Judaism Is About Love: Recov­er­ing the Heart of Jew­ish Life

  • Review
By – March 25, 2024

In his much antic­i­pat­ed release, Judaism Is About Love, Shai Held explores the ways that love plays out in Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy. As the rab­bi explains in his intro­duc­tion, the cen­tral­i­ty of love often feels to many Jews like a Chris­t­ian con­cept. How­ev­er, this can­not be fur­ther from the truth. With eru­di­tion and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, Held unpacks the many man­i­fes­ta­tions of love in Judaism, from God’s love for us, to humanity’s atti­tude toward God, to the impor­tance of lov­ing our neigh­bor and the stranger. 

Through­out the Jew­ish world, Held is known for his abil­i­ty to approach a giv­en top­ic and seam­less­ly nav­i­gate between the head and the heart. Judaism Is About Love is a mas­ter class in nego­ti­at­ing these two aims. Read­ers will leave the book with both an appre­ci­a­tion for the place of love in Judaism and a yearn­ing to grow as a Jew.

Held con­veys a true com­mand of his source mate­r­i­al. He is as at home with the Jew­ish book­shelf — the Bible and its accom­pa­ny­ing schol­ar­ship, rab­binic lit­er­a­ture, and Hasidic com­men­taries — as he is with sec­u­lar philoso­phers and psy­chol­o­gists old and new. Yet despite the book’s eru­di­tion, it remains emi­nent­ly read­able and acces­si­ble. Held accom­plish­es this by includ­ing many pages of end­notes, which demon­strate his schol­ar­ly prowess with­out over­whelm­ing read­ers with his abun­dance of research. 

Of course, Held is no detached schol­ar. On every page, he con­veys a deep, per­son­al reli­gios­i­ty. He doesn’t just write about God, for whom his love is pal­pa­ble. He also express­es his love for the Jew­ish peo­ple and human­i­ty. Held under­stands his read­ers — their yearn­ings, fears, hangups, and ques­tions. Those who have stud­ied with him will note that he brings the same authen­tic­i­ty and human­i­ty he shows in the class­room to every sentence. 

Held doesn’t shy away from hard top­ics. The book has a lengthy sec­tion on the nuances of cho­sen­ness, on com­par­ing Jew­ish con­cep­tions of love to Chris­t­ian ones, and on the com­pli­cat­ed need to love our ene­mies. For Held, Judaism’s many inter­ac­tions with and dis­cus­sions of love are any­thing but sim­ple. He believes love strad­dles both the emo­tion­al and the action­able; and thus, love is less a feel­ing than a world­view, an atti­tude for living.

In a book about love, per­haps the deep­est love of all is Held’s pas­sion for his sub­ject mat­ter. He has no qualms about call­ing a text breath­tak­ing” or auda­cious.” And the read­er will feel the same way about Held’s work as a whole. Few recent books of the­ol­o­gy will leave read­ers feel­ing as knowl­edge­able, inspired, or moved as Judaism Is About Love. 

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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