Wednesday, 26 November 2008

3. Love of God

How do you know if you’re in love?
Old wisdom has it like this:

Is the person attractive?
If the person were not attractive…?
Okay. Good. Is the person wealthy?
If the person were not wealthy…?
Okay. Good. Is the person smart?
If the person were not smart…?
Okay. Good. Is the person kind?
If the person were not kind…?
Well…I guess…
Okay. Good. Is the person likable?
If the person were not likable…?
I mean…
If the person were not likable, would you still like the person?
I don’t know how to answer that.
If the person were not the person…?
If the person were not the person, would you still love the person?

When you can answer “Yes.” to this last question, you have found true love.


If God were not God, would you still love God?

W.B. Yeats, “For Anne Gregory”:
“Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

“But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.”

“I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

Does it then follow that only God (my dear) could love Himself properly? That Man is incapable of a love un-blinded by “yellow hair”?

Rambam’s definition of love (at least as it concerns God): “…to dwell upon and contemplate His Commandments, His injunctions, and His works, so that we may obtain a conception of Him, and in conceiving Him attain absolute joy” (Sefer HaMitzvot).

It is certainly one aspect of what we generally consider love: to focus the attention of our consciousness, to meander through dreams and memories, and, in so doing, to “attain absolute joy.”

But what about this love (E.A. Robinson, “Reuben Bright”):

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

Does love of God exclude such love? The kind of love that tears down slaughter-houses?

A moment, when meticulous construction collides with luck, and God is loved by you—such a moment can haunt a person when it’s gone, can’t it? A lost love—how can such a love be reclaimed? How does a person retain elevation even upon descending?

How often can we expect to achieve proper contemplation of God? How often, then, can we expect to love God? Unless love of God includes more than the joy of contemplation: includes also the torture of fading memories, waning resolve and a desperate heart; the love that fears, that doubts, that enrages and is enraged; the love that falters and retreats; the love that lives in idealized realms, unknown dimensions and unconquerable universes; a love that is indistinguishable from raindrop to split sea, from Sinai to tiny, tiny mountain.

We know that proper love is not beyond our grasp since we are commanded to love God. But it must be remembered that it is a command; it is not inevitable. Belief in God is a separate edict—logically, then, belief does not automatically result in love. Similarly, love does not depend on (or even necessarily lead to) belief. It is its own responsibility: we are obligated to love God. Rambam views this love as emanating from contemplation. Contemplation of what? “Great honey-coloured ramparts at your ear?” No. “His Commandments, His injunctions, and His works.” Nothing to do with God as Entity but with God as Creator—this is how we “obtain a conception of Him.” To love a person’s beauty is in fact to love God, the creator of the person. But to conceive of a person’s developed essence, cultivated qualities and effect on the world and, in so doing, to obtain a conception of the person and find joy in this conception—this is to love the person.

But this joy that is felt at the apex of conception is at once the most potent and most fleeting aspect of love. The command to love God cannot be reduced to this sensation, although it may be the loftiest manifestation of love. “It must be man’s aim, after having acquired the knowledge of God, to deliver himself up to Him, and to have his heart constantly filled with longing after Him” (Rambam, The Guide, 3:51). This longing, intermingled with moments of “absolute joy,” is love. Joy, we know, is achieved through contemplation; how is longing achieved? “He accomplishes this generally by seclusion and retirement. Every pious man should therefore seek retirement and seclusion, and should only in case of necessity associate with others.”

This love is quiet, isolated and private. It is not a proclamation—it does not involve singing or dancing in the streets; it is a lonely romance that exists in prayers and thoughts and silent devotion—from W. Blake, “Love’s Secret”:

Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind doth move
Silently, invisibly.

Contemplation of God will bring us joy, and all moments leading up to and away from this joy will bring us longing—this is love. It is carried close against the chest, hidden, proof that we are alone, that we are never alone.

I have found the dominant of my range and state —
Love, O my God, to call Thee Love and Love.
—G. M. Hopkins


micha said...

"If the person were not the person, would you still love the person?
"When you can answer 'Yes.' to this last question, you have found true love.
"If God were not God, would you still love God?"

I can't figure out what that means. It's one thing to love someone or Someone regardless of whether they would do this or that, or have this property or that one. But if they were an entirely different person, with a different essence?

Would I love my wife if she were our neighbor Jane Doe?

What does that mean?


Anonymous said...

Contemplation of God, the kind that brings joy, can only be achieved when man comes face to face with God or an earthly manifestation thereof...without these moments of meeting, could love exist? Could love of God be fostered solely through longing? Without being rekindled, how long could such a love last?

Chai Hecht said...

R' Micha: Thank you for the comment. You're right, of course. I meant this to be taken as largely sarcastic, a sort of reductio-ad-absurdum argument. The point is, there's a large gray area between "regardless of whether they would do this or that" and "an entirely different person, with a different essence." Reminiscent of, for example, a Sukkah: four walls is obviously a Sukkah, zero walls is obviously not a Sukkah, but where exactly is the point of change?

Chai Hecht said...

Anonymous: This question--to me, often The question--is as askable during the moments "when man comes face to face with God" as during moments of longing. This is the heartbreak that creeps somehow into even the most devout prayer, even the most present love. Memories and dreams act as allies when the only inspiration to be found is somewhere in the past. But memories and dreams can fail, delude, and idealize. When joy through contemplation--as you rightly call "moments of meeting"--is unattainable, what can we do? How can we be expected to stand beside that which is not beside us?

Still, doesn't there seem to be too much true in longing to place it categorically at the mercy of its apparent reliability in respect to the endpoint?