This week’s Torah reading of Va’etḥanan contains the first paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer, which includes the verse, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”—a commandment hard to reconcile with the modern notion of love as an uncontrollable feeling. Drawing from his recent book, The Love of God, Jon D. Levenson notes several ancient Near Eastern treaties requiring a vassal to love his king, or even a king to love his vassal, and suggests that the earliest readers of this passage might have found such an obligation much easier to accept. But he also cautions against pushing this reading too far:
Remember the rhetorical situation [of this passage]: Deuteronomy claims to be confronting a stiff-necked and inveterately rebellious people with the need to reenter and renew covenant (9:7, 24, 13; 31:27). . . . [The text] must elicit in [its] hearers the motivation to make a profound change. . . . Emphasizing God’s love for Israel and Israel’s correlative (but sadly neglected) obligation to love God makes perfect sense in this context.
Levenson further points out that later on in the same Torah reading, when speaking of God’s love for His people, the text uses not the generic term for love but ḥashak, to “set one’s heart upon,” a word which often carries a plainly erotic connotation:
[To judge from the use of this verb it seems clear that], along with the obligations of a covenantal suzerain, God’s love for Israel has a passionate character analogous to human sexual eros.
The chosenness of Israel appears in a different light when it is viewed as the result of such passion on God’s part. Usually, the issue is put into a framework of justice, with . . . detractors arguing that the choice [of Israel] was and is unfair, an act of injustice toward the unchosen. But love does not map so easily onto justice.
The fact that you love your husband or wife in a very special sense does not imply an injustice toward other men and women. Nor does it imply that, by objective criteria, those other individuals do not surpass your beloved in various respects. It implies, rather, that the two of you have a unique personal bond that resists universalization and rationalization.