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God Is Echad
By any measure, the one passage in all of Scripture that every Jew, whatever his or her identification with Judaism, will recognize is Deuteronomy 6:4, commonly known as "the Shema." It appears more frequently in the traditional liturgy than any other single passage in the entire Bible. Worshiping Jews recite it daily, morning and evening, and more frequently on the Sabbath and festivals. It is also the most ancient biblical passage to be incorporated into our liturgy, dating at least from the days of the Second Temple (before 70 C.E.). It has been the traditional "last word" of Jewish martyrs throughout the ages, and to this day pious Jews pray that they may be able to recite this verse as death approaches. Their model for this practice was the second-century C.E. talmudic sage and martyr Rabbi Akiva, of whom, legend recounts, "his soul left him as he was saying the word echad," the final word of the passage (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61 b).
In its original context, the verse is part of Moses' extended sermon to the Israelites prior to his death and to their entering the Promised Land. Moses begins by exhorting the people to revere God and to observe and obey God's Torah (literally, "Instruction"), so that they may increase and prosper in the land that God has promised to them. Then comes the Shema, followed immediately by the almost equally familiar exhortation to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
The Shema versehas suffered the fate of other familiar texts: it has come to be recited almost mindlessly, with little attention to what it really means. In fact, its meaning is not all that obvious. The translation of the verse in the English edition published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1985 reads "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone." A footnote in the text adds the more familiar "the Lord our God, the Lord is One." That latter reading—sometimes with a minor variation in the first phrase, "the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"—is omnipresent in traditional prayer books. A further variation is to translate the first word as "Hearken" or "Take heed" rather than "Hear."
"The Lord is One" is by far the more conventional translation because the Hebrew word echad is usually translated as "one," the first in the chain of integers. However, that translation has been subject to much criticism. It is not at all clear what it means to claim that any single being is in fact "one." Is this a mathematical statement? God is one, not two or three? Hearing this, one might be tempted to add, "One what?" The word is an adjective, but here there is no noun for it to modify. God may be "one," but so is this apple in my hand. To refer to this apple as "one" implies that there are other apples around but that I am holding one apple, not two or three. Does this also apply to God?
That is why the translation "the Lord alone" has much to commend it. It indicates that Israel's God alone is Israel's Lord; God is the only Lord. The other putative gods do not qualify to be Israel's Lord. The claim that God is echad is now a statement about the exclusivity of this God to Israel. That understanding is borne out by the use of the word our in the verse. For Israel, God alone is God. The statement expresses Israel's relationship to God. Thus, the verse probably means something along these lines: "Take heed, O Israel! The Lord our God alone is God."
If this is the literal meaning of the verse, then it is echoed elsewhere in the Bible—for example, in the first two of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6): "I am the Lord your God.... You shall have no other gods besides Me ... in the heavens above, or on earth below, or in the waters under the earth." That formulation accentuates the relational nature of the claim that God alone is our God. For Israel, God alone is God. Israel shall have no other gods besides this one. That is why we are to love this God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might.
How can we be commanded to love anything? Can feelings be commanded? The Bible does in fact suggest that people can be commanded to have certain feelings. The last of the ten commandments, for example, instructs us not to covet. Elsewhere, we are told not to bear hatred to our kinfolk in our hearts. In the Bible there is no clear distinction between a feeling itself and the expression of that feeling in action or behavior. In this context, then, the command to love God includes the command that we are to act lovingly toward God. Even more, we are to act lovingly with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might. This threefold formula lends a note of urgency or emphasis to the command. How are we to act lovingly toward God? Exceedingly! Emphatically! Exclusively! We are to take God's instructions to heart, the passage continues. We are to impress them on our children, recite them morning and evening, bind them on our hands and foreheads, and inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and our gates. (The latter two references account for tefillin, the black leather boxes worn on the upper arm and the forehead when worshiping in the morning, and the mezuzah affixed to our doorposts. Both contain this passage inscribed on parchment.)
The juxtaposition of God being echad with the obligation to love God "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" implies that because this God is exclusively our God, we are to grant this God exclusive loyalty. The claim is twofold: a statement about the nature of God and, at the same time, a statement about how we are to relate to this God. Because God alone is God, we should worship this God exclusively and totally.
The notion that God alone is exclusively Israel's God is also borne out by the practice, when writing a Torah scroll, of inscribing the last letter of the first Hebrew word of the verse (an ayin) and the last letter of its last word (a dalet) in large boldface. Put together, the letters form the Hebrew word eid, or "witness." By reciting the passage, Israel becomes witness to God's absolute sovereignty.
In another homiletical extension of this notion, the Rabbis of the Talmud note a second biblical use of the word echad, this time applied to Israel, and, typically, they find a common thread between the two uses. 1 Chronicles 17:20-22 reads:
O Lord, there is none like You, and there is no other God but You.... And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth, whom God went and redeemed as His people.... You have established Your people Israel as Your very own people forever; and You, O Lord, have become their God.
In this passage, the Hebrew term for "unique" is also echad. God and Israel share the quality of being unique to each other; these two "uniquenesses" are mutually dependent. As Israel proclaims God's uniqueness (by wearing tefillin and reciting the Shema), so does God establish Israel's uniqueness—in a stunning image that has God wearing tefillin in which is inscribed this verse from Chronicles, just as human tefillin contain the Shema (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a).
This interdependence of God's and Israel's uniqueness is captured in the liturgical passage of rabbinic origin that immediately precedes the recitation of the Shema in the morning service. The conclusion of the passage reads:
You have chosen us from among every people and tongue, and you have brought us close to Your great name forever in truth, to offer praiseful thanks to You, and to proclaim Your uniqueness with love. Blessed are you, God, who chooses His people Israel with love.
This segues into the Shema verse and then the continuation of the biblical passage, "And you shall love the Lord your God ..."
In this passage, to "love" and to "choose" are synonyms, and both are also synonymous with proclaiming someone as unique, as singled out. The relation is between two exclusivities, and this mutuality of exclusivities implies a mutuality of loyalties. As we proclaim God's uniqueness, so does God proclaim Israel's uniqueness by "choosing" Israel from among the peoples. As God loves Israel, so Israel is to love God "with all your heart," etc. What else does "love" mean than that I and the one I love are exclusively loyal to each other, to the exclusion of anyone else—especially one I love "with all my heart"?
In a more modern idiom, the theme of mutual exclusivity is best captured by Martin Buber's notion of an I-Thou relationship. The difference between an I-Thou relationship and an I-It relationship is that the latter tolerates any number of different "It"s and "I"s; I have multiple I-It relationships—with bus drivers, store clerks, the maintenance workers in my apartment building—none of which is exclusive; they can all be easily replaced. But in my I-Thou relationships—with my wife and daughters—both the I and the Thou are unique and exclusive to each other. Of course, I can also have multiple I-Thou relationships, but in each of these the I and the Thou acknowledge the uniqueness and personhood of the Thou.
The notion that the Shema is a statement about God's exclusivity and our corresponding responsibility to be loyal only to God is captured by the claim of the rabbinic tradition that the very recitation of this passage with inner focus and full attention constitutes a Jew's "acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven." It is an example of "performative language," in which saying certain words is an activity, a deed. As in the similar "Harai at mekudeshet li betaba'at zu kedat moshe veyisrael," or "Behold, you are sanctified unto me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel," the recitation of the words has a substantive effect; it is our human way of accepting God as the absolute in our lives. Just as the recitation of those words establishes the couple as husband and wife, so the recitation of these words establishes God as exclusively our God.
Maimonides' interpretation of the Shema takes our understanding of this passage in a very different direction. As the heir to two ancient traditions—the biblical-talmudic readings of Judaism and the Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and their successors—his central agenda was to reconcile these two traditions. Since truth is singular, and since he was convinced that both traditions were true, he concluded that they must ultimately be saying the same thing, albeit in different idioms. His goal was to expose the underlying commonalities in the two traditions.
This enterprise inevitably lends a certain abstract, philosophical tone to his discussion of the existence and nature of God. His earliest commentary on the Shema verse is in an extended essay included in his first major book, Commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah, compiled about the year 200 C.E., was the earliest comprehensive codification of the entire body of Jewish scriptural and oral legal traditions to that date. The brunt of Maimonides' essay (called "Introduction to Chelek," chelek being the Hebrew name of the tenth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin) deals with Jewish teachings regarding the end of days, the messianic era, the world to come after the culmination of history. (The association comes from the beginning of the Mishnah text, which claims that "All Israel has a share [chelek] in the world to come.") The essay as a whole describes the author's understanding of what will transpire in the world to come and how one can qualify to achieve a place in that new age.
At the end of the essay, Maimonides includes a set of Thirteen Principles of Faith that constitute his assertion of the beliefs that he claims all Jews must accept in order to merit a share in the messianic age. The second principle reads as follows:
We are told to believe that God is one, the cause of all oneness. He is not like a member of a pair, nor a species of a genus, nor a person divided into many discrete elements. Nor is He one in the sense that a simple body is, numerically, one but still infinitely divisible. God, rather, is uniquely one.
He then quotes the Shema as a biblical proof-text.
Apart from that last sentence, the statement is familiar. It dismisses most of the more common erroneous interpretations of the verse. However, what is the import of that last sentence? In what sense is God "uniquely one"?
To answer this, we should turn to another statement, this time in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, a fourteen-volume compendium of Jewish law. Legal codes usually prescribe correct behavior, but Maimonides opens his work with an extensive compilation of Jewish philosophical teachings, which he understands to be as binding for the believing Jew as the behavioral laws—a scandalous notion to his contemporaries. Indeed, to this day many Jews would assert that authentic Jewish identity demands observance of the behavioral commandments much more than correct belief. Maimonides would disagree.
In chapter 10, paragraph 2, of the section entitled "Basic Principles of the Torah," he writes:
The Holy One, blessed be He, realizes His true being, and knows it as it is, not with a knowledge external to Himself, as is our knowledge. For our knowledge and ourselves are separate. But as for the Creator, blessed be He, His knowledge and His life are One, in all aspects, from every point of view, and however we conceive Unity. If the Creator lived as other living creatures live, and His knowledge were external to Himself, there would be a plurality of deities, namely: He Himself, His life, and His knowledge. This, however, is not so. He is One in every aspect, from every angle, and in all ways in which Unity is conceived. Hence the conclusion that God is the One who knows, is known, and is the knowledge [of Himself]—all these being One.
He then concludes this somewhat tortuous exposition as follows: "This is beyond the power of speech to express, beyond the capacity of the ear to hear and of the human mind to apprehend clearly." To which we would surely respond, "Amen."
What is Maimonides trying to say here? His purpose is to emphasize the total integrity of God's essence. When we deal with human beings, we understand that our very selves, our lives, and our knowledge can be separated from each other; they seem to represent aspects of our personality that don't depend on each other. My knowledge is separate from myself in the sense that there was an "I" before I acquired knowledge, and there will continue to be an "I" after I have forgotten what I know. Knowledge, then, is not intrinsic to my essence.
Not so with God. Knowledge is intrinsic to God's nature. God is intrinsically knowledge, and God's essence is knowledge itself. This leads to the claim that God is simultaneously the subject of knowledge (the One who knows), the verb or activity of knowing, and the object of knowledge (that which is known). That knowledge is the supreme value—the very mark of God—Maimonides learned from Greek philosophy. God, then, is the supreme embodiment of the supreme virtue. To claim that God is "one" is to insist that God is not only syntactically but also metaphysically subject, verb, and object, all at the same time, all eternally and without change. To put it another way, God is "knowledge knowing knowledge," or "knowledge knowing itself." For Maimonides, that's what the Shema means when it affirms that God is "one."
To put this another way, for Maimonides, God's oneness is a statement about the integrity of God's nature. However, note the effect of Maimonides' transformation of the biblical passage; it is quite characteristic of how he transforms the bulk of biblical and rabbinic teachings in order to achieve his synthesis of Torah and Greek philosophy. The Shema is no longer a statement of Israel's relationship to God or of how God and Israel are to be exclusively committed to each other. It now becomes an abstract, philosophically rigorous articulation of God's essential nature. From a biblical statement that bears a rich emotional message, it becomes a philosophical one that satisfies the mind. It embodies much more of Aristotle than of the Bible. It is no small wonder that this thinker's teachings proved to be so controversial to his contemporaries.
Living under One God
In its original context the Shema was a statement about Israel's relationship to God, but it is also a statement about how our ancestors viewed the world. What was it in the experience of our ancestors that led them to proclaim that God is indeed the only god? Our ancestors were ordinary human beings, not intrinsically different from you or me. They observed the same world that we do—nature, history, and the entire gamut of human experience. From these observations they reached certain conclusions about how their experience of the world achieved a measure of coherence. The key to that effort was the notion that this experience, taken as a whole, reflected the presence and power of a single, unique, and transcendent Being.
That conviction was not the only one possible. They could have concluded, as their pagan neighbors did, that the world is governed by a multitude of competing deities, each ruling over a portion of the world, or that there are two gods, one personifying the impetus for order in the world and the other the impetus for chaos or anarchy. Either of these conclusions could easily be supported by the evidence that was available to them.
In fact, that dualistic conception of the world seems to make perfect sense even today. The world does seem to manifest both order and anarchy. The sun does rise every morning, and the seasons do seem to follow each other in a totally predictable way, but then there are the earthquakes, the hurricanes, the tornados, and the epidemics that wreak terrible havoc on perfectly innocent people. Airplane crashes take human lives seemingly at random; people die from seemingly unpredictable coronaries; children are born with unexpected genetic defects. Therefore, does the world manifest one integrated system, or is it inherently discordant, ruptured, and ambiguous? Each view has its trade-offs. Accept the view of an ordered world, and then you have to account for the chaos. Accept the view of an anarchic world, and then you have to account for the order that is also manifestly there. Our ancestors opted for the first view. They viewed the world as inherently ordered, and they accounted for this order by positing the presence of one, single, supreme, and transcendent God who is both the cause and the principle of the order. Then they worked mightily to account for the seemingly inexplicable suffering that hovers beneath and around the periphery of the order.
We have explicit evidence that our ancestors were aware of a dualistic view of the world, the possibility that the world is ruled by two warring supreme powers, and that they rejected it. A passage in Second Isaiah reads
So that they may know, from east to west,
That there is none but Me.
I am the Lord, and there is none else,
I form light and create darkness,
I make order and create bad.
I the Lord do all these things.
This prophet lived and prophesied among the exiled Jewish community in Persia in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E., where the reigning religion was Zoroastrianism. Persians believed that there were two warring gods, a god of light and a god of darkness. When the god of light won out, good or order reigned; when the god of darkness won out, bad or chaos reigned. This theological dualism reflected a reading of human experience that still makes perfect sense to us today, but the prophet emphatically rejects it. There is only one God, and this God accounts for both light and darkness, for both the good and the bad in the world. With all the problems that this unified reading of the world raises, that prophet still proclaims the classical, biblical view of the world as unified and, with it, the monotheistic image of God. The world is one and so is God.
The world is not simply given to us. How we view the world is an act of human or cultural construction, and different cultures construct the world in different ways. Our ancestors concluded that the entire world—the broadest possible canvas—manifests one singular, all-encompassing, and coherent order. That assumption could be seen to fly in the face of the evidence provided by earthquakes, hurricanes, and epidemics. Yet, our ancestors insisted on it and made it a cornerstone of their faith. They "saw through" the variegated, often contradictory evidence of their senses to perceive an elusive but strikingly unified order that pervades all things. To borrow a term from contemporary physics, they proposed a "unified field theory"—one formula that explains why all things are as they are. They were making a statement about God, but in the same breath they were making a statement about the world as a whole.
Finally, they were also making a statement that had a powerful psychological subtext. What is it like to live in a world that is ruled by two or more gods? It means that the realm of the divine was marked by a state of perpetual indecision, and perpetual indecision above breeds perpetual insecurity below. One simply never knows who is running things today. The alternative position has its own problems, and we will have to deal with that ensemble of problems—what we call "the problem of evil" or "suffering," why bad things happen to good people—later in this inquiry, but Judaism clearly preferred to tackle those issues than the ones raised by dualism or polytheism.
A talmudic homily suggests a similar conclusion:
[God] appeared [to the Israelites] at the Red Sea as a mighty hero doing battle.... At Sinai [God] appeared to them as an old person full of compassion.... Therefore Scripture would not let the nations of the world have an excuse for saying that there are two powers, but declares: "I am the Lord your God. I am the one who was in Egypt, and I am the one who was at the Sea. I am the one who was at Sinai. I am the one who was in the past, and I will be in the future. I am the one in this world, and I am the one who will be in the world to come."
Is the World Really One?
Our experience of the world is that it is not really one. If it is not one, then is God really echad, now, in history, and in our lifetime? One prophetic text suggests that neither is the case now. Zechariah 14 is an extended description of what will take place when "the day of the Lord" arrives. It is an apocalyptic vision of the tumultuous events that will take place at the end of days. All the familiar patterns of nature and history will be overthrown. The world as we know it, together with Israel's enemies, will be destroyed, and in its place God will erect a new world in which all nations will join Israel in worshiping the only true God. In this context, the prophet proclaims: "And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name" (14:9).
That text too has entered our daily liturgy as the final note in the prayer that concludes every service of worship, the prayer that begins with the words Alenu LeShabeach ("It is our duty to praise ..."). That prayer, composed during the talmudic age, proclaims a vision of the end of days when all peoples "will accept the yoke of Your kingship so that You will reign over them soon and eternally." The passage then cites the verse from Zechariah as its proof-text.
Again, as with the Shema, what does that verse mean? The original Hebrew uses the term echad twice here, to characterize both God and God's name: on that day, God shall be echad, and God's name echad. The more conventional translation of the verse reads, "on that day, God will be One and His name One." Because of the ambiguity surrounding the notion that God has "one name," the 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation footnotes an interpretation of the verse as follows: "The Lord alone shall be worshiped and shall be invoked by His own name."
Even that interpretation misses the true sense of the passage, however. It should be understood, rather, as an extension of the Shema, which it so clearly echoes by its own double use of the word echad. The Shema claims that God is Israel's God, exclusively, but not the God of the nations of the world. The Zechariah passage claims that "on that day"—namely, at the end of days, in the age of the Messiah—God will also be acknowledged by all the nations of the world. Only then will God be truly echad—for all of humanity. Only at the culmination of history as we know it will God's sovereignty be ultimate.
The liturgy barely conceals a remarkable tension. In one breath, we affirm that God is now ultimate; in another breath, we affirm that God will become ultimate only in some messianic future. This tension reflects the tension inherent in bur experience. Our ancestors were painfully aware of the discordancies, the flaws, and the ruptures that pervade our experience of the world and of human life, all the while insisting that beyond and through these discordancies there is an ultimate unity of impulse and purpose. In history these two visions are in tension, but at the end of days they will be totally resolved. Then God will be truly unique.
Is God Lonely?
We have devoted the bulk of this chapter to discussing the various meanings of the biblical claim that God is echad, beginning with the sense that the most accurate translation of the Shema verse is that for Israel and in historical time, God "alone" is God. One implication of that claim is that in the here and now, at least, God has one partner, Israel, and, as we know all too painfully, Israel's loyalty to God is often tenuous. A slight homiletical extension of that claim leads to the further suggestion that if God alone is God, then God is also lonely.
This suggestion opens a vast panorama of new possibilities regarding Israel's perception of God. We all too frequently think of God as having it all together. God is omnipotent and omniscient; God lacks nothing and needs nothing; God is totally invulnerable. Yet, the entire story of God's relationship with the world, with people, and even with Israel is a story of ongoing frustration. Beginning with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, then with Cain and Abel, the generation of the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and continuing through Israel's wrestling with God in the desert and thereafter, the biblical account portrays God's persistent disappointment mingled with unflagging yearning. Whatever God hoped to accomplish by creating a world populated with people and by entering into a covenantal relationship with Israel—God's hopes, dreams, and expectations—none of this has come to pass. God continues to hope and to dream. In the meantime, God remains lonely.
We conclude on this note of tension, which will follow us throughout this study. Here, God is both echad and not, or not yet, echad. Elsewhere we will see that God is both powerful and singularly vulnerable, sometimes kind and nurturing and sometimes cruel and capricious. Our ancestors were not systematic theologians. They spoke out of their living experience of the world, and that experience was ambiguous. That ambiguity could not but be reflected in how they imaged God. Indeed, to different people at different points in history and in their personal lives, God was all of these, all at the same time. People were perfectly content to affirm both of these seemingly contradictory impulses. They lived with the tension. So must we.
|About The Way Into...||i|
|A Note on the Text||xix|
|Can people know anything about God?|
|Can people say anything about God?|
|Worshipful silence or metaphorical language?|
|The sin of idolatry: worshiping the image instead of God|
|We discover God and create the metaphors|
|Can we be sure that it is God that we discover?|
|1.||God Is Echad||17|
|The Shema: What does it mean?|
|One and not two, or unique?|
|Maimonides on God's integrity|
|Can love be commanded?|
|Israel loves God, and God loves Israel|
|Living in a world under one God|
|God is not yet Echad|
|God is lonely|
|2.||God Is Power||33|
|God's power is unchallenged|
|God even creates evil and reverses the course of nature|
|There are restraints on God's power: human freedom and the possibilities of repentance|
|God's power in nature and God's power in history|
|God's eventual defeat of death|
|3.||God Is Person||51|
|Two questions: "Where are you?" and "Where is your brother?"|
|God searches for us as we search for God|
|The hidden face of God|
|God as spouse, parent, and lover|
|The wrath of God|
|Anger versus abandonment|
|God as person or God as process|
|God can be moved|
|4.||God Is Nice (Sometimes)||71|
|Tensions in the Jewish image of God|
|How Psalms shaped the Jewish consciousness|
|God as nurturing, as refuge, and as rock|
|God heals what ails us|
|The issue of feminist God-language|
|God is a teacher|
|5.||God Is Not Nice (Sometimes)||89|
|The "down" images of God|
|From feelings to metaphors|
|The challenge of the Book of Job|
|Is God ethical?|
|The death of Rabbi Akiva|
|The problem of human suffering|
|The legitimacy of unbelief|
|The death of God|
|A liturgical challenge to God|
|6.||God Can Change||109|
|Can God really change?|
|How God deals with human sinfulness: the evolution of a doctrine|
|Sin is punished immediately, but the punishment must be just and it may be deferred|
|Repentance enters the picture|
|The message of the Book of Jonah|
|The Thirteen Attributes of God in the Bible and in the liturgy|
|Unetaneh Tokef: the development of a metaphor|
|The triad: creation, revelation, redemption|
|We are partners with God in all three|
|Four understandings of creation: as order out of anarchy, as anthropocentric, as the result of a primordial combat, as renewed daily and perpetually|
|From the Bible to the liturgy|
|Why four accounts?|
|God is not the conclusion but the point of departure|
|The principle of revelation and the fact of revelation|
|Does God choose Israel?|
|The content of revelation: the traditional position and three liberal interpretations|
|The image of God in each of these|
|We are partners with God in revelation|
|God in Exodus and God in the Joseph narrative|
|Heteronomy versus autonomy|
|To redeem is to save|
|From history to eschatology|
|The eschatological impulse|
|Three dimensions of Jewish eschatology: the universal, the national, and the individual|
|God's triumph over death|
|The world as not yet redeemed|
|We are partners with God in redemption|
|Repairing the world|
|God as the power that makes for salvation|
|Suggestions for Further Reading||199|
|About Jewish Lights Publishing||206|
Posted October 15, 2011