We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.


Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Marty Lockshin





The Mitzvah to Love God: Shadal’s Polemic against the Philosophical Interpretation





APA e-journal

Marty Lockshin





The Mitzvah to Love God: Shadal’s Polemic against the Philosophical Interpretation








Edit article


The Mitzvah to Love God: Shadal’s Polemic against the Philosophical Interpretation

Philosophically inclined rabbis, such as Maimonides, attempted to understand the mitzvah to love God in Aristotelian terms, imagining God as a non-anthropomorphic abstract being. Shadal argues that this elitist approach twists both Torah and philosophy, and in its place, he offers a moralistic approach that can be achieved by all.


The Mitzvah to Love God: Shadal’s Polemic against the Philosophical Interpretation

An illustration from a hebrew copy of  Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed made by Ferrer Bassa in 1348 in Barcelona. Maimonides teaches about the ‘measure of men’. zeevveez / flickr

Shadal – A Brief Intellectual Background

Defining what it means to love God has challenged many Jews (and non-Jews) over the years. One explanation, that offered by Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto; 1800-1865) in his commentary to Deuteronomy 6:5, provides a unique window into problems encountered when trying to read this mitzvah through a medieval philosophical lens.

Shadal was a truly modern Jew, with a wide secular education and a keen understanding of and love for Jewish texts. Shmuel Vargon, who wrote a book on Shadal, aptly describes him as a moderate biblical critic, who was willing to propose some emendations of the biblical text[1] and to challenge the traditional attributions of some books (for example, the attribution of Ecclesiastes to King Solomon).[2] He was not a mystic,[3] but neither was he an inveterate rationalist.[4] He often has choice words for the Jewish philosophical tradition, which he knew well.

A Guided Reading of Shadal’s Excursus on Deuteronomy 6:5

Shadal begins his excursus on the love of God by pointing an accusatory finger at Jewish philosophy for making the issue more complicated than it should be:

ואמנם מה הוא ענין המצוה הזאת הלא היא מצות אהבת ה’, הוא דבר הצריך פירוש, לא שהענין קשה או מסופק מצד עצמו, אלא מפני המתפלספים שהכניסו דעות חכמי יון בתורת ישראל, ושנו מראיהם של עניני התורה להסכימם עם דברי הפילוסופים, והואיל ולא היה זה אפשרי, עשו מהתורה והפילוסופיאה עירוב שאינו לא תורה ולא פילוסופיאה, ונשארו קרחים מכאן ומכאן.
What this mitzvah—the mitzvah to love God—means requires explanation. Actually there would be no real inherent difficulty or doubt about it, were it not for the fact that the [medieval Jewish] philosophers imported the ideas of Greek thinkers into the Torah, and they changed various aspects of the Torah to get them to concur with the [classical] philosophers. And since this was an impossible thing to do, they took Torah and philosophy and made of them a mishmash that is neither Torah nor philosophy, and they ended up losing on both counts.
ועכשו כבר בטלה התפלספות הקדומה ההיא, ועדיין ספרי ישראל מלאים ממנה, באופן שאין בהם קורת רוח לא לחוקרים האמתיים ולא לתורניים האמתיים.
Nowadays that old type of philosophy no longer exists, but Jewish books are still filled with it, so that neither true scholars nor true Torah Jews find satisfaction in them.

Traditional Jewish philosophy was heavily based on Aristotle and Plato, and by the 19th century, these schools of thought were passé. Shadal points out the irony that because Jews venerate their medieval philosophers, Jews may be one of the last groups on the planet that still consider these ancient Greek thinkers’ works compelling, still reinterpreting our traditions to conform with these long-dead gentile thinkers.

Herz Homberg’s Religious-Philosophical Interpretation

Shadal points out that even some of his contemporaries were still writing new works in this outdated style. As an example, he cites the Torah commentary of Herz Homberg (1749-1841), who was commissioned by Moses Mendelssohn to write the Biur (commentary) on Deuteronomy for Mendelssohn’s Pentateuch:

ודוגמא לדבר הם דברי המבאר על מקרא זה, וז”ל: ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך, תשיש בהכרת שלימותו ואין תכלית, ותתענג באמונתו וייחודו, ולעשות דבר שייטב בעיניו, כי כן מדות האהבה. תחלת דבריו (תשיש בהכרת שלימותו וכו’) הם על דעת חכמי יון, וסופם (ולעשות דבר שייטב בעיניו) הם על דעת חכמי ישראל. אבל שני הדברים האלה הם הפכיים ומתנגדים….
As an example, I will cite the words of the Mevaer (i.e., commentator on the standard Mendelssohn chumash, in this case Homberg) on this verse. And I quote: “You shall love the LORD your God: Find joy in the understanding of His infinite perfection, be elated when you proclaim His faithfulness and His unity and when you do what is pleasant in His eyes, for those are the ways of love.” The beginning of his comment (Find joy in the understanding of His infinite perfection…) follows the way of the Greek scholars; the end of his comment (do what is pleasant in His eyes) follows the way of Jewish scholars. But these two approaches are mutually exclusive….

Moral Truth not Philosophical Truth

Shadal then explains why he finds the mixture of ancient and medieval philosophy together with Torah so off-putting. Philosophy and religious Judaism, he explains, have disparate goals:

ואזי אתמה על המתפלספים תמהון גדול, איך לא הבינו כי המכוון בתורה איננו המכוון בפילוסופיאה, כי המכוון בפילוסופיאה הוא הידיעה והכרת האמת, והמכוון בתורה הוא עשיית הטוב והישר; ואם התורה מלמדת אותנו ייחוד האל וחדוש העולם, אין זה למען הקנותנו ידיעת האל והכרת שלימותו כפי מה שהיא באמרם, אך הכל לנטוע בנפשותינו אמונות מועילות להדריכנו במעגלי צדקה ומשפט.
So I really am amazed at the [Jewish] philosophers. How did they not realize that what the Torah wants is not what philosophy wants? Philosophy wants us to know and recognize truth. Torah wants us to do what is right and what is good. And if the Torah teaches us [a few philosophical ideas, such as] the unity of God and the fact that the world was created, it was not for the purpose that we would then acquire the true knowledge of God and recognition of His perfection as they put it. Rather it was so as to implant in our souls useful beliefs that will lead us towards justice and righteousness.

For Shadal, the truth that the Torah presents is not philosophical truth, but moral truth.

The Need for Anthropomorphism

For Shadal, this explains why the Torah consistently describes God in language that philosophers like Maimonides found troubling. Basing a religion on the God of Aristotle, the way that Maimonides understands Aristotle (a God who has no feelings, including mercy, and who is not subject to change), does not work. Religion, he argues, requires an anthropomorphic (expressing human form) and especially an anthropopathic (expressing human emotions) portrayal and conception of God:

אשר על כן התורה והנביאים מקטינים תמיד ציור האל ומקרבים אותו למדרגת האדם, והם מייחסים לו הכעס והרצון, האהבה והשנאה, השמחה והעצבון, ושאר התפעליות וחסרונות, הכל כדי שיצוייר יחס וקשר ביננו ובינו; ואם בהפך נצייר בלבנו אלהיהם של פילוסופים, השלם שלימות בלי תכלית, אז לא יתכן עוד לצייר שום יחס וקשר בינו ובין בני אדם, ולא תצוייר עוד שום ריליגיאון בעולם.
And that is why the Torah and the Prophets always make God seem smaller and closer to the level of humans, attributing to Him anger and will, love and hate, happiness and sadness and various other ways of saying that He is affected [by things that happen external to Him] and that He is subject to deficiencies. All this is done so as to help us imagine some connection between us and Him. But if, to the contrary, we imagine in our hearts the God of the philosophers, who is perfect in an infinite form of perfection, then it is simply impossible to conceive any relationship or connection between Him and human beings, and one could then not imagine any of the world’s religions.
ומה מקום לתפלה, אם האל בלתי מתפעל? ומה מקום לתשובה, אם רצון האל בלתי משתנה?
What purpose can there be for prayer if God [as the philosophers claim] is not subject to being affected? What purpose is there for teshuvah [repentance] if God’s will is not subject to change?

Not Rejecting Philosophy Per Se

After what seems to be a broad rejection of philosophy, Shadal explains that he is rejecting particular philosophical formulations, but not philosophy per se:

ושמא יאמר אדם: אם כדבריך שהתורה והפילוסופיאה מתנגדות זו לזו, אם כן אחת מהן שקר, אם כן אתה בוזה חכמה או מואס בתורה, דע כי איננו לא זה ולא זה, אבל אני רואה את האדם מורכב משני כחות הפכיים, המחשבה וההרגשה הפנימית, … ולהגביר אחד מהכחות האלה ולבטל האחד אי אפשר, כי האדם בהכרח משועבד לשניהם, לפיכך התורה (האמתית) והפילוסופיאה (האמתית, אשר איננה עדיין כתובה בספר בפני עצמו, אבל היא מפוזרת בעשרת אלפים ספרים, מעורבת תמיד עם טעיות ושבושים), שתיהן דברי אלהים חיים, כי שתיהן מסכימות עם טבעו של אדם, ושתיהן אמת בבחינות מתחלפות …
And if you say: “If you are right that Torah and philosophy are mutually exclusive, then that means that one of them is a lie. That means that you either disdain wisdom or reject Torah.” Know that neither of these is the case. I see humans as beings composed of two opposing forces: reason and inner feelings…. It is impossible to increase the one and reject the other, for people, whether they like it or not, are under the control of both these forces. That is why the (true) Torah and the (true) philosophy (the philosophy that is not yet written in one book, but is found scattered in ten thousand books, mixed in with all sorts of errors and inaccuracies) both of them are the words of the living God. Both of them are appropriate to the nature of human beings. Both of them are true according to different understandings of truth…..

Loving God Means Keeping God’s Commandments

After this long introduction, Shadal finally explains what it means to love God. For Shadal, the idea of “commanding” someone to love makes no sense. So what does our verse mean? Shadal’s explanation is decidedly unromantic. Just like loving a neighbor means doing things that my neighbor wants done, so also loving God means doing God’s will. This explanation means that there is nothing specific, beyond observing the other mitzvot, for a person to do or to think in order to fulfil the mitzvah of loving God.

Jeffrey Tigay has similarly pointed out that the verb “love” in the Bible often refers to action, not to feelings. “When Deuteronomy describes God’s love for man, it means a love expressed in benevolent acts, as in 10:18: God ‘loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.’ Israel’s duty to love God is likewise inseparable from action: it is regularly connected with the observance of His commandments, as in 10:12-13, 11:1, 13; 19:9, 30:16.”[5]

ואשובה לענין אהבת ה’, ואומר כי מאחר שראתה התורה האלהית לדבר כלשון בני אדם, ולצייר לפנינו אלוה מתפעל ובעל כעס ורצון, אהבה ושנאה וכיוצא בזה, היה מן הראוי שיצוייר גם האדם אוהב את האל או שונא אותו; כי מי שישוה ה’ לנגדו תמיד ועיקר מחשבות לבו הוא לעשות נחת רוח לפניו ולשמור חקיו ומשפטיו ומצותיו, זה יקרא אוהב את ה’;
Now I shall return to discuss the love of God. I say that since the divine Torah saw fit to speak in human language and to describe God to us as subject to change and as susceptible to anger and to will, to love and to hate, and so on, it is therefore appropriate to describe people also as loving God or hating Him. For the person who always bears God in mind and is always considering how to do what He wants and how to observe His laws and regulations, such a person would be called a lover of God.
ומי שאין אלהים לנגד עיניו, ואינו נמנע מעשות מה שהוא נתעב לפניו, והוא מבקש תמיד תועבות חדשות לחטוא בהנה, הוא יקרא שונא ה’.
Someone who does not think about God and does not refrain from doing what is contemptible for God and who is constantly seeking new abominations to sin in, someone like that is called one who hates God.
ואין אהבת ה’ מצוה פרטית, אבל היא כוללת כל המצות, אבל האהבה בעצמה לא יחול עליה צווי. וכן ואהבתם את הגר, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, הכוונה בהם שנשתדל להיטיב להם, ושנחדל מכל מה שיזיקם או יכעיסם.
“Loving God” then is not a separate mitzvah. It includes all the mitzvot. It does not make sense to command people to love. The same is true of loving your neighbor [Lev 19:18] or loving the stranger [Deut 10:19]. The intention is that we should take steps to do what will be beneficial to them and we should refrain from actions that will hurt them or anger them.

The Importance of Other People in Judaism: A Critique of Bahya ibn Paquda and the Essenes

Shadal then returns to the theme of criticizing the Jewish philosophical tradition. First, he takes on the medieval philosopher, Bahya ibn Paquda (c. 1050-1120), the author of the well-known philosophical tract Hovot ha-levavot, and the Essenes of 2000 years ago both of whom, in Shadal’s estimation, failed to understand that involvement with other human beings is an indispensable component of Judaism:

אבל האהבה שזכר בעל חובות הלבבות שהנפש להיותה עצם פשוט רוחני, היא נוטה אל הרוחניים וכו’, וכאשר יבקע לה אור השכל, תפרוש מן העולם ומכל תענוגיו וכו’ לא יהיה לה עסק בלתי עסק עבודת האל, ולא יעבור על רעיוניך זולתו וכו’, כל זה אינו לפי דרכה של תורת משה, אבל הוא לקוח מן הפילוסופים שהיו בוזים המון העם העוסקים בישובו של עולם,’
But the kind of love [of God] described by the author of Hovot ha-levavot—“since the soul comes from the world of pure spirit its natural tendency is to the spiritual . . . and when the light of wisdom shines upon it, it will naturally separate itself from the world and all its pleasures and have nothing to do with anything other than God, and it will never think of anything else, etc.”—none of this follows the ways of Moses’ Torah. This approach is taken from the philosophers who had only disdain for the simple people who do the necessary work of this world.
אך לפי תורתנו יוצר הארץ ועושה לא תהו בראה, לשבת יצרה, ואין עבודת ה’ ואהבתו בהתבודדות, ובישיבה במדברות, אלא בישיבה עם בני אדם ובעשות עמהם צדקה ומשפט …
Rather, according to our Torah, the one “who formed the earth and made it, who alone established it—He did not create it a waste, but formed it for habitation” (Is. 45:18), and the proper worship and love of God has nothing to do with withdrawal from society and living in the desert, but rather living with other human beings and treating them with righteousness and justice. …
וכת האֵיסֵיאִי או אֵיסֵינִי לא מתורת משה למדו דרכיהם, אולי מפילוסופי יון למדו, ואולי צוק העתים הביאה לאהוב ההתבודדות; …
The Essenes did not learn their approach [including seclusion from society at large][6] from Moses’ Torah. Perhaps they learned it from Greek philosophers, or perhaps the difficulty of the times led them to love seclusion.

Love of God is Not an Elitist Mitzvah: Critique of Maimonides

Shadal then moves on to write disparagingly about the most respected Jewish philosopher of all time, Maimonides, in surprisingly strong language.[7]

…והרמב”ם חשב (מורה חלק ג’ פרק כ”ח) שאהבת ה’ לא תתכן אלא בהשגות המציאות כלו כפי מה שהוא, ובחינת חכמתו בו, ובגלל הדבר הזה כתב בהלכות יסודי התורה שלשה פרקים (ב-ד) ללמד את העם קצת מחכמת הבריאה, למען תבוא בלבם אהבת ה’. וכל זה רחוק מאוד מכוונת התורה, והפרקים ההם אין להם ענין עם ספרו משנה תורה, ואם היה פילוסוף באמת, היה מבין כי אפשר שיבוא דור אחר ויבטל דעות אריסטו ותלמידיו בחכמת הטבע ובתכונת השמים, ונמצא ספרו מורה שקר; אבל הוא היה מאמין (מורה נבוכים חלק ב’ פרק כ”ב) כי כל מה שאמר אריסטו בכל הנמצא אשר מתחת גלגל הירח עד מרכז הארץ, הוא אמת בלא ספק.
…Maimonides thought (Guide 3:28) that true love of God is only possible for the person who understands all of existence and that it is a function of that person’s wisdom. To that end, he included in his “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” three chapters (chapters 2-4) that teach people something about creation in order that true love of God would enter their hearts. All of this is so distant from the purpose of the Torah! Those three chapters have nothing in common with the rest of his Mishneh Torah. Had he been a true philosopher [!] he would have realized that a new generation might come along and disprove the theories of Aristotle and his students concerning biology and astronomy, and that his [Maimonides’] book [The Guide to the Perplexed] would become the Guide to Lies (מורה שקר). But he believed (see Guide 2:22) that everything that Aristotle had to say about the sub-lunar world was indisputably true.

Maimonides is taken to task for, among other failings, not recognizing that philosophy and science change over time.[8] Scientific truths are not eternal truths.

Applying the Critique to Modern Philosophically Inclined Rabbis

Shadal does not aim his polemic only at the medieval philosophical rabbis like Maimonides, but he takes aim at contemporary scholars as well, arguing that each generation makes the mistake of relying on its own philosophers.

ואינני אומר זה לגרוע כחוט השערה מכבודו של הרמב”ם, אלא להודיע לבחורי הדור כי הפילוסוף האמתי אין ראוי לו שיסמוך על פילוסופים אחרים אבל ראוי שיצרוף כל ענין בכור בחינתו, ומי שאין בו כח לכך אבל הוא סומך על הפילוסופים המפורסמים בימיו (כמו שסמכו ראב”ע ורמב”ם על אריסטו ועל חכמי ישמעאל, וכמו שסמך רמבמ”ן על לייבניץ ועל וואלף, וכמו שאחרים סומכים עתה על קאנט ועל העגעל או על שפינוזה), איננו פילוסוף יותר ממי שסומך על אברהם אבינו ועל משה, ועל הלל ורבי עקיבא.
I am not saying this in order to remove a hairsbreadth of honor from the Rambam (Maimonides). Rather I want to let the young scholars of our generation know that a true philosopher should not simply rely on other philosophers. Rather, it is fitting to analyze each topic on its own. Anyone who does not have the capacity to do this, but instead relies on whatever philosophers are well-accepted in his day (just as R. Avraham ibn Ezra and Rambam did with Aristotle and the Muslim philosophers, and just as Rambaman [=Moses Mendelssohn] did with [Gottfried Willhelm] Leibnitz and [Christian] Wolff, and just as others do nowadays with [Immanuel] Kant, [Willhelm Friedrich] Hegel, and [Benedict] Spinoza) is no more a true philosopher than someone who relies on Avraham Avinu, Moshe, Hillel, or Rabbi Akiva.

With this “swipe,” Shadal not only implies that the great Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Mendelssohn were unimpressive thinkers since they relied too much on the works of great—though now outdated—philosophers, but he also opens the door to those who study only classical Jewish texts to claim that they are just as much philosophers as Maimonides.

Message to Students: Critical Thinking Is Key

Shadal concludes with a broader message to his students and contemporaries. Since philosophy is not a fixed unchanging truth, it should not be treated with the reverence that many extend to it. Still, loyal as Shadal is to the traditions of the Italian Jewish community, he would never consider forbidding or even discouraging the study of philosophy:

ואין כוונתי בזה להניא את לב הבחורים מללמוד החכמות והלשונות, כי מעולם לא עלה זה על לב אבותי ורבותי חכמי איטליאה; אבל כל ישעי וכל חפצי הוא להרחיק את הבחורים מלקבל בעינים עצומות כל מה שהוא מפורסם ומפואר בדורם, וזו רעה חולה באה להם לא מהחקירה ואהבת האמת, אלא מאהבת הכבוד המדומה, ומהיותם מבקשים למצוא חן בעיני אנשי הדור.
My purpose in writing all this is not to dissuade the youth from studying wisdom and languages. Never has that thought crossed the minds of my ancestors and teachers, the rabbis of Italy. My sole purpose is to try to keep the youth from accepting without thinking whatever the current popular and respected philosophy is in their generation. This is a bitter illness that comes upon them not because they seek wisdom and love truth, but because they love bogus honor and are hoping to find favor in the eyes of their [gentile] contemporaries.
אבל אוהבי האמת ובעלי שכל חזק ואמיץ יודעים כי כמה דעות היו לתהלה ולתפארת בדור או בדורות, ונפלו בדור אחר בבוז ושכחה, וכמה דעות היו לקלון ולחרפה במשך עדן ועדנין, והיו אחר זמן לשם ולתהלה, ותמלא הארץ אותם.
But those who love truth and have strong and courageous minds know that there are many ideas that were famous and glorified for one or many generations and, in a later generation, were forgotten or disparaged; and there are many opinions that for a long time were considered shameful and disgraceful and then later became praised and glorified, and filled the earth.

The Expert in the Science of Judaism Urges Caution

Shadal may have had one of the most extensive secular educations of the leaders of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (“Science of Judaism”) school. He made good use of that education in all his works, including in his Torah commentary. Yet he understood that science is always changing and he recommended that his students not get carried away with the assumption that science is the certain road to truth. Furthermore, he encouraged them to think of God and our duties to God in non-philosophical terms and not try to restate those duties in the language of philosophers, current or outdated.


August 16, 2016


Last Updated

July 14, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.