Consider and Converse: A Guide to Ahava

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to‘Ahava’—‘Love’

Introduction

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of “ahava”“love.” The issue explores the various ways we love in Judaism — loving God, loving others, loving the stranger, loving the Jewish people (ahavat ha’am), and loving Israel (ahavat Yisrael). The perspectives shared in these pages are meant to be expansive — to inspire reflections on Judaism and possibility in ways you may not have considered before. They aim to hold discord. We hope that the richness and diversity of these essays will show you new perspectives that are personally meaningful and edifying.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Joanna Samuels introduces readers to some of the ritual source material on “ahava” — “love.” Joanna explains the Torah’s three commands to love — to love God, to love our fellow humans as ourselves, and to love the stranger — and then she focuses on the third command: to love the stranger. She asks: “What behaviors demonstrate this love and how are they actualized and reinforced by communal norms?” Loving the stranger demands a radical empathy for those “thrust into the vulnerable circumstance we have known.” She complicates this by stating, “Loving the stranger on the basis of our shared understanding of estrangement returns us to a remembered version of our own vulnerability and displacement. But what have we done for the stranger with this love?” And she asks: “What are the needs of the stranger, such that our love is a salve?” What is the difference between loving the stranger because of our own Jewish experiences of being strangers, and loving the stranger because of their position of need? How does this way of responding to the stranger in need activate us?

  • Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld reflects on her own personal history of ahavat Yisrael, love for Israel. She grew up with a classic Zionist narrative. Over decades of study and travel in Israel, she “has been drawn not to the perfection of heavenly Jerusalem, but to the vitality of earthly Jerusalem — to the messy over the messianic.” What captured her imagination “was not the promise of redemption, but the drama of human connection and aspiration.” Later, she writes, “Our love cannot be built on a brittle branch that will break the minute it encounters the reality of a complex country that is both beautiful and burdened by trauma and pain. Our relationship must be more supple and subtle than that.” How does one love across a divide, amid messiness? How does the love of Israel resemble the love of one’s partner, drawing on imagery in the Song of Songs? How does one act out love or keep the idea of love going when day to day life is so fraught? What re-stokes the fire of love when it is on a low simmer? In what ways is the idea of “covenant” crucial to our love for Israel?

  • Adam Weisberg jumps into the challenges of loving the Jewish people, ahavat ha’am. He writes: “Loving anyone is a task. Even the love that comes naturally — for our children and parents — is fraught. And the love we feel for our partners is even more complicated. So, is it possible to love a people? The notion of loving the whole Jewish people, ahavat ha’am, seems more aspirational than practical. Most of us have loved the idea of our people much more than its actuality.” Is it possible to love a “people”? How do you understand Jewish peoplehood, and does the idea of the Jewish people change as the world becomes more globalized? How so? Is loving the Jewish people an abstraction — or a real possibility?

Reflective Questionscan help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Lee Moore writes about the connection between love and fear. She draws on the teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, who writes in the Tanya (an 18th-century collection of Hasidic writings), about love as a method of merger with the divine.Our fear about love is grounded
in a fear of our being disconnected and alienated. He suggests a practice that “every moment throughout the day, whenever we remember to, we might try to merge our soul with that unity.” Moore writes that “the irony — and often tragedy — of love is that when pulled toward merger, we inevitably sense an intense fear of separation, or a fear of the loss of the self. If we don’t address those fears and anxieties, they thwart our attempts to love, to get closer” to others and to God. Has this been your experience of love? How do you understand the difference between merging with another and remaining one’s own self in the practice of love? How do you understand love as a way to seek closeness with God?

  • In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore ne of the most evocative lines from Shir HaShirim: “Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it.” (Song of Songs 8:7) Our commentators reflect on the changing nature of love — what endures and what dies over time. Melila Hellner-Eshed writes that she is grateful that Judaism provides a passionate lexicon with which to explore her relationship with God, and to know and feel fully that love will endure. “Love is an inner constant flame, a ner tamid, at the heart of existence and of religious experience,” she writes. “And although the waters of time will come and go in a stormy or peaceful manner, the presence of love will prevail.” Andrew Ramer, writing in his 60s, reflects that the language he uses for loving God “isn’t a dart of fire, a ner tamid, or even the flickering flame of a single candle on my meditation altar. Age has brought a constancy to me of presence, of godness… My love in and with God is liquid: a bubbling spring, a brook flowing softly over mossy rocks in a forest of old growth trees. Not a Ground of Being, but an Ocean of Being, a oneness that shifts, changes, and enlivens the me who is, while still alive, mostly water myself.” How does love change over time — both in relationships with others and in your spiritual seeking of God? What are your favorite metaphors for love, and how do they serve your understanding of this timeless passion?

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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