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Does God love us?

Image by Noah Lubin

Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

Does God love you? That sounds like a question that Texas televangelist Joel Osteen would shout out to his megachurch. It doesn’t ring in the ears as a particularly Jewish query.

But the idea that God is a loving God is in our tradition, loud and clear, even if it’s not heard in the vernacular of most synagogue homilies or congregational newsletters.

I’d wager that the concept of God’s love in Judaism is not crystal clear to most Jews — what divine “love” means according to our texts and ancient teachers, how we should feel God’s love if we don’t.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in Manhattan — and the congregation where I was privileged to be president from 2015 to 2018 — wanted to tackle this question. I had hesitated before including Rabbi Buchdahl in this series,“Still Small Voice: 18 Questions about God,” because it’s daunting to try to encapsulate the theology of one’s own rabbi.

I also admit that I have little journalistic distance when it comes to Angela (which is what I call her after 15 years of being in each other’s lives), because in so many stirring, specific, private ways, she is responsible for my finally finding my Jewish home.

Though it risks hyperbole, I know many other Central members will agree that Angela, who is 48, helps us feel God’s love — when she’s on the pulpit, in the classroom, under the chuppah and at every shiva. It’s hard not to feel God’s presence when she’s singing (she’s also an ordained, revered cantor) or when she’s walking any of us through a difficult time.

That doesn’t make God’s love a simple idea. It just makes it accessible as a real possibility when it might otherwise have felt remote.

Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews with other rabbis in our series, Still Small Voice: 18 questions about God, click here.


‘I just felt that God loved me and I loved God back’

Abigail Pogrebin: Why did this question — does God love us? — speak to you?

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: I guess because my experience of a relationship with God is as a loving God. And when I think about the most powerful idea about belief or faith, it’s this idea that we are unconditionally loved by God.

AP: How is God’s love unconditional?

AB: Because we are all children of God, without having to earn it. Without having to create or do anything, just by virtue of God having helped create us, there’s a sense of investment, that we are just loved.

I will acknowledge that you can find places in the Torah where God’s love feels conditional — where God essentially says, “Do this, and then you will be blessed,” or, “If you don’t do this, you will be cursed.” But even that is, I think, an explanation of actions and consequences more than it is that ultimately God does or doesn’t love us.

AP: Where in the Bible do we see God’s love described explicitly?

AB: Maybe most powerfully in the Song of Songs in Ketuvim (Writings). In some ways, it is ridiculous that it made it into our canon because it reads like love poetry from an erotic relationship. But our rabbis called it the Holy of Holies of the entire Hebrew Bible because they saw this text as the greatest descriptor of our relationship — Israel’s relationship — with God: one of love, even romantic love.

AP: You just reminded me that the covenant at Sinai is sometimes described using wedding language.

AB: Right. Our brit, our covenant with God, is, in a sense, like a ketubah [marriage contract]. And there’s even language in Hosea (in Prophets) — “v’erastich li “— which echoes marriage between us and God: “I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice and in loving kindness.” (Hosea 2:21)

Those same words are said when you wrap the tefillin around your middle finger three times; you’re literally putting a triple wedding ring on your finger when you recite it.



Jewish theology is a complicated animal — leading Jewish thinkers can have totally different takes. Listen to Forward contributor Abigail Pogrebin discuss the complexities of God with Yehuda Kurtzer on his podcast {here}(https://open.spotify.com/show/2hqwE9vn7TWsAryUYoFJTk).



AP: Are you personally comfortable with the language of a “loving God”?

AB: Yes. From a very young age, I just felt that God loved me and I loved God back. I know that sounds very strange, but I was in relationship — a kind of constant dialogue — with God. I looked up at the sky and felt as if God made all these beautiful things so that I could enjoy them; I knew they weren’t just for me, but I also felt a little bit that they were created for me, as if that’s just one of the ways that God loves me.

I had very loving parents and that undoubtedly helped shape my feelings about a loving God. My mother was very spiritual, even though she had a very different vocabulary since she wasn’t Jewish. She helped me feel what was magical and transcendent in the world around me.

On my own, I started a daily prayer practice every night before I went to bed. That was my way of checking in with God every night. While I did not actually believe, if you pressed me, that God watched over me or my sister, parents or grandmother in a direct way, even as a little kid I understood that part of what I was doing was maybe accessing whatever was divine within me.

I really did believe that there’s a little spark — we’re all created in God’s image — and this nightly prayer was a chance to ask God to protect the people I loved.

AP: That’s not every youngster’s path — to create a prayer practice unprompted.

AB: I know it sounds kind of crazy. No one told me I had to pray at night before I went to bed. I just felt like, “I want to call God now.”


‘That’s how you know that we love you’

AP: Let’s go to the texts you chose to focus on — the two prayers that sandwich the Shema.

AB: The Shema prayer is surrounded by love. Before we say the Shema (our core avowal of faith), we recite Ahavat Olam(eternal love) or Ahava Rabba (great love) — a kind of revelation prayer. And then right after the Shema is the V’ahavta prayer (and you shall love).

In general terms, I would say the Ahavat Olam describes the way God loves us, and the V’ahavta prayer describes the way we love God back.

And what’s interesting is to look at the text of Ahavat Olam, and see what it says God gave us in love. “How great is your love? You love us by…” and the list follows. You might predict it would enumerate gifts like, “You gave us the world, creation, our life,” etc. Right? No. How does God love us? By giving us Torah, commandments, laws.

That’s not the first thing you would imagine: “God, You love us so much, you gave us rules.” But that’s essentially what it says. And I think it’s incredibly powerful.

AP: Rules are love?

AB: When I think about the people who love me the most in the world — my parents, they gave me life, food, a beautiful home to sleep in. But what they really gave me was guideposts.

They essentially said, “Here are the laws that can make you the most elevated human being you can be. This is how you are going to realize your potential. Here are the rules so that you actually treat people the best possible way.” That is what people who love you the most do.

AP: I don’t want to take the parent/child metaphor too far, but don’t kids have to love parents back for this to work in the long run? Or at least feel reciprocal respect so the laws aren’t just obligatory.

AB: Exactly — that’s the brit. It has to be covenantal and mutual in that sense. That is exactly what the V’ahavta is about. Right after the Shema, what does the liturgy say? “Well God, WE love YOU back.

“How great is our love for you? What are we going to do to show it or prove it? We’re going to teach your laws to our children. We’re going to talk about your laws when we wake up, when we go to sleep, on the way; we’re going to write them on our doorpost, inscribe them on our heart and head.

We’re going to do all of these things and pass them onto the next generation, God. That’s how you know that we love you.”


‘Our tradition values action more’

AP: What do these two prayers say about love in Judaism?

AB: Neither of these prayers is about a feeling. Both are about action — loving, direct actions that we take. “Loving” is a verb here in the Torah. “V’ahavta” is in the command form: “you shall love.” Which is kind of an amazing thing — because how can you command a feeling? Well, you can command the loving action.

I think too often we think of love as this ephemeral emotion, but our tradition values action more.

AP: How does this love extend beyond people we know — to loving our neighbor or the stranger?

AB: Again, it’s not a command to love your neighbors with an emotional feeling. It’s more direct in terms of how you should then act towards them. Are you treating them the way they would want to be treated, not doing what is hateful to them?

AP: Why does God love us? Why are we worthy of that love, or why does God have that disposition to love us? Is that chiefly because God created us? What’s the driver?

AB: Well this betrays my own view of humanity, but I think we’re pretty lovable. I think human beings are capable of such beautiful acts of courage, joyfulness, creativity, resilience and strength. I’m constantly amazed by what human beings can do. But I don’t think that’s the reason God loves us.

God loves us because you just love your creation. That’s how we’re built. Think about how you feel about your children. When they were first born, they didn’t have to do a thing; you just felt overwhelming investment and attachment. I think that God is invested in us in that way.


‘We are chosen for a particular mission’

AP: I can hear skeptics saying that these days, humanity is not exactly emulating God’s love for each other.

AB: It’s true; the way people are treating each other right now is not loving. And I don’t mean the way they feel, although I see there’s a lot of venom and suspicion of people who think differently, but I’m talking about the actions people are doing — canceling each other, ascribing the worst intentions to people.

That, to me, is the opposite of love. There is a sense in my mind of a model that God gives — for love — which we should be emulating. We should be asking, ‘What are loving actions?’



The High Holidays are upon us — and for many, that comes with meaty theological questions. Join us to talk to leading Jewish thinkers about their views on God as part of our Still Small Voice series. Register for the October 1 talk here.



AP: Finally, since you and I are talking soon after the summer’s racial reckoning, I want to venture into tricky territory and talk about God’s love when it comes to Jews of color.

I know you identify as a Jew of color yourself and have said publicly that the Jewish community has lagged in our embrace of those among us who are of mixed race, adopted, or converted. Do you think the rebuff that some Jews of color experience translates to feeling that God might love some Jews more than others?

AB: I think when you have a concept, as Judaism does, of a chosen people that has some special relationship, as a tribe, with God, then if you don’t feel fully part of that peoplehood — perhaps because you have one parent who’s not Jewish, or because you were adopted or converted in — if you don’t feel secure in terms of being 100% a part of “The People,” you can question whether or not you are loved by God in the way The Chosen People, or the Am Segula, the Treasured People — are loved.

My understanding of “chosen people” is that we are chosen for a particular mission, not chosen to be better, but chosen to be the exemplified other and stranger.

And if you choose to be Jewish and tie yourself to that mission, how much more do you understand it — what it is to be the one who is the stranger, the spurned — than one who has experienced that personally? So I think that what Jews of Color bring is vitally important to this conversation.

AP: Are you comfortable sharing if there were times you personally felt less loved by the Jewish community, if not by God?

AB: Sure. I would say that in those moments when I felt completely rejected by the Jewish community, there were a few people — rabbis and teachers — who felt like God’s angels along the way. And had they not embraced me, accepted me, in specific instances when I felt discounted, I’m not sure I could have stayed in it.

I remember I was in a particularly hard place while I was still in college, and I went on a walk with an Orthodox rabbi and just asked him plainly, “Do you think I’m a Jew?” And he explained why his answer was 100% yes and then said, “Angela, don’t ever doubt it.”

It felt so important —to have this Orthodox, male rabbi, whom I thought was the most learned and charismatic teacher I’d met up until that point, affirm my Jewishness. So to all those dismissive people in my college Hillel who were rejecting me, I wanted to say, “Well, guess what? This wise rabbi thinks I’m a Jew.”

And another rabbi I met a conference when I was 21 — I asked him about conversion and patrilineal descent, and it was the conversation that enabled me to feel ready to have a conversion.

I had rejected the idea for years, feeling like it would be a cop-out and would negate all of my Jewish life before, but it was the moment when he said, “We see this rite of passage as the highest affirmation of your Jewishness. Conversion is a Christian term; it sounds like you’re converting from something you were to something completely different. But Jews have always seen this as affirming the Jewish soul that you always had in you.”

Suddenly, when he said that, I felt, “Yes. I’m just affirming the Jewish soul I always had.” It’s not about saying that in the 21 years of my life before that, I was not really a Jew. And when he helped frame that for me — thank God for that.

So there have been people who expressed God’s love and God’s acceptance into this peoplehood in a way that enabled me to be here and become a Jewish leader. It made all the difference.

Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter, @apogrebin. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl is senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in Manhattan.


Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the previous interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.


Does God love us?

Author

Abigail Pogrebin

Abigail Pogrebin

Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.

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