שמע – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Posted on July 27, 2010


Perhaps the most important word in the Bible is “Sh’ma.” I am deeply thankful for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ comments. Below are just a few of the snippets that I want to take away:

The Greeks were the supreme masters of the visual arts: art, sculpture, architecture and the theatre. Jews, as a matter of profound religious principle, were not. …the supreme religious act in Judaism is to listen. Ancient Greece was a culture of the eye; ancient Israel a culture of the ear. The Greeks worshipped what they saw; Israel worshipped what they heard.

I have heard Rabbi Sacks’ description of this before with Judaism being a religion of listening, and all others a religion of seeing. Yet, I hold (very) slight reservations of fully embracing this. I think in light of the tefillin and tassels, perhaps it could also be stated that Judaism is a religion from which understanding comes through listening rather than sight and that we use sight to remind us of what we’ve heard, not to use hearing to remember what we’ve seen.

The Mosaic books are, among other things, a set of commandments, 613 of them. That is the primary meaning of the word Torah – namely law. It would seem to follow that a book of commands must have a verb that means “to obey”, for that is the whole purpose of an imperative. Obedience stands in relation to command as truth does to statement. Yet there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey. This is an utterly astonishing fact.

The Israeli government had to borrow a word from Arabic (letsayet = “to obey”) for their defense forces because of this fact. Sacks sites Deuteronomy 27:9, Genesis 3:10, Genesis 11:7, Genesis 17:20, and Genesis 16:2 as examples of the various uses of לשמוע (lishmo’a). What he says next is brilliant:

The best way to discover what is unique about a civilization is to search for words it contains that are untranslatable into other languages. It is said that the Bedouin have many words for sand and the Inuit many terms for snow. The Greek word megalopsuchos – literally the “great-souled” person, one blessed with wealth, status and effortless superiority – has no equivalent in either Judaism or Christianity, two cultures that valued, as Greece did not, humility. Shema is untranslatable – understandably so since it belongs to biblical Hebrew, the world’s supreme example of a culture of the ear.

This is a fact of great consequence and should affect our entire understanding of Judaism. The existence of the verb “lishmo’a” and the absence of the verb “letsayet” tells us that biblical Israel, despite its intense focus on Divine commandments, is not a faith that values blind, unthinking, unquestioning obedience.

There is a reason for the commands. In some cases they are rooted in the fact that G-d created the universe and the laws that govern it: therefore we must respect the integrity of nature. In other cases they are grounded in history. Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt; they knew from indelible personal experience what it is to live in an unjust, tyrannical society. Therefore a society based on Torah will be just, compassionate, generous. Slaves must rest one day in seven. One year in seven, debts should be cancelled. The landless poor should not go without food at harvest time – and so on.

The G-d of revelation is also the G-d of creation and redemption. Therefore when G-d commands us to do certain things and refrain from others, it is not because His will is arbitrary but because He cares for the integrity of the world as His work, and for the dignity of the human person as His image. There is a profound congruence between the commandments and the laws that govern nature and history. An arbitrary ruler demands blind obedience. G-d is not an arbitrary ruler; therefore He does not demand blind obedience. Instead, He wishes us as far as possible to understand why He has commanded what He has commanded.

Hence the emphasis, in Exodus and Deuteronomy, on children asking questions. In an authoritarian culture, questions are discouraged: “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die” as Tennyson put it. Had this been the case in Judaism, the Torah would have had a verb that meant the same as letsayet, not one with the meanings of lishmoa.

My wife and I are in a difficult season right now, one that has us in close proximity with teachers who disdain education, reject paradoxical thinking, and believe that they don’t need a community to tell them what to think or believe about their Bibles. The result? A kind of perverted prideful holiness, an incestuous theological chauvinism, and teaching that uses texts to substantiate one’s own spiritual opinions rather than values the truth of the Bible on its own terms. I don’t have liberty to share much publicly about my feelings of this (due to the indecorous nature of this kind of discourse and the respectful and courteous nature of our culture), but this has landed many of the people we work with in a form of spiritual slavery that keeps them fully dependent upon these personalities rather than on the faculties of their God-given ability to wrestle and think, and a community of faith, both past and present. It’s not just that this kind of philosophy is poor, it is actually destructive to the “dignity of the human person as His image.”

So, while I have appreciated this sentiment before, simply for its mere truth, I am in a season where this resonates with me quite affectionately. I am more anxious to see this idea perpetuated as a need in our churches and theological circles than ever before.

Sacks concludes with some devotional thoughts:

Shema Yisrael does not mean “Hear, O Israel”. It means something like: “Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of G-d your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional. Make His will your own. For what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary but for your welfare, the welfare of your people, and ultimately for the benefit of all humanity.”

In Judaism faith is a form of listening: to the song creation sings to its Creator, and to the message history delivers to those who strive to understand it. That is what Moses says, time and again in Deuteronomy. Stop looking: listen. Stop speaking: listen. Create a silence in the soul. Still the clamour of instinct, desire, fear, anger. Strive to listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise. Then you will know that the universe is the work of the One beyond the furthest star yet closer to you than you are to yourself – and then you will love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.