A love story: God and the People of Israel

Rabbi Lane Steinger

BY RABBI LANE STEINGER

In the history of the world and in world literature, there have been many famous couples and lovers: Antony and Cleopatra, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (for whom he built the Taj Mahal), Lancelot and Guinevere, Napoleon and Josephine, Orpheus and Eurydice, Romeo and Juliet and Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, to name just a few. Whether fact or fiction, their trysts and their tales have stirred many a heart and fired many an imagination. To this list, I add God and the People Israel. As our Torah Portion this week, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), makes clear, the saga of the Eternal and the People Israel is more than anything else, a love story.

Va’etchanan contains some of the best known and most sublime sections of scripture. A version of the Ten Commandments is here (Deuteronomy 5:6-18), as is the Shema (6:4). In the context of the latter, the People Israel is exhorted to love God: “V’ahavta et-Adonay eloheha/You shall love the Eternal your God” (6:5). In the next chapter, the divine declaration of love for Israel is explicitly expounded: 

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It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Eternal set God’s heart on you and chose you-indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Eternal loves you and keeps the oath sworn to your ancestors that the Eternal freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage. (7:7-8.)

Although the relationship was sometimes stormy and often passionate, the notion that God and the People Israel lovingly “chose” one another recurs in Jewish tradition. The prophet Hosea saw in his own troubled marriage to his wife Gomer a metaphor for the bond between the Holy One and Am Yisrael. Our Rabbinic Sages likened the Covenant to matrimony with the chuppah taking place at Sinai and the Torah serving as the Ketubah. One of my professors in rabbinical school, Dr. Jakob Petuchowski (may he rest in peace) wrote in “Ever Since Sinai” that, “Jewish literature, beginning with the Bible itself, is full of ‘love letters’ which the partners to this particular union have addressed to each other.”

However, the idea of “chosenness”- sometimes called the Election of Israel – has become uncomfortable for many modern Jews. Nearly a century ago, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (of blessed memory), the founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, understood but could not accept the concept of chosenness. He wrote in “Judaism as a Civilization”:

As a psychological defense to counteract the humiliation to which the Jewish people was subjected, the doctrine of “election” had its value. As an expression of the sense of spiritual achievement in the past, it had some justification in fact. But nowadays, when only present achievement tends to satisfy the human spirit, the doctrine of Israel’s election, in its traditional sense, cannot be expected to make the slightest difference in the behavior or outlook of the Jew. From an ethical standpoint, it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of race or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred…There are so many other ways of developing self-respect – ways that look to the future instead of the past…that there is no need of inviting the undesirable consequences of belief in the superiority of one’s people, whichever people that be.

So strong has Kaplan’s influence been in this matter that most Reconstructionists have altered some traditional prayers to reflect his thinking. For example, “ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim/For You have chosen us and consecrated us from among all the peoples” of the Shabbat Kiddush has become “ki eleynu karata v’otanu kidashta la’avodatecha/For you have called us and consecrated us to your service,” and in the blessing before the reading of the Torah “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim/who chose us from among all the peoples” has been rendered “asher kervanu la’avodato/who drew us near to divine service.”

Intellectually, I concur both with Kaplan’s teachings about the ethically problematic nature of chosenness and with the Reconstructionist movement’s emendations to Jewish liturgy. Emotionally, I must confess that sometimes I miss the romanticism of the love story so evident in this week’s Sidrah. Religion and spirituality are affairs both of the mind and of the heart. Perhaps it is best for me to read this Parashah and this love story as a paradigm of hope for the future: all people and all peoples who lead worthy lives are loved by God.

Parashat Va’etchanan

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.