November 28, 2014 admin

God is love?

Good questions are always more challenging than the answers. Once at Limmud, (I’m a great fan and haven’t missed a conference for twenty years) I was asked: “what’s the difference between the statements ‘God is love’ and, simply, ‘God is’”? The questioner was not being facetious, clever, or merely curious; she meant it. The question has stayed with me ever since.  

Over the years I’ve sometimes thought that the two sentences were really the same. Don’t say ‘God’s mercies extend to the bird’s nest’, the Talmud instructs us; don’t use labels like ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ about God. Otherwise, what will you do when you see something cruel? God just is. No adjectives.   

But the question has come back to me yet again, in a week which has taken from cemetery to house of mourning, to wedding feast, then to hospitals, painful anniversaries, and back to the house of mourning. Is God, does God, love?

Yes. Sometimes it’s almost palpable. One knows it in the way that young woman looks at the man she loves as she walks seven times round him beneath the marriage canopy, in how he puts his hand on her shoulder, lightly, for just a moment. One feels it how this mother weeps for her child while, side by side in her heart as if they were both yesterday, stand the moment when she brought him home, a tiny baby, to their house, and the hour they carried him away, all covered up. One senses it in the way the woman says ‘I miss him so terribly much’ and weeps, and someone puts her arm around her, and in that gesture is all the courage and helplessness of compassion. Then you go outside and the sun is shining and someone says ‘It’s a beautiful day’ and there’s a kind of consolation in the way the light falls across the autumn leaves.

Sometimes one thinks to oneself: where does it come from, that love which flows through the human heart and gives such power to tenderness and passion, which fosters such companionship and devotion, which attunes the heart with such acuity to wonder and to beauty, and which sometimes bleeds into the great emptiness of grief? Is that not the very spirit and force of God in us, what Dante recognised when, at the end of his long journey through hell and heaven, he breathed once more the ordinary air and stood outside beneath the sky and felt again power of ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’. Love moves everything. God, if God is at all, must surely be this ceaseless, unfathomable vitality of love which animates all being.

No. It’s not possible to say ‘God is love’. We are not entitled to ignore life’s cruelty and injustice. The disease which killed her, the earth into which we laid her, the sorrows which now ensue,- these too, if one believes in God, must be part of God’s doing. God permits such things too to be, together with war, hunger and disasters. God isn’t loving. God isn’t even in any obvious and apparent way good. The best one can do, if one dares say anything at all, is simply to leave it at ‘God is’. No attributes. God is the entire and incomprehensible energy within the unfolding of all processes, both those we experience as constructive and creative and those which destroy and kill. God meimit umechayeh, God brings death, as well as life. God is, and leave it at that.

Yes; no. Yes, God is love. No, God simply is.

The truth of the one statement does not negate the truth of the other.

Human life is stretched between them like a polar bear with its front paws on one ice flow and its rear paws on another and the currents of a mighty ocean driving the freezing water between. Can we manage to reach across? Can we turn what is, however harsh, into something better and kinder, into love? If God is in the courage and goodness which drives so many people to use their lives to do precisely that, to try to transform suffering and cruelty into compassion and understanding, then perhaps God is love after all.

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