שמע ישראל ה’ אלוהינו ה’ אחד
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”
The first line of the Shema is often considered to be the cornerstone of Jewish faith. These words are repeated throughout our weekday and Shabbat liturgies. They are the first words that cross many Jewish lips every morning and the last words they utter before falling asleep each night. Indeed, the first line of the Shema may be the most ubiquitous and well-known prayer in Judaism, even among the wealth of Jews who have no regular prayer practice, Jewish literacy, or religious commitment to the tradition.
The widespread familiarity with these words and their centrality in Jewish liturgy has the potential to be deceiving. The reality that most Jews know and can comfortably recite the phrase “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” provides little to no insight into what Jews believe about God. Symbolically, this phrase may be an affirmation of Israel as a monotheistic people. Nonetheless, each individual who recites these words is part of a tradition with immense theological diversity and an abundance of divergent ways of understanding and relating to the Divine. The fact that there is no one Jewish way to understand the word “God” complicates the notion that the Shema is a foundational Jewish dogma.
Is the One God of Israel the God of the Bible, a God who offers commandments and speaks directly to the people of Israel? Or is this the God of Maimonides, an ineffable eternal truth completely transcendent and beyond human understanding? Is this the God of Martin Buber, whom we encounter and by whom we are shaped in a deeply personal way? Is this a God of vengeance and destruction or a God of justice, mercy, and compassion? Is this a living God? Or is this God a symbolic projection of humanity’s greatest hopes and fears?
The nature of God is something we rarely discuss as a Jewish community. Ironically, the first Jewish community I ever encountered that brings conversations about God openly to the fore is a humanist congregation: Congregation Beth Adam. Congregation Beth Adam operates under the motto “We say what we mean, and we mean what we say.” As a community, they decided to break away from both the traditional liturgy and liturgies found more commonly in liberal synagogues. Instead, the congregation wrote its own liturgy which does not include the Shema or any other mention of God. One significant factor that provoked the community to write its own liturgy was that people felt they could not stay true to their motto if they were reciting the God language found in other Jewish liturgies.
In deciding to say what they mean and mean what they say, the community has committed to open dialogue about what they believe. As the congregants study, pray, and move through life together, they wrestle with how they understand truth and how they personally relate to or derive meaning from a concept of God, if at all. Some congregants identify as atheists, but the community has a broad range of theological diversity. Moreover, regardless of where people stand on the theological spectrum, nobody is free of the challenge of engaging in critical thinking and value-based conversations about how their beliefs inform their ethics.
After a year of working at Congregation Beth Adam, I missed the Shema and many other elements of more normative Jewish liturgies. However, in their absence, I was challenged to articulate my beliefs and sincerely grapple with the ethical implications of my theology. Moreover, I was able to explore how transformative open conversations about theology can be for a community. Not only did these conversations foster a sense of community, but they also helped individuals in their personal spiritual development and encouraged ethical action. These skills also helped parents identify and debunk harmful theologies their children were encountering in their secular lives, as well as help their children pursue their own understandings of God. Likewise, the focus on talking about God in religious school helped instill the children with ethical values and critical thinking skills.
At Congregation Beth Adam I saw how a unique liturgy and a humanist bent opened the community to meaningful theological dialogue. Nevertheless, I do not believe that all Jews need a radical break with traditional liturgy to engage in this type of dialogue. Ultimately, it matters less how the conversations are being provoked. Each prayer, biblical narrative, and lived experience has the potential to propel us deeper into engagement with our beliefs. What matters is that we commit to reflecting and grappling with God until we can all say what we mean and mean what we say.
Isaama Stoll has just completed her fourth year at HUC-JIR. This year she served as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio.