Shema Yisrael and the struggle against Cheap Faith
Parshat Vetchanan (Deuteronomy 6) Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Roy encounter the iconic call to Faith of the Shema Yisrael to explore the complexity of faith and especially the contribution of the Musar Movement Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/337360 Transcript: Geoffrey Stern And today, we are going to discuss the one sentence that pretty much I think every Jew knows about has heard is our calling card and it is this Shema Yisrael that's found in in Deuteronomy 6: 4. And I'm sure we could just spend the whole afternoon just talking about what Shema means to you and means to me, and we definitely you're going to do that. But we're also going to use it as an excuse to look into my background in terms of the Yeshiva, I studied in a Musar Yeshiva. And there were certain insights that I got into the moment of Shema that I want to share. But let's start by saying Roy, what does? The Lord is our God, the Lord is one Shema Yisrael. Why is it so iconic? And what what does it mean to you when you say it twice a day. Roy Feldman I mean, the simple meaning is that it's accepting the yoke of heaven. It's a declaration that is kind of unambiguous, that we accept God as the sole creator and sole ruler of the universe, Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad. It's very unambiguous. It doesn't waver at all. Even if we have, you know, some thoughts about theology or different feelings about God or, you know, wrestling with God in some ways, at different times, twice a day, we kind of just set those aside and say Shema Yisrael twice a day where we don't waver and don't have any compunctions about saying that. And that's an important way to bookend the day. It really, opens the day, and it closes the day. We say Shema in the morning and at night, before we go to bed. And so I think that's the real statement of the Shema that whatever happens in the middle of the day, and whatever thoughts we might have, we bookend the day with this declaration that we accept God, Geoffrey Stern I think that's absolutely correct. This sense of accepting the"Ol Malchut Shemayim", the kingship of God. And I love the fact that you say that it's kind of a moment of intense focus and acceptance. And that serves as a wonderful segway to the story that really impacted me and will serve as the crux of this conversation. So I went to a Musar Yeshiva... the Musar movement was started, I believe in about the 1700s, 1800s, about the same time as the Enlightenment, and possibly as a response to the Enlightenment in Eastern Europe by a rabbi called Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. And I was fortunate to go to a Yeshiva, that was headed by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who studied under the alter from Mir, Rav Yerucham Leibovitz. And he told this story as follows. He said, once a student was saying the Shema and Robbi Yerucham came up to him. And he said to him, so did you say the Shema with Kavanah, with intention? And the student replied, Well, of course, Rebbe.. totally. And he said, so. Let me get this straight. When you said this Shema, you accepted this yoke of heaven, on your feet, and everywhere that you're going to go the rest of the day and the rest of your life and on your tongue, in terms of everything that you're going to speak, your hands and all of your actions, your mind and all of your thoughts, your heart and your emotions. And let me ask you something, did you feel like rebelling? And the students stopped and he paused? And he says, Rebbe, Hash Veshalom! God forbid, I never felt like rebelling. And Reb Yerucham turn to him and said, my boy, you've never said the Shema in your life. I found that story is so powerful. And I guess representative of what the Musar movement is, because it took something that should have such a purity of intention. And as you were saying this kind of focus [and unambiguity]. It even includes in it the word "One" "Echad" what word could we pick that represented harmony any more than the word "One"? And here this Reb Yeruchum introduced that if you didn't have the unharmonious feeling of rebellion. If you didn't feel a twitch of unacceptance then you probably haven't said Shema with intention at any time in your life. Roy before I give you a little bit more of my further reflection on that story, what what does that story say to you? Roy Feldman It's an amazing story that actually brings to mind a similar or a parallel ... that if you don't wrestle with God.... What the story is really saying is that if you don't wrestle with God, that you don't really believe in God, you don't really have the real feeling of Shema. Eliezer Berkovitz, who was a Jewish philosopher who passed away a couple decades ago, in Chicago, has a book called Faith after the Holocaust where he kind of tries to account for having faith, in light of the terrible evil that was the Holocaust. And in the introduction to that book, Berkovitz writes that if you did not have questions of faith, if when you were faced with the death camps, and with the murderous Nazis, you didn't say, "Where is God now?" Then you yourself, don't really believe in God? Because how could you not have a problem with God, if we believe in that great God, that's all good and all knowing, and all powerful and just wants good for us? If that's the God that we believe in, then when faced with such evil, if you really believe in God, then you have to question God at that moment. And that's very similar to the story that you were just telling, with, with the questions of saying the Shema, but wrestling with Shema, rebelling against God. Each one of us faces, difficulties in life, whatever our difficulties may be, and some are greater than others. But at any point in our lives, we are faced with situations in which we really have to ask "Where is God for us now?" And why is God doing this? or What does God intend by doing that? And I think that's really the crux of that story about the Shema. Geoffrey Stern I couldn't agree more. You know, even if we just focus on the the wording, what started as a simple expression of faith, when when Rashi looks at it, he says, Well, no, actually, there's a progression here. Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad. Here, O Israel, the Lord our God, and the intention there is maybe the God of the Jewish people, one day will be the one God meaning will be accepted by the whole world. And so even in that there's maybe less of a sense of conflict. But there is a sense of resolution. And that faith is not something that static, that's faith is something that has to grow. And I think you and I would both agree that probably the the biggest catalyst for growth in faith is turmoil, is the sweat, the work of building one's faith, whether on a national universal level, or more importantly, on on a personal level. So even baked into the phrase, he's not all together, he or she is not one yet. We have to work at it. Roy Feldman Yeah, I think that's absolutely. That's absolutely right. Geoffrey Stern The other thing that's kind of interesting, and of course, clubhouse, and a podcast is an audible network. But if you have the Torah sitting in front of you, you'll see that the word Shema, the Ayin the last letter of the word Shema is a very large, and the Dalit at the end of Echad is also very large and the rabbi's explained that the reason for this is if you change the letter of Shema to an Aleph it means Shemma... "maybe". And if you change the letter, Dalet at the end of the Echad, which means "one" to a Resh, which looks very similar, it means "acher" it means "others" and of course it makes you think of "Elohim Acherim" other gods. So it's almost as though the Masoretic text and the tradition that we come from is looking at this very simple positive formulation of faith and baking into it all the possibilities for hearing wrong, misunderstanding it. If you listen to a traditional Jew say the Shema at the end they go "Echaaaaaaa D" and again, that tradition comes from stressing the fact that it's a Dalet and not a Resh. It's it's kind of fascinating, isn't it? Roy Feldman It is fascinating and not only do we do stress that Dalet at the end to make sure it's a Dalet and not a Resh, but many traditional Jews are also more careful about pronouncing all of the words of the Shema correctly, even more so than they are about the rest of the service for that same reason to make sure that we're saying everything exactly right and as intended. So there'll be no questions about what we're saying with the Shema. I think another interesting thing about the Shema is that we call it the most famous prayer in Judaism, but in reality, it's not a prayer. We've been saying it's a declaration, and it's really a declaration that precedes the prayer. The rabbi's in the Tractate Berachot in the Babylonian Talmud, note that one is always supposed to proceed the Shemona Esrai with the blessing of Go-al Yisrael, which is really the final blessing after the Shema itself. I think that one of the meanings of that is that in order to pray in order to stand before God, and make requests for good health, and for a livelihood, and for sustenance, and for for peace, and for all of these things, before that, we have to make a declaration that we accept God. So it's interesting that many people think of it as a prayer, but it's really not a prayer. It's a declaration of sorts. Geoffrey Stern Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. Although, it could be aspirational, especially if you take it from the perspective of what Rashi said, and the fact that It reflects a hope and a desire, as opposed to a reflection of the current state. But I want to discuss a little bit further this really talent that the rabbi's, but I would say the Jewish people have for seeing in a statement both itself and its opposite. And I think that's what Rab Yeruchem was saying in terms of "and you never rebelled". You know, the flip side of faith, real faith is this radical sense of rebellion. And if you don't have one, you don't have the other. And it's the summertime and I'm thinking back to when I was a camper at Camp Tovah Vodaas. And that was not a Musar Yeshiva, it was a more of a Hasidic Yeshiva. And the spiritual head of that Rav Moshe Wolfson, we used to take us students out into nature. And as many of us are this weekend in nature, and he quoted a paragraph in Pirkei Avot; the Ethics of the Fathers. And it says "if one is studying while walking on the road, and interrupts his study and says, how fine is this tree? Or how fine is that newly plowed field, the Bible accounts to him as if he was mortally guilty". "ke-iIlu Mitchayev beNafsho" as if he had done the worst sin. And sitting there in nature, the rabbi said to us, how could that possibly be? And he said, so here's the correct interpretation. He says, if you are studying Torah, and you look at nature, and you think that that's an interruption, you are guilty and your soul is guilty. It's not that it is an interruption that you interrupt your study, but that you think that it's an interruption that you don't understand that the beauty of God can be found in the Torah in the revealed law, but it can also be found in nature. And I thought that it contained in that little story, too, is a wonderful lesson to us. But the bigger thing is how you can take a phrase and turn it on its head, how you can find an insight that goes 360 degrees in the opposite direction. And this is really Jewess approach of Yeah, you're right and you're also right... Elu V'Elu Devrai Elohim Hayim. Roy Feldman Yeah, that remark reminds me of the expression, "don't let school get in the way of your education". that's similar to the the Rabbinic passage that you just quoted. That is don't let the law and wonder of nature, which is really God's creation, be an interruption to your learning. It really is part and parcel of your learning. Just as there are many elements in education that aren't formally part of school, but they really are an integral part of one's education. And we see that in so many different areas of where something seem like they might be a distraction. And some things really are a distraction, let's not pretend like there's no distractions, but don't let things that seem like a distraction but can really be valuable sources of spiritual growth or intellectual growth get in the way of what we perceive to be the formal learning. Geoffrey Stern Absolutely. So so I want to go back to the Musar movement and use my experience there and to share with with you what my insight is into the Musar movement. Most people translate the Musar movement as an ethical movement in Judaism, a focus on ethics. And I think that there's a very, very small part of that, which is true because all of Judaism focuses on ethics and being a good person. I think what sets the Musar movement apart is that one constantly is working and working, and sweating the details of even the most obvious thing like God is one. Like, we need to be observant and learn from all things, whether nature or not. There's a verse in the Torah that says that "im Bechukotai Telechu" that you should walk in my laws and the Sifra, the commentary explains that walking in God's laws means "amaylim B'Torah" it means struggling with the Torah. So if I had to represent the Mussar movement, it really looks at all of Judaism and says you have to struggle with everything. You can't take any obligation [at face value]. You know, when I was at that Yeshiva after a year you were invited into a Va'ad that might meet at midnight, twice a week. And you might take the simplest concept, you might take the concept of being thankful of being hopeful, the concept of belief, and we would literally spend six months focused on it. The Masgiach , Rabbi Wolbe would give us actual [thought] experiments that we had to do in terms of understanding what it means to be thankful and not being thankful and when that thankfulness is self serving, and I think that really, what I would love to share with you all today is this sense of, if you've never questioned what thankfulness is, then you've never been thankful if you've never understood what pain is and hardship is from both sides. I think that's what the Musar movement really... is the magic of it, that it gave to me. And that I have found the most intriguing part of my love affair with Judaism is that nothing can be only be taken at face value. And there's always this struggle in a good way. We can't forget that the word "Yisrael" is the name that Jacob got after struggling with the angel. Matt. Welcome to the platform. What what's on your mind today? Mathew Landau Hi, everyone. great conversation. Thank you. Well, I'm just back from Italy. And I was in too many churches. And it's sort of when I was davening on Tuesday, I was looking at the liturgy again, and I had a question I want to be a Musar for a second and sweat a detail .... when you talked about the Shema (I may be misquoting you, but you suggested something like the whole world will come to no one God). So in the Aleynu prayer, that paragraph that begins Al Keyn Nikaveh l'cha". "Therefore, we put our hope in you" and it goes on to say that very soon that you'll remove all detestable idolatry from the earth and false gods will be utterly cut off. I was curious from a maybe a Talmudic perspective or what Roy thinks about that interpretation. I spoke to one religious friend of mine that he knew of one Talmudic track. That that meant that that's when the Messiah will come and I won't name names, but I think there's some people we know that may wish to put the whole messianic concept of Judaism to the side. And so therefore, does it mean when we're davening this part of Aleynu that we're thinking that everyone's going to come around to either being Jewish or just being their own thing? But having no idolatry? I'm curious. Thank you. Roy Feldman Yeah, I think that's that's a great question. That's the famous part of the liturgy, so often sung at the end of Alynu, and the people who come to synagogue know that part of the liturgy, I think the key to understanding that line is understanding the word "Shem". Beyom ah'hu yiyeh Hashem Echad u'shemo echad" , God will be one, and his name will be one. And what's "Shem" usually means in the Bible is translated a reputation. For example, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, he was the master of a good name, that means he was a master of a good reputation, he had developed a good reputation for himself as being a spiritual counselor, so to speak. And that's if you look throughout the Bible and see what that when the word shem or name is used, name means reputation, how you're known, and we use that in English, too. He has a good name in the community means reputation. So I think when we save that line of the Aleynu prayer, what it means is, on that day, God will be one, which he already is, God is already one, and his reputation will be one, meaning everybody in the world will understand that God is one. It doesn't mean everybody's gonna be Jewish, it doesn't mean. I don't know what the Messianic undertones of it are. I can't you know, messianic era could be a very generic phrase, that means sometime in the future, when the world is at peace, and there are simply no problems in the world. That's the era towards which we hope the world is going. And so that's the simplest interpretation of "on that day God will be one and his name will be one". Not only will he be one, which is, you know, the metaphysics of it. He already is one. But his reputation will also be one ... there won't be a time when everybody kind of acknowledges that. Geoffrey Stern I think that it is clear that if you look at Rashi's comment, he's probably talking along the lines that both you, Roy and Matt are talking in terms of Messianism. But I think it's so obvious there is so many religions and practices of spirituality that are looking for the ultimate harmony, the ultimate one, you know, the Buddhist comes to the hotdog stand and they asked, What do you want on it? And he goes, I want one with everything. So that we all want ultimately, to find a world that lacks dissonance, that truth is obvious. And I think that's a way that you can harmonize what Rashi is talking about, which is the struggle for oneness, is a struggle. And it's a continuum over time, but it's an aspiration for harmony, and whether that harmony is personal, whether it's national, whether it's universal, I think it's how you take it and how it works for you. Elise welcome to the bima Elise Meyer Hi, Shabbat Shalom, everybody. I love that you were talking about harmony because the point that I wanted to make is that I recently was called upon to write a haiku in honor of a friend for one of these horrible zoom birthdays. And in doing a little bit of research about Haiku, which is the Japanese poetry form where five syllables are followed by seven syllables and then five syllables. These are poems that are used to connect a person to nature and to the universe. Most of them are related to the seasons or some sort of natural phenomenon and it occurred to me that "Shema Yisrael Adnoey Elohenu Adonai echad" is a perfect Haiku... She ma Yis ra el, Ado noy el o hey nu, ado noy ech ad" . Geoffrey Stern Wow, we heard it first here on Madlik. That's That's beautiful. That's absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing that Elise. Elise Meyer Well thank you for everything that you do to bring us to a higher level. Geoffrey Stern So I would like to finish up.. we were we talked Matt about you were going into churches and we talked a little bit about haikus and Buddhism. When I think of how I would characterize the Musar movement, this struggling with Torah, I actually think of a Lutheran theologian, a German theologian, who actually was very much against Hitler, and he was, he was killed, sent to a concentration camp and then ultimately hanged for being part of the plotters to kill Hitler. And he came up with an amazing phrase and the phrase is "Cheap Grace", cheap or costly grace and he like thinkers similar to like the Kotzke Rebbe or Kierkegaard spent his whole life arguing against religion without the fiz, platitudes. Just blind faith mumbled over and over again. And I believe that this this Cheap Grace, Cheap Belief, nothing comes easy and the beauty in the struggle and the joy that I think is reflected in the Shema. And Shema has a very rich history of being with the Jewish people and individual Jews at heights of joy and at depths of sorrow. But what it is, is that it's not cheap, is that it represents inside of it in one little phrase, as you say Elise, a Haiku, but also an aspiration, this struggle between the notion of one God and many gods of dualities and harmonies. And I really do believe that the story that we started with about if you can say it and accept everything in it and not rebel, then you've never said it is so true. So I thank you why for joining us, Matt, Elise for coming up to the bima I wish us all an amazing Shabbat. This is Shabbat Nachamu, which again is the flip side of mourning of Tisha B'Av. And now comes the the joy. If you plant in tears, you reap in joy type of thing. So let's all be joyous. Let's all have Shabbat and make sure that for many generations Shema Yisrael Adonoi Elohenu adonai Echad. Roy Feldman Amen. Thank you so much for inviting me, Geoffrey, this was a wonderful conversation. Thank Mathew and Elise for joining us. Geoffrey Stern Thanks so much.