human life. And at the core of it is love. We hear this in the famous words from the Shema in this week’s sedra: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). But not so easy for everyone to do! Maimonides understands the struggle and suggests knowledge comes before love. His idea is that the degree of love of God is equated with the degree of knowledge of God ‘according to the knowledge will be the love’ (Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, Book I, p.85). In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides presents us with a systematic codification of Rabbinic Law and in the Guide of the Perplexed with the philosophic interpretation of Scripture. Two distinctly different ways of knowing and ultimately loving God. The particular represented by the rules of the Mishneh Torah and the universal represented by the deep search for spirituality in the Guide of the Perplexed. Perhaps we need a bit of both. Getting out and about and seeing the awe-inspiring beauty of our universe, valuing community, friendship and positive action in the world. And at the same time a few rules – Shabbat at the end of each week, festivals with their specific customs and rituals, kashrut, regular prayer. A framework that awakens and keeps love alive.