Is it possible to love an abstraction? To love the idea of someone or something? I don’t think so. An abstract idea may be compelling or attractive, but a powerful emotion such as love requires both immediacy and reciprocity. Each of those conditions can be qualified; you can love someone who is not currently close by, but to love a person whom you have never encountered seems unlikely. Reciprocity? Yes, we love babies even if it is unclear what they are feeling at the tender start of life. In such moments our protective instincts and imagination of the future allow us to feel love even before the infant has learned to differentiate between self and other. Perhaps it is that very phenomenon of undifferentiated existence which allows such powerful bonds to form immediately. And yes, we may love another even when they upset us and don’t show their love in return. But here too I think that there is an assumption of reciprocity at some point, even if the love may be asymmetrical for now.
We talk quite a bit about love in our liturgy—you shall love the Lord your God; You have shown us great love—but for many people the relationship with God remains abstract, and this love language feels insincere. God seems to be neither immediate nor responsive to our affection. In fact, insistence on “love” as the central liturgical emotion is part of the problem that so many people experience with our prayer. The emotional expectations are so exalted, and yet the emotional reality of prayer for many people is so limited, that a disbelief creeps into the soul, even if they consider public worship to be a generally positive experience. Some people can express love of God without any reservation, singing about their love in a trance-like state, repeating the words until doubt recedes and something like “complete faith” (Emunah sh’leimah) can take root. That is fantastic, but it simply doesn’t work for many people, and it may even alienate those who feel unable or unwilling to relate to God as a lover. Continue reading