The following is a post I wrote for the Judaism Reclaimed Facebook page, a space that in general discusses Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah, by R’ Shmuel Phillips (Mosaica 2019). The opening in italics is an introduction by R’ Phillips. And the paragraph in sans-serif font was in my original submission, but removed from the post when edited for length.
Subtitles also added by Rabbi Phillips. (I am not sure I would talk about placing community “before” belief in unity as much as community being the purpose
The Vilna Gaon writes that this is what King David means when declares, “כִּי לַה׳ הַמְּלוּכָה וּמֹשֵׁל בַּגּוֹיִם – for Hashem has the Monarchy, and he Rules over the nations.” (Tehillim 20:29) Yes, Hashem rules over all the nations. The monotheists, the polytheists, and those who deny His existence alike. But what Hashem deserves is our acceptance of Him, to turn a Ruler into a King. Which is what Zechariah means when he speaks of the messianic age as one in which “וְהָיָ֧ה ה׳ לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כׇּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ – and Hashem will be Melekh over the whole earth” (Zechariah 14:9), or in Aleinu when we speak of the need “לְתַקֵּן \ לְתַכֵּן עולָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁקַּי – to perfect / establish the world by G-d’s Malkhus.” Yes, Hashem Rules now; but not all of humanity is with his plan. That is the messianic ideal we are working toward.
Also, the titles were added by Rabbi Phillips. I think the second one missed the point. So I changed it here from “PLACING COMMUNITY BEFORE BELIEF IN UNITY” to what you see below.
THE SHEMA: INDIVIDUALS’ INTELLECTUAL BELIEF OR BUILDING COMMUNAL VALUES?
With Judaism Reclaimed’s strong Maimonidean focus, one area of discomfort that I have with my book is its concentration on the (intellectual) relationship between man and God at the expense of the interpersonal aspects of Judaism. I am honoured that R’ Micha Berger, a frequent commenter and participant in this group’s discussions, has agreed to contribute a post to help rebalance the focus.
R’ Micha is perfectly placed for this task having authored Widen Your Tent – a book dedicated to highlighting the centrality of morality and being a ‘good person’ within Jewish thought (https://www.amazon.com/Widen-Your-Tent-Thoughts-Integrity/dp/1946351555).
Today’s Torah reading contained the Shema – possibly the most famous sentence in Jewish literature. Rambam’s opening chapter of Mishneh Torah draws upon “God is One” as a source for core principles of Jewish theology such as God’s unity, incorporeality and indivisibility. This verse is cited almost exclusively in the context of theology, and statements of belief regarding the nature of God. In this post, however, R’ Micha will argue that such an approach – like Rambam’s citation – skips the first two crucial words “Shema Yisrael” which, properly understood, provide a whole new layer of meaning to this famous teaching.
SHEMA YISRAEL: PLACING COMMUNITY AS THE PURPOSE AND EXPRESSION OF BELIEF IN UNITY
When most people are asked to think of the most fundamental verse in Judaism, they would probably cite the first one most of us are taught. “שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, ה׳ אֱלקֵינוּ, ה׳ אֶחָד – Listen Israel: Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.” (Devarim 6:4)
We talk a lot about what One means in this context. That G-d is Absolute, Indivisible, Unique. That the various ways we perceive G-d, the Divine Compassion seen in the events the Torah uses the tetragrammaton to highlight and the Justice seen in those told with the name Elokim, the Immanent G-d and the Transcendent Deity, the Cause of all existence and the King of Kings Lawgiver, they all only differ in perception. G-d is one.
Less often emphasized, though, is the beginning of the verse. Judaism’s doxology isn’t “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” It begins “Shema Yisrael – Listen, Israel.” Judaism is not about the believer who believes alone.
When Ruth declares her intent to convert, she opens, “Your nation is my nation,” and only then, “and your G-d is my G-d.” (Ruth 1:16) Being of the community is itself an essential of the Jewish Faith, and joining Israel is part of being a believer.
Which is why the Rambam in his discussion of who is beyond the pale – the various forms of heresy, someone who causes others who sin, someone who turns over a fellow Jew to hostile authorities or criminals, and among them, “haporeish midarkei tzibur – one who separates themselves from the ways of the community” has no portion in the World to Come. (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:11) Similarly, we condemn the Wicked Son of the Haggadah either in part or entirely for his referring to the seder as “what is this work for you”. The Haggadah highlights that he says “for you”, but not including himself. “And since he removed himself from the congregation, he denied a fundamental” of our faith. The wicked son isn’t condemned for denying “Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”, but for his not engaging in “Shema Yisrael.”
The next words in Shema obligate “and you shall love Hashem Your G-d…” After establishing the unity of the perceptions of Hashem and Elokim, we are called upon to relate to G-d emotionally. But what does it mean to love G-d?
Many people, when they think of love, think of two people who can’t say apart, who look into each other’s eyes. But that’s not the only way to love, certainly not the easiest way to love Someone as Unique as G-d, and perhaps not even the deepest kind of love. Antoine de Saint-Exupery has the title character of The Little Prince say, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”The love of an Avraham and Sarah, who are described as working together teaching monotheism and morality, working together to “make souls” in Charan. (Bereishis Rabba 39:14, quoted by Rashi on Bereishis 12:5)
In halachah, the role of reciting this paragraph of Shema is kabbalas ol Malchus Shamayim – accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of [the One in] heaven.
But what does that mean? Isn’t Hashem ruling over me whether I state the fact or not? What is added by accepting the yoke of His Rule?
A melech, a king, isn’t the same thing as a moshel, a ruler. A king is a kind of ruler, but a melech has one more element. There is a Rabbinic aphorism, “there is no king without a nation.” A king or queen isn’t anyone who rules, it’s someone who rules with the acclimation of the people. A melech conforms to a social contract; the people support the king, and the king protects and provides for the prosperity and happiness of the people. A moshel who rules without this symbiotic relationship with the ones ruled will necessarily occasionally be at odds with them. And so, even a benevolent dictator may at times be forced to impose his will on those ruled.
We say Shema to turn G-d from Moshel to being our Melekh.
The Vilna Gaon writes that this idea of what it means to make Hashem our King is what King David means when declares, “כִּי לַה׳ הַמְּלוּכָה וּמֹשֵׁל בַּגּוֹיִם – for Hashem has the Monarchy, and he Rules over the nations.” (Tehillim 20:29) Yes, Hashem rules over all the nations. The monotheists, the polytheists, and those who deny His existence alike. But what Hashem deserves is our acceptance of Him, to turn a Ruler into a King. Which is what Zechariah means when he speaks of the messianic age as one in which “וְהָיָ֧ה ה׳ לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כׇּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ – and Hashem will be Melekh over the whole earth” (Zechariah 14:9), or in Aleinu when we speak of the need “לְתַקֵּן \ לְתַכֵּן עולָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁקַּי – to perfect / establish the world by G-d’s Malkhus.” Yes, Hashem Rules now; but not all of humanity is with his plan. That is the messianic ideal we are working toward.
As a benevolent ruler, Hashem runs the universe in a manner to further the success of His subjects. But as Melekh, He invites us to join the partnership, to work with Him toward that end. We speak of an “ol Malkhus”, Kingship as a yoke, because like a yoke it’s a means of harnessing myself in a way to be more productive.
And this is why Shema has to begin with our joining with others. Judaism is not about having a one-on-one relationship with G-d, “to people gazing at each other”, but to work within the context of a community under a Melekh toward making the world a better place for everyone.
Shema calls on us to love the Melekh by furthering His Work.