How Big is One: Reflections on the Shema

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 10:42am -- Clergy

This week’s Torah portion, Vaethchanan (Deuteronomy 6), is literally a ‘Hall of fame’ of foundational passages from Judaism’s first text. It is here that we read for the first and only time in Scripture the words of the first line of the Shema, “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” Judaism’s affirmation of faith, the Shema, is easy to say (and even to memorize) but, upon analysis, not so easy to understand. The challenges in understanding the Shema are multiple. First, the verb “to be” is ‘understood’ in Hebrew and not stated in the present tense. Thus, the correct reading of the Shema is highly elliptical and should be presented as “Hear O Israel, Adonai [is] our God, Adonai [is] One.” Second, it is important to understand that Adonai, “Eternal One,” is an honorific, male title as in “Lord” (versus “Lady”) and not a name for God. Thus, in contemporary translations we either leave the term in Hebrew or substitute a neutral term such as “Eternal One” (following M. Buber). The actual Hebrew in the Shema is the Tetragrammatons’ or YHVH, the name of God which Jews have not pronounced for over 2,000 years. With this in mind, the translation of the Shema becomes “Hear O Israel, YHVH [is] our God, YHVH [is] One.” For the record, YHVH is a proper name of God (parallel to Zeus or Krishna) as opposed to a word for “God,” which I understand to be a “job description” as in “god of thunder” or “god of everything.”

However, the deepest challenge in understanding the Shema is the word “one.” If you think about it, the phrase “God is one” really does not make sense. God is one of a kind? God is not none? God is indivisible? God is “number One but there are lower, secondary gods?” Perhaps “One” is a synonym for God that is an actual name of God, “sort of like Dr. Seuss’ “Thing One.” Making sense of the grammar of “one” in the Shema is no easy matter but it is possible.

Stepping out of the Jewish tradition to get other perspectives on the Oneness of God is helpful. Two examples will suffice for now. First, there is the Neo- Platonic philosophy of the Hellenistic thinker, Plotinus (204-275) who believed in “the One” as the supreme, uncreated ground of all being associated with the co-lateral principles of the Good and Beauty. “One” in this sense is a deep philosophical concept and not just a mathematical integer. Second, Islam too has much to say about the One God. A key Islamic term in this regard is tawhid, the absolute singularity of God, and the

foundation of all Muslim religious thought. A more familiar term might be “Unitarian” in the theological sense of an indivisible deity.

God in Judaism, Islam and all Unitarian systems is uniquely singular, incomparable, uncreated and “necessary,” philosophically speaking as prior to existence itself.

The Oneness of God is so important and so challenging in Judaism that traditional Jews are asked to remain seated and cover their eyes when saying the Shema to concentrate on the intellectual depth of the meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4. Similarly, in classical Reform Judaism, we are asked to stand, nearly at attention, in reciting the Shema to demonstrate our deep respect for this essential teaching. It is so important, we are asked to say it upon rising, before going to sleep and 2 other times every day.

But there is still a deeper set of challenges associated with the Shema. First, is the problem of the believer? Second, is the problem of the non-believer? For the believer the challenge of the Shema is theodicy, that is, the co- existence of God and evil. “I believe in God,” some say, “but I cannot reconcile God’s existence with the suffering of innocent people.” For the non- believer, the problem of the Shema is the idea of God existing beyond or outside of nature. For the atheist, there is only the natural world and in the natural world nothing can be unique, everything follows the laws of nature. In the Judaic, Islamic, neo-platonic understanding of the One God, God alone transcends nature and is, therefore, unique or “one.”

Our tradition was right in asking us to pause and think when we contemplate the meaning of the Oneness of God in the Shema. It is deep, disturbing, transcendent and challenging. It is not merely being awed by a beautiful sunset at the beach but thinking about the power of the One behind that sunset and its beauty and size. There is a nice saying I hear families say about one another: “I love you more.” The same can be said of the Shema which challenges us to say that whatever I think about God, God is more than my thoughts and that ultimately nothing is more than the One called God.