Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Shema: Commentary by Rabbi Simchah Roth, of blessed memory

I apologize for not adding to this blog very often. Maybe over the summer when I'm not teaching I'll have time for it, but this week I want to remember Rabbi Simchah Roth, who edited the first edition of Ve'ani Tefillati by sharing some translations of the introduction he wrote to the Shema (pages 101-02 in the 2nd edition). He passed away this week. May his memory be a blessing.

The verse “Shema Yisrael” is so central in Jewish faith that is to be read with extraordinary intention – slowly, pronouncing every letter and word, and while thinking about the meaning of the words. It is an ancient custom to close one’s eyes or cover them while saying this verse, in order to prevent any distraction. Congregational singing helps achieve these goals.

The verse “Shema Yisrael” is a fundamental concept in Judaism, stressing the faith in one God, which is a revolutionary intellectual innovation that the people of Israel offered the entire world. First, the worshiper testifies two things: he declares a belief in monotheism, belief in one God who is singular and exclusive; he also declares acceptance of God’s authority. A consequence of this belief in the unity of God is a belief in the unity of the universe and everything therein: God is one, universe is one, and humanity as one. Just as the Kabbalists say: “God, the Torah and the people of Israel are one.” The one God lives and exists, but he is not part of the physical world. Judaism considers any other understanding of God’s existence to be idolatry…

The theme of the second paragraph of the Shema is the acceptance of the commandments. The basic psychological assumption of Judaism is that people can control their behavior, they are neither puppets nor preprogrammed robots. Rather each one decides what to do, good or bad, and God does not interfere in any way. Unlike animals, people do not act only on the basis of instinct, rather their actions are in their control: they can act otherwise if they so choose. On the other hand, people know that God has defined the good and promised its reward, and also defined the not-good and warned about its consequences. Without this basic assumption, the concept of commandment has no meaning. There is no point in commanding someone who cannot do anything else. Only free choice gives moral meaning to the concepts of commandment, sin, regret and repentance.

Modern Jewish philosophy does not have a problem with the concept of “free will.” But it does have a problem with the concept of “reward and punishment” as it appears in the second paragraph of the Shema, where iT states that if the people of Israel act according to God’s will, he will bless them with bounty and if they do evil, the result will be the exact opposite: failed harvests, want and hunger, culminating in the loss of political independence. One possible way out of this difficulty is to read the first verses of this paragraph with a different construction, as a main conditional clause (“If you obey...”) followed by a series of subordinate conditional clauses:  [and if] I grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late; [and if] you gather in your new grain and wine and oil; [and if] I provide grass in the fields for your cattle; [and if] you eat your fill and are satisfied, then take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them...

In other words: “Even if I bless you with economic wealth and prosperity because you have observed My commandments, you must, nevertheless, be very careful not to lapse into idolatry.”
This reading is consistent with the style of biblical Hebrew, and also makes the text relevant.
Precisely when living in conditions of plenty, there is a risk of idol worship, bowing down to new, demanding “deities.” Our society knows these gods very well. This understanding of the paragraph us consistent with rabbinic statement: “the reward of a commandment, is a commandment; the recompense of sin, is sin (M. Avot 4:2)