Father Constantine Lazarakis of the Greek Orthodox Congregation, and Jewish Center of the Hamptons Rabbi Josh Franklin discuss the topic of relational love from a spiritual perspective.
Rabbi Josh Franklin
While the Greek language offers a plethora of words for love, each distinguishing the many kinds of relational love in our lives, Hebrew offers us a much less generous vocabulary for describing love. The most general word within Hebrew is “ahavah,” which is a love that can be romantic, relational with God, between a person and a stranger, or simply imply a deep friendship. The other word used in Hebrew for love is “chesed,” which might be defined as an outpouring of unearned love for others through deed. Christianity might describe this as “grace,” but Judaism lends us the word “chesed.” Chesed isn’t a feeling, it’s an expression of love through how we treat others.
Rabbi Abraham Yachnes clarifies the extent to which the quality of chesed rises above a simple act of kindness. If you are walking down the street and someone is walking beside you carrying a large box, and you offer to help the person carry the box, that’s not chesed. You’d simply be a terrible person not to help someone in that situation. What counts as chesed is when you are walking the opposite way from someone carrying a burden, and you turn around to help carry that load in the direction he or she is going. Chesed requires self-sacrifice, and is never convenient or easy.
In Psalms we read “the world was built with chesed” (Psalm 89:2), reminding us that one of the building blocks of humanity and the world in which we live, is the expression of this kind of love. A story is told in rabbinic literature in which in Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua are walking in Jerusalem, and see the Temple in ruins. Rabbi Yehoshua asks the existential question: “How can we ever worship God now that the Temple is destroyed?” Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai responds, “Do not fear, we have another form of worshipping God that’s just as effective, chesed!” The best avenue to express love to God is through another human being. When we elevate our interactions with others to a place of chesed, we are best able to connect with God. Moreover, chesed doesn’t just improve our relationships, it fosters community, and repairs the brokenness within our world.
Father Constantine Lazarakis
Ah … love! Teenagers pine for it. Parents spoil children because we “love” them. Corporations appeal to our longing for love to sell everything from Subarus to deodorant sticks. We profess our love for pizza, pop-stars and puppies. Love is behind much of what we do and believe, yet we have an impoverished understanding of love. Love is the supreme human experience, transcendent and transformative. But much of what we call love is baser and more egocentric than the real thing, while often true love evades us because we lack the patience, gratitude or the sensitivity to know it when we see it.
The ancient Greeks understood the critically important nuances of various human experiences that feel like love, and so their vocabulary on the subject was more varied than ours. The early Greek thinkers had several words for love — some count five, and others count up to eight. These range from the lofty forms of love like Agape (unconditional/divine love) to the more self-centered forms such as philautia (love for one’s self).
Love is the central theme of Christian scripture. I believe love is the impetus underlying all of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Love (or some type of it, at least) is the motivating factor behind cultural trends that have shaped and continue to shape civilizations. Misunderstanding love or prioritizing the wrong kind leads to disastrous outcomes for individuals, relationships and communities. St. Paul identified unconditional love as the highest form of love. Seeing as love is our deepest longing, and the justification for so much of what we do. It would do us all some good to think deeply about the variety of experiences we identify as love and to pray attentively about what the truest love is and how it can be manifested in our lives.
Father Constantine Lazarakis and Rabbi Josh Franklin will be co-teaching a class that will be open to the public this summer, True Love: An Interfaith Exploration of Relational Love. Details will be available soon.
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