Thoughts on Liturgy: Ahavat Olam

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 November 2013

In a few weeks I will be one of the speakers at a seminar of rabbis called ‘Imrei fi v’hegyon libbi’: Do the words of our mouths match the meditations of our hearts?

It’s a seminar about our relationship with the liturgy, with the prayerbook… We’ll be discussing how to reconcile our inherited language of prayer with our modern theologies.

I will, as I have from this Bimah before, talk about the prayer-book as a wonderful work of poetry.  I’ll argue that the language of praise is an expression of gratitude that works whatever one’s theology, that petitionary language functions as a powerful focussing of our understanding of our needs, not dependent on an answer.

And I also will talk about just how sophisticated the liturgical poetry is, that it is rarely simplistic.

One of the pieces of liturgy I might talk about is what we are about to sing together in a moment. In Ahavat Olam we proclaim God’s love for us – God loves us with an ‘Ahavat Olam’ – an ‘Eternal love’, we say.

As a literal idea it feels uncomfortable – faintly pop-music absurd even.  Certainly it is very ‘other’.
It raises questions of chosen-ness, of divine providence.

But the liturgy isn’t simplistic – So Ahavat Olam is not about feeling better about ourselves because God loves us.  It is about engaging with Torah because God loves us.  God’s love brings with it Torah, and therefore a set of covenantal obligations that we are in relationship with at all times.

As Reform Jews, the nature of those covenantal obligations is complex.  It is not a straightforward matter of obedience to Rabbinic Law, as found in Orthodoxy and Masorti Judaism.  Nor, of course, is it a straightforward rejection of rabbinic law, as found in early progressive Judaism.
Ours is a more complex grappling – with values, with Mitzvah, with text, with ethics – a struggle to uncover, using the language of the liturgy – the duties that divine love places in our lives.

I raise this also because on Sunday we have the opportunity to engage – just a little – with that sense of ‘love inspired’ covenantal obligation.  In the foyer you will find details of Alyth’s activities on Mitzvah Day.  It is an example of the Torah u’Mitzvot of which we will now sing.
God’s love for us coming with obligations – to our tradition and to the world.