And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and law, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from all peoples, as is now the case….Love, therefore, the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His laws, His rules, and His commandments. (Deuteronomy 10:12-15; 11:1)
My freshman year in college, I had a very kind and bright instructor for the required course on the great books of Western civilization. Try as I might, however, I could not get him off the theme that he had clearly been taught as a Protestant Christian from early childhood – that the Old Testament, as he called it, is concerned with law and justice, while the New Testament is pervaded with love.
We Jews who live in a predominantly Christian country are not immune to that view, almost by osmosis. There are several reasons for this. First, it is indeed the case that the Torah and the later Jewish tradition prescribe many laws that we are supposed to obey, and it depicts God as enforcing those laws, sometimes with gruesome punishments. Christians and Jews need to remember, however, that the New Testament and some of its prime Christian interpreters over the ages assert that anyone who does not accept Jesus as Christ is damned to hell – hardly a tradition that is purely loving and not at all punitive!
Second, we Jews flinch when Christians tell us that God so loved us that he sent His only begotten Son to redeem us from our sins, and so God forgives us for our sins even before we commit them – and we should do likewise with those who sin against us. Jews somehow know in their gut that that is not right, that there is a place for forgiveness when people who have done wrong have done everything they can to make amends, but only then is forgiveness warranted, for ultimately we are responsible for what we do. In fact, this is so engrained in us that we feel distinctly uncomfortable when a rabbi says that for Judaism too, God loves us.
And yet, in the passage quoted above and in many other places in the Torah, God does indeed love us. As this passage explains, however, God loves us not by forgiving our sins ahead of time and without doing anything to warrant that forgiveness, but by giving us laws to live by "for your good."
In many ways, this is similar to the parent-child relationship. Children who are not given reasonable rules that are reasonably enforced do not see their freedom as a good thing. They see this lack of rules instead as neglect, that their parents do not care enough to make sure that they know how to behave. Anyone who is or has been a parent knows that this untutored feeling on the part of children is exactly right, for it takes considerable time, energy, and commitment – love – to set reasonable rules for your children and to know when and how to make them stick.
This does not, I hasten to add, justify child abuse. Enforcement must be fair, proportional, and instructive, not just an assertion of parental power in ways that harm the child rather than benefit him or her. The enforcement as well as the rules must be, as Deuteronomy, "for your good."
Love goes in the other direction as well, as this passage also tells us. Yes, we may sometimes obey God’s rules because we revere – a Hebrew root that may instead mean fear – God, for after all, the Torah is replete with passages warning us that God will punish us if we disobey. At some times, the same is true for children, who do what they are supposed to do, or avoid what they are not supposed to do, for fear of being punished by their parents.
What this passage says, however, is that that is a less good motivation than love. It is much better if we obey God – and if children obey their parents – because they love them.
Why is that so? First, there is a practical reason. It is much more likely that you will obey God continuously if you love God than if you fear God, for if the latter is your motivation, you will disobey God whenever you think you can get away with it.
More importantly, though, love is better than fear as a motivation to obey God because then your obedience can be moral. It is no longer just a matter of "Might makes right." Instead, I obey God because I believe in what God stands for and trust God to love me enough to give me good guidance, "for your good."
So yes, God loves us, not by forgiving our sins before we even commit them, but by giving us good laws to live by. Conversely, we should love God and use that as the primary reason to obey the laws.
This tenet of Judaism is beautifully expressed in the paragraph before the Shema in the daily morning and evening services. I will cite here the version in the evening, only because it is shorter:
With everlasting love You have loved Your people Israel, teaching us Torah and commandments, statutes and laws. Therefore, Lord our God, when we lie down to sleep and when we rise, we shall think of Your laws and speak of them, rejoicing in Your Torah and commandments always. For they are our life and the length of our days; we will meditate on them day and night. Never take away Your love from us. Praised are You, Lord, who loves His people Israel.