Micah, 6, 8= “What does God require of us? To do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.”
Recently I found a key and almost impossibly rich term that has so many wheels within wheels, so much that is subtle rather than gross, intelligible in a hidden way yet not fully so on the surface, including a complex context of times and places where it is deployed in the Jewish Bible.
‘Hesed’ is crucial to ‘passion of heart’ because it is crucial for its foundation. The only thing that upholds the human heart in its ‘passibility’ in the abyss is God’s hesed, extended to humanity, and requiring a response in reply from humanity. Thus ‘God requires the heart’ is the secret of Judaism, and the starting point for Christianity.
Hesed upholds passion in the abyss where, if its passibility fails, it can fall without end..
Hesed is the origin for passion, then.
Hesed can mean ‘loving kindness’, ‘mercy’, ‘compassion’, but also as a term of the covenant, implies ‘steadfastness’, ‘faithfulness’ or ‘faithful love’ [Hosea likens Israel’s failure of hesed to a whoring wife betraying a loving husband], thus ‘steadfast loyalty.’ Not love in some permissive, nice, general sense, but the kind of loving generosity and protection you give out of the loyalty of a husband to a wife, and wife to husband, or the loyalty of a father to a son, and son to father, but also brother to brother [‘solidarity among those covenanted to each other’].
The covenant is ‘reciprocal’ for those God loves in this relationship; their ‘obligation’ is to love him in return, and it seems they mostly do this in how they love their fellow humans within the covenant, especially those most defenceless, and most needy. The hesed of God to the king, treating him as a son to a father, obliges the king to ‘serve’ God by protecting and caring for all the people.. Similarly, the Last Judgement asks whether we have failed hesed in our mistreatment of the poor, the hungry, the sick and distressed, the prisoners. This is not sentimental. It is because we are in a mutual relationship with God that we have a mutual relationship with our brothers and sisters.
The obligation of reciprocity, a response on the human side to what God gives, is not a law [you cannot compel or force love], but a matter of what the Indians of the Northern Plains would call ‘honour.’ Honour means ‘to keep a promise’, and the covenant is basically, and profoundly, a promise. A promise commits the one who makes it to something. So, if we enter a covenant, we promise each other. It cannot be reduced to mere legal obligations, rules and regulations, because it shows heart– from God and from the human response to God. In Native culture, to make a promise and be committed to what we promise — ‘we make vows’ is how this is summed up — is very solemn, grave, ‘heavy.’ It is also, therefore, a yoke, a duty, that weighs on your shoulders and heart. Entering into a promise, a mutual vowing, requires will as well as passion, and is not a matter of variable feelings: today I feel up to it, tomorrow I do not feel up to it. Making a promise commits a person to certain very generous and steadfast actions.
Thus hesed is sometimes spoken of as ‘favour’, a kind of radical and unreserved generosity, offered freely to Israel by God, within their covenant. It is not deserved or merited or earned; it is given out of recognition of the love, and the binding relationship, that connects the parties to it. You wouldn’t do hesed grudgingly, resentfully, as a law to follow; you would do it from the heart, willingly, and walk the extra mile.
One Jewish commentator called it ‘covenantal loyalty’, or even ‘covenantal love’, though since moderns have lost the sense of covenant as a promise of commitment — a promise that commits the promiser to loving, caring, protective, generous, kinds of action — such phrases probably lack intelligibility.
The clearest ‘in’ is a Hasidic commentary which brings hesed close to the passion trinity of ‘truth [emet], justice, righteousness [or, uprightness].’ Thus Jeremiah [9, 22-23]= “..I am Yahweh, who acts with faithful love [hesed], justice, and uprightness on earth; these are what please me.”
Agape, the Greek word for love [famously used by St Paul in his description in 1 Corinthians, 13, 1-13], does not have this closeness to truth/justice/righteousness. It has the gracious and ‘mad’ outpouring of total generosity, and it is directed to everyone, without any discrimination. But — and this is hard to put in words — the charity in agape does not link to promise, or honour, and thus does not shade into the passional edge of keeping your word, demonstrating truth in your actions. If agape is [pure] ‘grace, graciousness, gratuitous and benign giving to and sharing with one and all’, that does not quite get the shape of hesed, in its context. Agape, precisely due to its all-inclusivity, has no cutting blade..
The Hasidic account portrays hesed as truth/justice/righteousness; its Action is Chivalry, whether from God to human, or human to human, because it always implies the stronger or greater taking care of, and being vowed to take care of, the weaker or lesser. Or, in other terms, chivalry is the more constant taking care of, and being committed to caring for, the more frail. Thus, God loves us in our frailty, and we are to love other humans in their frailty. The loyalty in hesed has a price.
But this implies that the loving kindness is also merciful. This is where ‘mercy and pity’ [stressed in the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible in 300 BC] enter the meaning of ‘kindness.’
Thus, hesed as kindness and mercy seems directly related to truth/justice/righteousness, because if the covenant is inherently chivalrous, then compassion follows as the night the day. Such mercy and compassion is the opposite of Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’ sneering at those less strong, or less gifted, or less favoured [less fortunate], than himself. A lack of hesed would mark a people as inherently cruel [uncaring, unkind].
Capitalism, for example, encourages the absence of hesed among people. Instead of feeling people as brothers/sisters with whom one is inherently connected, and to whom one is committed in ties of loyalty and filial love, and with whom woes and happiness are shared, we start to see ourselves as better, and others as worse, so we deserve our good fortune and they deserve their bad fortune. Solidarity among humans disappears. Many prophets blast Israel on this break down of the social, or inter-human, aspect of the failure to follow hesed. What would Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, say about modern America, with the widest gap between rich and poor, ever increasing?
Hosea, 4, 1= “..Yahweh has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God, in the land.”
Also stressed in the Hasidic account is that hesed means to love God so completely — so passionately — that a person will never forsake God’s service for any reason. And what does it mean to serve God, because of hesed? It includes, the commentary says, such things as the nurturing of a child; visiting and healing the sick; giving charity to the poor; offering hospitality to the stranger; attending to the dead; making peace between a man and his fellow; providing for a bride so she can marry; taking care of the most vulnerable in society, the widow and the orphan. Much of Yahweh’s pulverising anger against Israel is not punishment for transgressions of instructions, rules, regulations, ‘laws’; it is anger over the failure of the covenantal hesed.
God remains true to hesed, but human beings prove false to hesed; this is a malaise not of Disobeying the Big Boss in the Sky, but of the heart. It is a human failure of passion. And this ‘heart failure’ is the weightier matter at the core of all ethics; and all the many lesser laws of Judaism flow from it, for without it these various ‘instructions’ are like ‘straining out a gnat but admitting a camel.’ Service of God means ‘doing’ kindness and mercy, ‘doing’ chivalry; doing hesed.
The account continues. Hesed contributes to tikkun olam= ‘repairing the world.’ Hesed is part of redemption. Its loving Action redeems the world, it does not give up on it.
This is crucial because though God slams Israel for breaking the covenant, and betraying hesed, the hesed also binds God. God cannot escape his own promise, his own commitment, and this vow of God to Israel, and through them to the whole world process, is to never give up on them. Though hesed is a paradox uniting kindness and mercy with the sharpest and toughest demand for truth of heart in action, and thus righteousness and justice in human inter-action, never the less God cannot abandon those to whom he is promised/vowed/committed, and that means, however frail they become in abandoning the human heart, God’s heart must ‘suffer’ that and bring them through, to a redeemed heart where they can, indeed, reciprocate God’s love by loving God and loving neighbour, and even as Yeshua says, loving the enemy [this is the Cross, the final apotheosis of hesed].
So, hesed is love, but love as action. ‘Love as action’= passion. Loving action that contributes to the repairing of the world, the redeeming of the human venture, is passion at its most extreme.
Somewhere it says in Jewish tradition, ‘compassion is rooted in the hearts of the righteous.’ This shows that righteousness was always inspired by hesed, not by law and rules and regulations; it shows that righteousness itself is, from the first, chivalrous, and thus moving toward redemption. Righteousness points to, and is resolved by, redemption. Therefore righteousness has nothing to do with the error of fundamentalist Christians or Jews, that uses the ‘reward and punishment scenario’ as the ultimate threat to the human heart= “do as God commands, or go to hell”. So= “If you obey, heaven, if you disobey, hell; and heaven and hell are eternal.”
The fundamentalist reading of the Jewish Bible could not be more in error, more dark, more a projection of human fear and human hate [wanting there to be winners and losers, in the ultimate].
God does indeed punish not moral transgression, but betrayal of hesed. Yet as he says, such wrath is for a season only, the Holy One does not destroy; the ‘anger for truth’ — as the Christian Greeks called it — does not destroy but Daemonically calls a person back to the truth of heart in action, the lightning burns up folly but aims to restore the [deceived] betrayer to the heart. There will be a final resolution= a final restoration of human heart and the world it ‘rules’ [this is the king]. The heart is the king who is righteous, thus fights for truth against the lie, but this king, filled with hesed in serving God, is ultimately one who is given, even sacrificed [as in the 4 Slave Songs of Isaiah], for the redeeming of the entire world.
Since chivalry, compassion, kindness and mercy, already ‘tempered’ the heart seeking truth, justice, righteousness, so ‘repairing what is broken’ – not judging it as non-repairable and ultimately doomed – is the final destination of the upright heart. The steadfast and faithful heart is vowed to this destination, and cannot stop half way with approving those who stand up in the heart and damning those who fall down in the heart. Everyone falls down.. Who is righteous, in the full sense, except God?
But the God who is righteous, and never becomes sentimental and liberal in tolerance, but demands truth, justice, righteousness, in heart from each personally and from all together communally, nevertheless passes from any narrow demand for goodness that separates sheep from goats to embrace the more difficult task of redeeming one and all. This is thanks to hesed. The real truth is — as fundamentalists fundamentally misunderstand — the covenant between God and Israel [and through them, between God and humanity] is a promise by God, a vow by God, that commits God to more than just anger with his people [all people become ‘his people’] when they stray; God cannot abandon them, nor ultimately give up on them, even if they give up on God and thereby give up on themselves. God must be steadfast, faithful, loyal. God is committed to his people’s heart, in his heart, and therefore when they wander away from the heart, God cannot be heartless about this, but must suffer it, out of love. The suffering God does not begin with Yeshua on the Cross; it goes back to Hosea, and even before. The suffering for love is holy. God’s covenant with Abraham, Jacob, and Job commits God to suffering for his people, and dealing redemptively with their suffering in falling away from what he has given them, and called them to. The promise of God is to love his people like a husband loves a beloved wife, whatever her whoring [Hosea went through this]; to love them like a father loves a valued son, whatever his rebellion; to love them like a brother loves a respected brother, whatever his behind the back betrayal. Even if the baby dies in childbirth, yet shall he live, is Yahweh’s promise, his vow, in Hosea.
Isaiah, 63, 7-9= “I will recount the steadfast love of Yahweh.. For he said, ‘surely, they are my people’.. In all their affliction he was afflicted; ..in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up [like a heavy weight] and carried them [like a load] all the days of old.” This anticipates the Christ= “Since therefore the children [of God] share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy [the devil] who has the power of death, ..and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” [Paul, Hebrews, 2, 14-15].
God is committed to a love that can ask for uprightness of heart, but this love that insists on righteousness is also, at the same time, because of the other side of hesed, committed to kindness, mercy, patience, long suffering, bearing and enduring hell for the sake of loving the persons imprisoned in hell [Psalms, 138, 2]. God is committed not just to righteousness for humanity, but to the redeeming of humanity when righteousness becomes lost to them, and they fall into the deep hell in the heart where all passion is dead, twisted, vacant. ‘God requires the heart’: but God will go to extraordinary lengths, in his own heart, to restore, to repair, to redeem, the human heart. This is why Christ says, ‘I have come for sinners, not for the righteous.’ The righteous need to learn not to sneer at, judge and condemn, the unrighteous, but to give — even sacrifice — themselves for the lost. Hence ‘love your enemies.’ This is perhaps a hesed only won by the Cross of Christ. None the less, it is implicit right at the beginning of Judaism.
Psalms [138, 8]= “Yahweh, your faithful love endures forever, do not abandon what you have made.”
In Jeremiah [31, 1-3] Yahweh announces= “I have loved you with an everlasting love and so I still maintain my faithful love for you.”
The prayer to the Daemonic God of Israel can plead that God is harsh on people’s shallowness of heart, exposing and smashing it, because at the same time, this same prayer begs God to be merciful on the deeps of the human heart, where our tragedy really dwells. Deal harshly with our superficiality, but deal kindly and mercifully with our aching and troubled depth. Bring us through it to the far shore on the other side of the fallen-downness deeply entrenched in the heart.
Hit the liars and cheats who pretend all day long to be respectable, but comfort even them, really all of us, as we lay down in the dust, imprisoned in hell. We cry to you God, release the prisoners, even if you must pay a high ransom for them. Only you can pay that ransom. They cannot pay it. Thus ‘no greater love has any man than he who lays down his life for his friends.’ Be our friend, in our place of abject ruin. We are in hell, and cannot shift. Even if we attain the uprightness of righteousness, deeper down we are still blocked, and check mated. If you do not act for us, as a friend who loves us despite our dire condition, there is no hope. We do not merit your most radical love. But we call upon it, because our faith in you tells us that love has nothing to do with merit.
This is the prayer Yahweh answers.
In effect, God’s hesed has not been reciprocally returned by humanity. This is both a sad and grave matter; a tragedy for God and a tragedy for humanity. But neither the observance of the law, nor the battle of truth against evil in righteousness, has any finality; because of hesed, everything points to, and ends in, redemptive action. This is the ‘love supreme’ the Jazz man John Coltrane spoke about.
This is passion, of deep heart.
The dualism of good and evil, truth and lie, strength and weakness, robustness and persevering versus wavering and falling away, gives way to the Messianic dynamic in which the greater suffers for the lesser, to redeem them.