Jewish Ethics: The Shema and Ethical Monotheism by Rabbi Harvey Gornish
Volume 1 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1987 | Tishrei, 5748)
Twice a day a Jew ceases his worldly activity to proclaim the ?Shema Yisroel?, ?Hear O Israel The Lord is our God, the L-rd is One?. But in our monotheistic Western society, one hardly feels the need to shout this message to an already enlightened world. Perhaps this idea would be needed in animist Africa or amidst India's crowded pantheon of deities. But why is the Jew required to confess God's oneness or unity to a world that already holds this belief?
Judaism's Unique Contribution
The answer lies in the realization that the Shema proclaims what amounts to the foundation for Judaism's unique contribution to the religions of mankind. It is a witness to the fundamental principle which separates religion from superstition and which has been the prototype for all true religions since the birth of Abraham.
Religion vs. Superstition
Indeed we may ask how is religion different from superstition? Are they not each non-scientific attempts to cope with an environment which is at times both frightening and hostile? is there any real difference between the Torah's 613 ritualized commands and the superstitious dread of Hack cats, broken mirrors and passing under a ladder? There is a monumental difference! Superstition was man's original psychological and social defense against those forces, such as storm, fire, and earthquake, over which he could exercise no direct control. Superstition, then, was and still is primarily concerned with the acquisition of power. Religion, however, is a completely opposite path. True religions teach man to shun the acquisition of power and to instead curb his appetite in order to improve the lot of his fellow human beings. Thus religion is fundamentally concerned with ethical conduct, the recognition of ethical standards and the assumption that individuals have the ability to discover right from wrong. Religion prescribes a path through which human beings can truly help one another, both through their own efforts as well as through creating a harmonious relationship between humanity and the ultimate source of goodness, God.
The Revolution of Monotheism
But what has this to do with the Shema? Judaism introduced Ethical Monotheism to the world through Abraham, a man, you may recall, who lived in a world populated by idols and many so-called ?gods?. In an environment where right and wrong were vague concepts, blurred through a loyalty to many conflicting deities, Judaism introduced a revolutionary idea: There is only one God and He is ethical. Prior to the introduction of this idea one could hardly admonish an individual for immoral or unethical behavior. Such and individual could easily claim that although his actions were abhorrent to god #1 he was in fact doing the will of god #3. Many gods meant many perspectives on right or wrong and the resulting confusion was a chaotic stew of ?ethical? mind sets that ultimately boiled down to the relativist view that no one is really correct and that, in the end, might makes right.
A Single Binding Ethic
?Oh nor? shouted Abraham. There is only one God, and there are no other gods to refute His concept of right and wrong. Moreover, He is truly an Ethical God, caring greatly whether His creatures treat each other by His standards. He will not tolerate an abrogation of right and wrong and will intervene to alter a world that chooses wrong conduct over righteousness, as He did in Noah's time and in Sodom and Gemorrah. This message then, of a single binding ethic, is at the core of Judaism and is the message of the Shema.
Alternatives to Judaism
If we apply these concepts to religions other than Judaism we discover that any religion which admits to the existence of a single God, which has credible standards of right and wrong, and which enforces these standards, is a true religion as opposed to a power seeking system of superstitious beliefs. By these criteria we may concede that Judaism is not the only bona fide religion. Whereas I believe Judaism to be the only correct faith for people born Jewish, there does exist alternative paths to God for non Jews. Still, these paths must be rooted in morality and reflect God's compassion for the weak, the sick, and the orphaned. Judaism itself defines these alternative roads to God through ?the seven commandments to the children of Noah,? a series of seven general principles designed to create a moral order for the world. Those religions which adhere to these principles are presumed capable of spreading righteousness on earth.
Monotheism and The Flood
The fact that Judaism revolutionized the world through morality becomes quite evident when we look at various peoples' account of the flood in the time of Noah. Professor Schneur Z. Leiman points to a startling difference between the Torah's account of the flood and the account found in other ancient near east literature, notably in the ?Epic of Gilgamesh?. When we review these non-Torah accounts of the flood, the reason given for the flood is quite striking. The gods of these other peoples were seen as drowning mankind merely because men were making too much noise and prevented the gods from sleeping!
Judaism and Ethical Conduct
The Torah restated the account of the flood one more time, but in a revolutionary way. According to the Torah, the world was not destroyed because of irritated, grouchy gods unable to get some sleep, but rather because the Almighty God could no longer tolerate human injustice. He refused to be blind to theft, greed, corruption, murder and exploitative perversion. While floods are not pretty sights, the Jewish view of the flood was indeed refreshing. God, according the Torah, was refusing to allow men and women free reign to harm one another and the planet any longer. God would start the world afresh after teaching Noah and his family some lessons in ethical conduct.
The Lessons of the Torah
Still the critics of religion may object: ?Perhaps the story of Noah does suggest the importance of morality, but a majority of the 613 commandments found in the Torah are nothing but mere ritual. Where is the moral lesson to be found in each of them? Aren't they as bad as superstitious fears and phobias? The Rabbis of our tradition have debated whether a specific moral lesson can be gleaned from each of the 613 ?mitzvot? (commandments) found in the Torah, but on one thing they are all agreed: each mitzvah exists as an audiovisual cue which prompts the individual towards greater ethical awareness and closeness to God.
Reasons Behind Mitzvot
Sometimes the lesson of a mitzvah is obvious. ?Thou shalt not steal? and ?Love thy neighbor as thyself? are blatant ethical messages. Sometimes the message is more subtle as in the prohibition of eating the blood of an animal along with its meat. The blood is not proper food because blood contains the principle of life and its consumption would foster disrespect for a living soul. Sometimes the message is hidden or cloaked in mystical garb. The Ramban (Nachmanides) suggests that the sky blue thread that was originally meant to adorn the fringes of our Tallit was ?Kol?, the color which is Kabbalistically equivalent to ?chesed? or loving kindness. When a Jew looks at this thread, for example during his recitation of the Shema, he is reminded that ?Kol?, ?chesed? or ?loving- kindness? is at the core of all the mitzvot, which the tzitzit or fringes on one's tallit represents.
Religion and the Correct Ethical Path
Finally,we must dialogue with the secular individual who claims: ?I do not need religion to be ethical. 1 have no need for the 613 audio-visual cues you call God's commandments for I am ethical without them.? To answer this objection we must turn to the very origin of mankind as it is recounted in the biblical story of Adam and Eve. We find that Adam and Eve were restricted from eating of a fruit that would give them a ?knowledge? which God felt was beyond their power to use. They, of course, felt that they knew better than He. The Torah's message is that the cost of such hubris was the loss of paradise. We must ask the individual who feels that he can do without religion to consider the possibility that he or she is just like Adam and Eve. He who claims that he or she does not need God's cues to morality may in fact be the one most in need of them, for such an individual has set his own will, his own judgment as the arbiter of all right and wrong. Indeed the Torah teaches that at times the greatest test of our faith is not whether we can curb this or that appetite or desire, but rather whether we can reshape our own individual ethical values to better fit God's morality. Only a person humbled by an awareness of God can accept that his own homespun ethical values may be incorrect, and only the diligent observance of mitzvot over the course of an entire lifetime can humble our spirit to the point where we want God's will over our own, where we will place ethics over desire.
The Relevance of the Shema Today
So when the observant Jew, facing the new day with enthusiasm, or
dragging himself home exhausted after fighting the boss and subways, turns to
his creator and declares ?Hear 0 Israel, the L-rd is our God, the L-rd is one?, he is declaring that God is
the only true reality, that His will is the only moral possibility, that there
is no ism, science or logic beside Him, and most importantly, there is no being
whose sense of right and wrong can supersede His. To this God the Jew pledges
his existence. So when we recite the Shema we are
making a radical, ethical statement, a statement which has relevance even in ?monotheistic?,