Shema

Shema Hebrew text
I would guess that many of us share in imprinted memory of a Rabbi at the front of the huge cathedral of a synaogue raising his (!) palms and intoning, “And now we let us all stand as we rise to declare the ‘Watchword of our Faith’.”

Drawn directly from Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema is arguably the Jewish mantra par excellence. It has often been taken as a strong statement of monotheism, of the declaration that in contrast to others’, Israel’s God is truly One. However, scrutiny of the biblical language — and the theology of the times — suggests other alternatives. Most likely, the word for ‘One,’ Echad, could also well be translated as ‘Unique.’ That there is something unique about the God of Israel — a fact which leaves open the possibility that gods of other nations could present a uniqueness of their own.

There is a popular chant to these word which I myself first learned leading children’s services in Virginia. I later encountered this chant at a Renewal-style service in Boulder, Colorado, as well as on a CD recorded by Chalandra Ma, Jai Uttal and others in a cave near Qumran on the West Bank. I often meditated to the 25 minute version for days on end and still love it very much. When I started to lead Kirtans, I first did the Shema to this tune. I’ve also been amused by a story I heard about the reaction of my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to the ongoing repetition of the chant at a service in Boulder. If true as told, at the end of the service, he went up to the presiding Rabbi and said to her, “Once! You only recite the Shema once!” One of the ways I resolved the tension between my desire to chant the Shema endlessly (sometimes for hours on end) and the need to “say it once,” has been to say only the first four words repeatedly and then, at the very end, chant the six words of the full Shema.

This has led to some interesting possibilities. As the listener — nay, co-singer — will discover I have opted with this mantra to create a tension between the ‘manyness’ of God and the declared Unity of God.

In its longer version, our chant begins with what, for want of better terms, I would call a lot of “Om-ing.” We repeat the word “Shema” again and again; then we intone “Shema Yisrael”; eventually, in our practice to this point, we then move on from ‘Israel’ to ben adam ( = “son of Adam,” i.e. human being), to bat Adam (daughter of Adam, human being), to ben Chava (son of Eve), to bat Chava (daughter of Eve). Little effort is made to be consistent with the proper grammatical forms. For example, the masculine imperative of the verb “Shema” is retained throughout, even when the subject switches to a feminine noun.

In the editing of the CD, we cut out many of the repetitions of the Shema-ing in order to make the CD a bit more listenable, as well as to get the music moving – a desideratum for a first track, to be sure. A strong hint is retained at the very beginning, however.

Some other interesting theological choices I made, some on the spot, some planned:

Much is made of the idea that ‘Israel’ could mean “God-wrestler” (Genesis 32). And it is certainly a fact that, in biblical Hebrew, ‘Israel’ means human being – or at least an individual Israelite. As the you will hear, I substituted the strange locution, Ish Ro-eh El for Yisrael (Israel). I learned this interpretation from a study of the Ancient Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria. One of the debates amongst Philo scholars questions just how much Hebrew he knew. Living in a completely Greek environment, I would say that the consensus is that Philo possessed a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew at best. In his attempt to explain what Israel meant, Philo came up with the (probably false) etymology, Ish Ro-eh El, “The one who sees God.” I have adapted Philo’s reading to my chant. For the CD – and up to this point – I regret that I have not also used the feminine option, Isha Ro-ah El, something which I plan to do in the future. In any case, by reading Israel as Ish Ro-eh El, we are attempting to de-nationalize Israel; since part of our mandate is to open Hebrew chanting to the broader world, we hope that people will take Israel not to mean a Jewish person (much less a particular country) but rather anyone who sees God. I leave it to you to decide whether this God then is One.

Speaking of which, there is another purposeful tension created in the chant as presented. The Shema contains the ineffable name of God, the tetragrammaton YHWH (actually twice). We do not know how this word is pronounced (see Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, Book I, Chapter 61), much less what precisely it means. It has been variously rendered as ‘Yahweh,’ Jehovah, or simply as ‘Hashem’ (the Name). Common Jewish usage is to substitute the word, Adonai (Lord) during actual prayer moments and to use yet another, less religiously weighty substitute when speaking of the Name colloquially. As the listener will hear, I have decided to offer, in a highly improvised manner depending upon how the spirit and crowd moves me, various rabbinic and specifically kabbalistic hypostases (Sephirot) of the godhead in the place of YHWH. On the CD, these include: Yah, Shechinah (the feminine indwelling presence of God), Gevurah (a stricter, disciplined aspect of God), Netzach (Eternity or Victory), Binah (Understanding), Chochmah (Wisdom) and back to Adonai. Other names abound and appear in our kirtans. I hope the irony is not lost on the reader that, after offering several names, at the end of the chant, we nevertheless return to the “Watchword of our Faith” and declare the non-duality and non-duplicity of all this; namely, that a many-named God is, after all, One.