Doing the Shema

Judaism doesn’t put the same kind of emphasis on creeds or statements of faith that Christianity does. A true-blue conservative Christian worries first about what you believe and whether it’s orthodox. Only after he settles that, does he get around to what kind of person you are. Jews tend to consider whether or not you’re a mensch—a decent, upright human being—before they worry about what you believe. (Unless of course you believe in Yeshua, in  which case a lot of Jews freak out even if you are a mensch, but that’s another story.)

On the other hand, some people think of the Shema as a sort of Jewish statement of faith: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. But is it really a statement of faith? Or is it just as much about behavior as about belief?

I’m quoting the translation of the Shema that I remember from my childhood days at Temple Beth Israel in Southern California, but even back then it didn’t quite make sense. Why did it say “Lord” twice? And what did it mean to say “the Lord is one” exactly? I didn’t know it back then, but there was another way of interpreting the six Hebrew words of Deuteronomy 6:4—something like, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Or as the Artscroll Siddur winsomely states it: Hear O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem the One and Only.

This sort of translation goes back to the Medieval sages Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, who definitely knew their stuff. And it makes the Shema more of a commandment than a creedal statement. It’s not about the nature of God as One, but about something we are to “Hear,” heed, pay attention to, and obey: The Lord and only the Lord is our God. That’s how Yeshua saw it, because when someone asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah, he quoted the Shema (Mark 12:28ff.): Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. If we heed the fact that Hashem alone is our God, then Hashem alone has to be the object of our affections as they used to say.

So as I’m focusing on learning the Shema these days, I realize that I’ve been reciting it for a long time, but haven’t always been intent on practicing the whole-hearted love of God it commands. I’m getting some help from a book I mention in another blog, The Year of Living like Jesus by Ed Dobson (see WWDD, 13-10-11).

As I said, it’s a good read, and surprisingly inspiring, especially as Dobson touches on his battle with ALS (Lou Gehring disease), a grim, degenerative, and incurable affliction. Toward the end of the book, Dobson evaluates his experiment:

One of the many good things about this year has been that when I get up every morning, I focus on reading the Gospels and trying to live like Jesus instead of focusing on my latest muscle that doesn’t work. Focusing on Jesus and his teachings keeps me from unduly focusing on my own disease and deterioration.

Now, when I get up every morning, I don’t worry about my health, which is excellent, thank God. But my mind does tend to rev up with all kinds of worries and kvetches . . . until I remember the commandment: “V’ahavata, you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” When I’m wholehearted in my love for God, it doesn’t leave much room for worrying and kvetching. I realize that these are really just different forms of ingratitude—lamenting what I’ve lost, or never had, or might not have much longer, instead of being thankful for what I do have.

The Torah’s demand for exclusive loyalty to Hashem doesn’t seem oppressive or confining. I’m not so great at it, but I do find its call to listen up and love God to be invigorating indeed.

Join me on December 4 for an interactive seminar on Mussar along with Rabbi Jason and Malkah Forbes,  live in Seattle or online. It’s entitled Ma Nishma? Doing the Shema according to Mussar. Read more at



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