While I’m deep in my studies about the Shema, I receive this email from a colleague:
I have a question that relates to one of my children’s friends at school, who has a Jewish mother and a Christian father… She is interested in Yeshua as Messiah but has questions about the Trinity and the Shema balancing out. I am trying to help my 14-year-old son to have these conversations with her.
Now I know how our sages Shammai and Hillel must have felt when a Gentile came to each one of them and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Except it would have been a 14-year-old asking the question—and I’m not quite as smart as Hillel and Shammai.
But, let’s give it a shot.
For starters, I’d say that balancing the Trinity and the Shema is one of those apples and oranges deals. The Trinity is a highly refined theological statement about the nature of God. The Shema is a much simpler statement (although no less profound) and wasn’t originally about the nature of God at all. The Shema, unlike the Trinity, isn’t trying to define the Oneness of God, but is telling us to be loyal to the One God.
It’s true, however, that people, especially Jewish people, often see the Shema as completely at odds with the idea of the Trinity, or of Immanuel, God with us, as Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be. Why is this? As I say in my last blog, “Doing the Shema,” the translation of the Shema as, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” does sound like a statement of absolute monotheism, a description of God as unified and indivisible. Perhaps the best-known version of this view comes in Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith from the twelfth century, which is part of the Jewish prayer book to this day:
I believe with perfect faith
that the Creator, blessed be His name, is One;
that there is no oneness like His in any way;
and that He alone is our God who was, is, and ever will be. (Koren Siddur, p. 202)
Maimonides is using the Hebrew word yachid for One here, instead of echad, which is used for One in the Shema itself. In the Torah, neither yachid nor its root yachad is ever used to describe God. By Maimonides’ time, however, it came to define Jewish monotheism. Why the change? One reason was the rise of Christianity and its doctrine of the Trinity, which came to be seen as totally un-Jewish. The behavior of official Christianity, with its expanding oppression of the Jewish people, didn’t help either. Maimonides helped build a protective wall against Christian thinking that still stands today.
But, as I pointed out in my last blog, there’s another way to translate the Shema, which also has roots in the Medieval period, and appears in the most recent Jewish Publication Society version: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This reading fits a lot better in the original context of Deuteronomy, where the Shema was first given to Israel. It wasn’t a theological definition of God, but a command to worship God only, and have no other gods. The Jewish Study Bible comments: “Modern readers regard the Shema as an assertion of monotheism, a view that is anachronistic. In the context of ancient Israelite religion, it served as a public proclamation of exclusive loyalty to Hashem as the sole Lord of Israel.”
The Shema isn’t really dealing with the nature of God’s Oneness, as Maimonides and Judaism after his time reads it. Instead, it is saying that for us, Israel, the Lord is “the One and Only,” as the Artscroll Siddur puts it. In its original context, Moses gives the Shema after reminding Israel that God has graciously chosen us and delivered us out of bondage into his service. Therefore we are to choose Hashem alone as our God.
So, I didn’t quite get all this out while standing on one foot, and it doesn’t yet balance the Trinity and the Shema, as my friend’s father is requesting. But it’s a start—the Shema is a command, a statement of relationship more than a statement of theology, and that gives us some room to explore its relationship with belief in Yeshua as Immanuel, God with us. Since Yeshua himself says that this is the greatest of the commandments, there must be a way to believe in him and be loyal to the Shema at the same time, but that will take another blog.
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 http://umjc.org/home-mainmenu-1/news-mainmenu-40/1-latest/724-seattle-congregation-pioneers-messianic-mussar-.