Love is such a used, abused and misused word that people should possibly stay away from it. How would I define it? In essence, love is the basic experience of caring about another, of going out from myself toward the Other.
Love requires caring — not caring about what benefit or enjoyment I can gain from you, but finding joy in the very fact of your existence. When I say "I love you," the truthfulness of my statement depends on the size of the "I" and the size of the "you": The bigger the "I," the smaller the love. But if the "I" is smaller than the "you," then we have the sense that we are dealing with love.
This does not mean that there is no sense of self. There must still be an "I" in "I love you" because there must be a self to feel the emotion. A newborn cannot love, because he has no notion of the difference between himself and the other. It's when one gets to the point of seeing the other as different, but still similar, that a true relationship begins. And with that relationship comes the ability to care.
One outcome of this definition of love is that the more self-interest there is, the more the relationship is self-oriented rather than object-oriented, and therefore, the less genuine that love. If I say that I love a food, whether I just grab anything and shove it in my mouth, or approach a meal like a gourmet — pampering it and admiring it, and then putting it in my mouth — the "love" is the same: My concern is for me and my satisfaction. It is the same with the love I have for a person. If my "love" for my wife is defined by sex or my "love" for my son is defined by nachas, then I do not really understand what love is.
When I truly love, what matters is the relationship itself, not the benefit I derive from it. The most exalted love is entirely other-oriented: It is the love I have for nature, which I cannot change or own. And it is Jacob's love for Rachel, which endured through seven years and longer (whether a few days or another seven years) because it was the fact of the relationship that mattered, not any tangible benefit to him.
If genuine love is so demanding, can we ever fulfill the mitzvah of loving our neighbor as ourselves? Love may be too difficult, but compassion is not. To be compassionate — and this is the exact meaning of the word — is to feel the feelings of the Other. That is something we can do, on a personal level and even on a wider level. No one can demand that people should love poor people far away, but compassion is something we can have. And if we have this feeling of compassion, we may even do something good for them, even if it will not pay off for us immediately, or even at any future time. Compassion is a lot like love that way, because it is possible that there will be no personal benefit; the difference is that it is easier to achieve.
Genuine love is something that may always be just out of reach, but compassion is in our hands. If we have no compassion, we become emotionally hardened and unable to have any kind of feeling because loss of compassion is the loss of a component of the human psyche. If we do not act on compassion, we become mechanized beings — like robots, but worse, because they do not have our physical weaknesses and limitations.
Having compassion is a matter of keeping our humanity. It is perhaps something we need for ourselves. We need it in order to keep living as human beings. Otherwise, we will destroy everything that is not useful, that is not productive, that does not pay off. Then we will destroy the whole world because when people are behaving without compassion, they cease to be human beings, and the world itself has no meaning.
So let us not be so concerned about love. Let us speak about compassion — about feeling what others feel. Perhaps that can improve the world.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is an author, scholar and social critic best known for his translation of and commentary on the Talmud.