The meaning of Shema — the great declaration of faith of the Jewish tradition

The verse Shema (usually translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”), the great declaration of faith of the Jewish tradition, is widely understood as an expression of monotheism.  In my view, this is a misconception, and in the plain meaning of the verse in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 6, 4) no monotheistic conception is expressed – and actually no monotheistic conception is expressed in the Hebrew Bible.

Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) in the beginning of his law code codifies the opening statements of the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not ten commandments) as a monotheistic principle – “I am the Lord your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”.  But, this is not the plain meaning of the verses.  Monotheism is a philosophic conception in which it is claimed that one God exists of the entire universe, and no other gods exist in reality.  The opening statements of the ten statements do not express a monotheistic principle, but declare that YHVH (the great unpronounceable name of God) is the God of Israel and that the people Israel are not to serve other gods – “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”.  The demand of loyalty to one God (YHVH) is directed to a particular people, the people Israel, and there is no denial of the existence of other gods of other peoples – and, most important, the demand of loyalty is not a philosophic and orthodox (correct belief) proposition (of the rational mind) but of a psychological, moral and orthoprax (correct deeds) nature (of the heart and of behavior).

Indeed, the Torah, in these opening statements of the ten statements and in general, presupposes the existence of other gods of other peoples rather than denying their existence.  The statement “I am the Lord your God” declares that YHVH is the God of Israel (to whom the people Israel are to be loyal) among the many gods that are presumed to exist; while the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples.  Furthermore, Abraham refers to YHVH as the “most high God” implying that YHVH is the greatest God among a pantheon of gods (Genesis 14, 22).  After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Biblical term is Reed Sea and not Red Sea), in the song of the sea, it is written, “Who is like unto You, O Lord (YHVH) among the gods?” (Exodus 15, 11).  The verse presupposes the existence of other gods who cannot be compared to YHVH.  In addition, in the ten statements YHVH is referred to as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20, 5) who demands exclusive worship (service) and loyalty.  Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?

The great revolution of the Bible then is not monotheism but the way in which God is conceived.  The Biblical conception of God is not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe; rather, the Biblical conception is that God is not only powerful in having created the universe, but most importantly a moral God of redemption who demands morality.  These two complementary aspects of one God (power and morality) are reflected in the two Biblical terms for God – Elohim and YHVH (the Hebrew letters constituting the unpronounceable name of God).  Elohim is the source of power and associated with the creation of the universe, and YHVH is the source of morality associated with revelation and redemption.  The term Elohim is technically not a name of God, and is usually translated in English as God; the term YHVH is the very name of God in the Bible, and is usually translated in English as the Lord – and, the name YHVH signifies that the very essence of God is that God demands morality.  The revelation to Moses at the burning bush is of God’s name signifying that God demands morality and will thus redeem the people Israel from slavery and oppression – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18).  YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution.

In Hebrew, letters have a numerical value, and words have a numerical value, called gematria, based upon the sum total of the letters of the word.  The gematria, numerical value, of Elohim is 86, and the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nature that God has created is 86.  There is also gematria in support of the idea that the essence of the term YHVH is morality.  Nachmanides, the great commentator of the 13th century, points out that the verse, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19, 18), is not grammatical.  The literal translation as actually written would be “And you shall love to your neighbor as yourself”.  Thus, the verse does not literally or actually require that we love our neighbor but that we give love to our neighbor in a moral sense.  The command applies to any relationship (and not just intimate relationships), even if we do not know our neighbor at all (and do not love our neighbor in a personal sense).  It requires simply that we treat our neighbor as we ourselves would want to be treated.  The Hebrew word for love has a numerical value of 13; and thus, on the basis of the verse “love to your neighbor as yourself”, when there is love (13) in a moral sense between two people (13 x 2), then the continuation of the verse is fulfilled, “I am the Lord (YHVH)” – as the numerical value of YHVH is 26.  That is, YHVH, the God of revelation and redemption, is revealed in the world, and redemption is experienced, when there is love in a moral sense between human beings.

The distinction between Elohim and YHVH is reflected in a number of important Biblical sources, in Talmudic sources and in traditional prayers – and is reflected in the Shema, the great declaration of faith of the Jewish tradition.  The original meaning of the verse Shema in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6, 4), which is usually translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, is not theological and not monotheistic in its conception.  The word that is usually translated as one is so translated according to a later monotheistic conception, and can also mean alone in Biblical Hebrew.  The preferable translation of the verse (in light of the verses that I previously cited presupposing the existence of other gods of other peoples) is, as the Rashbam (a commentator who lived in the 12th century) understood – “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHVH) is our God (Elohim), the Lord (YHVH) alone“.  The verse is then in accordance with the conception of the opening of the ten statements – “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”.  In both cases (the opening of the ten statements and the verse Shema) the conception is that YHVH is the God of Israel, and the people Israel are to serve and be loyal to only one God, YHVH and YHVH alone, among the many gods (and, significantly, the existence of other gods of other peoples is not denied but presupposed).  The original meaning of the verse Shema in the Torah is not a philosophic (orthodox) proposition (of the rational mind), but an (orthoprax) expression of loyalty and moral commitment (of the heart).  The verse expresses the idea that the people Israel are to be loyal to YHVH alone, and is a moral commitment to fulfill the moral will of YHVH, the God of Israel, who is the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe (Elohim) – such a moral commitment flowing from being loyal to YHVH who demands morality.

In the Biblical conception of faith, which is a psychological rather than philosophic conception, faith necessarily expresses itself in the greater goal of proper actions revealing psychological and moral character.  Thus, if one declares that he or she believes in God, and yet acts immorally, the immoral actions are testimony that such a person does not truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart; and, conversely, if one declares that he or she does not believe in God, and yet acts morally, the moral actions are testimony that such a person does truly believe in God in an experiential and psychological sense of the heart.  Moral character constituting faith in a psychological sense of the heart (in distinction to abstract philosophic or theological belief divorced from behavior) is truly revealed only in actions and not philosophic declarations.

I want to cite a Talmudic source that stands out in which Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha understands the Shema as expressing a conception of faith that is psychological and orthoprax (of the heart) rather than philosophic and orthodox (of the rational mind) faithful to the Bible (Brachot 2, 2):

Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha said:  Why does “Shema” (first paragraph) precede “V’haya im shamoa” (second paragraph)?  So that one may accept the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven first, and after that accept the yoke of the commandments.

Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha is speaking about the order of the paragraphs of the reading of the Shema in the traditional prayer book, which consists of three paragraphs each from a different part of the Torah – Deuteronomy 6, 4-9 (Shema), Deuteronomy 11, 13-21 (V’haya im shamoa) and Numbers 15, 37-41 (Vayomer).  In the passage that I have cited he is asking and responding to the question of why Shema (the first paragraph) precedes V’haya im shamoa (the second paragraph).  His answer is that Shema, which expresses faith in God (the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven), precedes V’haya im shamoa that expresses a commitment to observe commandments regulating behavior (the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments) – and his psychological conception of faith is reflected in his use of the term yoke reflecting a difficult spiritual struggle both regarding faith in God and observance of commandments.  For Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, faith in God in the psychological and experiential sense of loyalty (the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven), which expresses itself in a moral commitment to fulfill the moral will of God, precedes the observance of commandments (the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments), which is in fulfillment of the moral will of God.

Regarding faith in God in a philosophic and propositional sense that God exists – either one believes or does not believe but there is no difficult spiritual struggle involved.  Faith in a philosophic sense is a matter of persuasion and conviction, and once persuaded or convinced that God exists or does not exist, there is no spiritual struggle at all.  By contrast, Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha in using the term yoke regarding faith in God and observance of commandments is speaking about a difficult spiritual struggle involved in the commitment to fulfill the moral will of God to live a moral life (as God in the Biblical conception is a moral God who demands morality) and in the commitment to observe commandments that express the moral will of God – a moral and spiritual struggle in which one must overcome oneself in dealing with and learning to control one’s drives and passions.

Parenthetically, Maimonides is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify philosophic principles of faith within a legal framework as a binding theological dogma – codifying his “13 Principles of Faith” as commandments in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.  Such a codification of a binding dogma reflecting an orthodox (correct belief) conception is a distortion of the orthoprax (correct practice) nature of the Jewish tradition – and there is no such binding dogma in the Bible and the Talmudic rabbis did not codify a binding dogma.  In my view, Maimonides was aware that a binding dogma is a distortion of traditional Talmudic Judaism, according to which the commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are positive and negative commandments of action, and not of faith or belief; and, he codified his principles only for the unlearned Jewish masses as a political and religious leader (and not as a philosopher) in the main for historical reasons in order to strengthen them (as Christians and Moslems had codified principles of belief).  Maimonides in his codification in his law code of the laws of reading the Shema (1, 2) does not bring Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha’s reason that the paragraph Shema precedes V’haya im shamoa:

The paragraph Shema is recited first because it contains commandments concerning God’s unity, the love of God, and the study of God, which is the basic principle on which all depends?  After it, V’haya im shamoa is recited since the passage commands obedience to all the other commandments.

Regarding the reciting of the first paragraph of the reading of the Shema, Maimonides presents faith in a philosophic and propositional sense as the acceptance of principles of belief – in contradistinction to Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha’s psychological and experiential conception of faith as loyalty to God necessarily expressing itself in a moral commitment to fulfill the moral will of God.  Maimonides transforms the reading of the Shema from an orthoprax (correct practice) matter (on the basis of the view of Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha as brought in the Talmud) of accepting the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven (in the sense of a moral commitment) to an orthodox (correct belief) matter of accepting theological principles of faith.

Significantly, Maimonides omits the term yoke that is so crucial for Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, and Maimonides speaks instead of principles of belief such as unity of God.  In Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha’s orthoprax conception the essence of the reading of Shema is a moral commitment to fulfill the moral will of God, which necessarily involves a great spiritual struggle (implied in the word yoke) to control one’s drives and passions; whereas in Maimonides’ orthodox conception the essence of the reading of Shema is the belief in philosophic principles that must be accepted, which involves no spiritual struggle at all.  Most important, one may believe in the unity of God, fulfilling the essence of the command of the reading of Shema according to Maimonides, and yet act in a wicked way (and not necessarily observe commandments and Jewish law) as there is no necessary connection between philosophic belief and moral action.  By contrast, according to Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha, if one accepts the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven (to fulfill the moral will of God) in fulfilling the essence of the reading of the Shema (as reflected in the first paragraph), then such a person will necessarily act in a moral and righteous way even if such a person does not accept the yoke of commandments (as reflected in the second paragraph), and is not observant of a traditional Jewish life of commandments, law and ritual practice – a moral life of righteousness and goodness being the very essence of religion in the Biblical conception as reflected in the verse “You shall do that which is right (righteous) and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18), which demands morality above and beyond the observance of commandments, law and ritual practice (as reflected in the previous verse Deuteronomy 6, 17 demanding observance of commandments).

Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology, Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – https://www.amazon.com/Reconciling-Contradictory-Abraham-Orthoprax-Anti-Theological/dp/1946124176/ .

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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