In Parshah Vaetchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11) we’ve entered the meat of Deuteronomy. More recap of already established law and narrative. I think it’s exceptionally difficult to charge this material with anything interesting unless the reader has a sense of the historical context of the book.
Deuteronomy is more or less a contract between God and the Israelites. It recaps a lot of what happened previously between them simply because this is part of the contractual framework used very regularly throughout the ancient Near East at this time. The contract which openly states that this God is the one and only God, and that the Israelites swore fealty only to this God, was compiled in the face of the two major empires of the time (Assyria and Babylonia) baring down on the small nation of Judah. Assyria had already destroyed the Northern Kingdom, and this new book that rounds out the Torah was written in conjunction between the Northerners who had escaped the destruction, and the Judahites who were still hoping to survive in the face of the greatest powers of the era. Most scholars think that the canonization of Deuteronomy continued into the eventual exile into Babylon, and that the redactors and writers of this book, or their successors, also wrote much of the rest of the Tanach. They call these books the “Deuteronomistic History.” If nothing else, Deuteronomistic is a hell of a scrabble word.
This places Deuteronomy in a very interesting space, and actually ends up making Deuteronomy arguably the most important book of the Torah in regards to the core of Judaism (notice,we call it Judah-ism today). It’s by no means the most entertaining or engaging, but it holds the heart of Jewish thought. Nothing makes this more clear than this Parshah.
In Deut. 6:4-9, we find the core creed of Judaism, the Shema. It is supposed to be the first thing we say when we get up, the last thing we say when we go to sleep, and even the last thing we say in our lives. What I find so striking about it is that, in many ways, the basic meaning of it (monotheism) has become so prevalent throughout the world. Up until Christianity and Islam came to power monotheism was not a generally accepted belief. In comparison to the Romans, Greeks, or Mesopotamians that the ancient Jews lived amongst, monotheism might as well have been atheism. Reciting the Shema was often seen as public disrespect towards the gods of these other nations. If you think about it in reference to the fact that this prayer was composed to rebuke the polytheism of two of the greatest empires of all time, reciting it really was an act of defiance. In this day and age where monotheism is the most popular form of religion in the world it is hard to keep this in mind. If monotheism has become mainstream, though, is it then time to re-radicalize the Shema?
One of the most frequent questions I get when conversing with Orthodox Jews is “How is your approach different than Christianity’s?” Now, I’m pretty sure they’re at least partially just trying to push my buttons, but I do think it’s fair. When you boil down liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity, everything outside of the whole Jesus controversy starts to look a lot alike. The very nature of liberalism means that this should be the case, though. Unfortunately, once that road is paved, it’s much easier to just move on with the liberalism and without the Judaism or Christianity, and that’s one of the great fears and struggles of the Reform movement today. This is not only unfortunate for the religions, though. I am not one to argue that the irreligious or atheistic are inherently less moral than those who ascribe to one of the world’s traditions. I do think that what Western liberalism, which informs Reform Judaism, lacks on its own is guidance in determining personal values in life, and ways to orient and divide up time in a manner that helps to infuse life with meaning.
In Deuteronomy chapter 5, we’re given a restatement of the Ten Commandments. From the perspective of Judaism, these are just about as basic as it gets. Since we’ve already been talking about the Shema, let’s talk about Commandments one (There is only one God) and two (You may not worship idols). I’ve previously written about my conception of God, but let me try to lay it out simply (as one wise Jew once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”) The monotheistic God, in my opinion, transcends the God of the Bible, and can be described most basically as being the flow of meaning and purpose that pushes time forward.So what commandments one and two are saying is that the true power in our human universe is a singular force of value and meaning, and must not be confused with anything other than that which it is. Money, power, status, or anything else is merely a manifestation or human-created fetish of this force.
This is what the Shema is saying. Although we all have other things we find important, what we must always keep at the forefront of our mind is that this singular charge, this power and force of meaning and purpose behind creation, is the one object that should be placed above all. All else is interpretation attempting to explain the best way to integrate this understanding into your life. Like the great Rabbi Hillel said when asked to teach the Torah on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”
As I stated before, the Shema is the central creed of the Jewish religion, focused entirely on the fact that we have one, and only one, God. It is followed immediately by another prayer, both in the Torah and in Jewish liturgy, called the V’ahavtah, which is focused on loving God. The Torah is the most important and ancient Jewish record of our interactions with God. According to Hillel (arguably the greatest Rabbi of all time), the quickest way to summarize the Torah is to say “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So, I think that we can logically reason that what the shema is saying, then, is that our behavior, above all else, should be focused on empathy and kindness. Instead of focusing on predicting the future, or unravelling the past, the Shema asks us to live in the now, to hear, state, and know that the oneness of God is central, and that our purpose is found in lovingkindness. If we began our days and ended our days contemplating this, even just ever so briefly in the six words of this prayer, would this not reorient us in a way that might actually help shift the world we live in?
The Shema is a radical prayer, written in defiance of the greatest human forces on the planet. It not only outlived these forces by thousands of years, its basic meaning has become accepted worldwide. Maybe by re-charging this prayer with a new meaning, we can affect a similar change on our world today. Isn’t that the purpose of this whole Judaism thing?