Wednesday, 01 Aug 2012

Written by Dr Helena Miller

My first memory of saying the Shema is of sitting in Jewish assembly in my non-Jewish primary school, reciting mispronounced and misunderstood phrases, in English, in unison: “hero Israel, the Lords are God, the Lord has won”. Thank goodness that wasn’t the end of my Jewish education!

In this week’s sedra, Moses continues his speeches to the Israelites just before his death. There is a wide variety of themes in this sedra, including a reminder of the proclamation that God made a covenant with the Israelites at Mount Horeb. Moses recites the ten commandments and then the Shema. 

Since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, the words “Shema Yisroel, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echad” (Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One) have been recited in daily and Shabbat prayer services. It is the first learned and most familiar Jewish prayer, coming to mind so effortlessly that it is easy to lose sight of what it is affirming. Judith Plaskow, contemporary professor of Religious studies, asks what it means to assert that God is One? On the simplest level, the Shema can be understood as a passionate rejection of polytheism, a polemic against foreign worship. This resonates with Rashi’s eleventh century view that in time human beings will evolve to a point where they embrace one notion of God and achieve peace, recognising that Adonai will one day be accepted by all people as One, uniting all as one human family.

This view is not shared by the Rambam (Maimonides). For him, the Shema is not a statement of hope that all people will eventually agree that “God is One” but a theological declaration that “the Cause of all existence is One”. In other words, Maimonides affirms the unity of all that exists and will exist, God’s power embracing everything.

There is, however, another way of understanding oneness and that is as inclusiveness.  Marcia Falk explains this by describing Adonai as including all qualities and characteristics, with nothing remaining outside. “God is all in all”.  This is a God who is male and female, either and neither, a unity of a multiplicity of images. This can be understood in parallel with the writings of the Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), whose writings effectively mean that all exists within God. There is no existence whatsoever apart from God’s existence.

But how do we reconcile this apparent contradiction between an all encompassing theory of reality and the actual experience of living in a material and extremely imperfect world? Lawrence Kushner explains that the question of how we bring an awareness of the higher unity into our everyday lives is the challenge of sacred living. He suggests our goal must be to try to make this world resemble the one on High, that Judaism understands this challenge as an obligation, a requirement for holy living, a mitzvah. The Shema is an expression of the partnership between the Jewish people and God. So, if our task in the world is to become God’s partners, then it is surely our duty to do all we can in our day to day lives to work towards repairing the imperfections of the world, even in the smallest of ways. And what better way of helping even our youngest children to understand those opening words of the Shema than by accompanying the learning of the words with action. Maybe if my primary school had made the link between words, meaning and action, then I would have spoken the opening words of the Shema, with  accuracy, understanding and an emerging meaning of the part I could play in making the world a better place. Shabbat shalom.

Dr Helena Miller
Director of Research and EvaluationDirector
Living Bridge Programmes

This D’var Torah was previously published in 2007

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.