Yoel KahnTheology is not just an abstract conversation; it has a direct impact on the languageand form of our prayers. Sometimes, though, there are conflicts between our theologyand other values we seek to honor. The case of how we should present the Sh’maand V’ahavta in the Reform movement’s new prayer book is a case in point.One of the most familiar and beloved texts in our liturgy is the V’ahavta. Thispassage is a quote from the Torah, or to be precise, two quotations fromthe Torah. The first paragraph is taken from the book of Deuteronomy 6:5-9:You shall love the Eternal Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul,and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day,shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently unto your children,and shall speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by theway, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them for asign upon your hands, they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shallwrite them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
This is immediately followed by a closing section, taken from the book ofNumbers 15:39-41:
You shall remember and do all of my commandments and be holy unto yourGod. For I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of
Egypt to be yourGod; I am the Eternal your God.
These two texts are seamlessly woven together in our Reform liturgy. Butthey did not star t this way. The V’ahavta was not a distinct rubric, separatefrom the Sh’ma, before the emergence of Reform Judaism. According to theMishnah, the second century guide to early rabbinic practice, the Sh’ma hasthree sections: our familiar opening paragraph from Deuteronomy 6 andthen a second reading from Deuteronomy 11, verses 13–21, beginning:
If you carefully heed my commands, the ones I command you today, to loveAdonai your God and worship Him with all your mind and body, then Ishall grant your land’s rain in its season, in the autumn and in the spring,that you might gather your grain, wine, and oil. . . . Take care lest your mindtempt you to revel by worshipping other gods and by bowing down to them.For the then the fire and fury of Adonai will turn against you. Adonai willthe flow of the sky. There will be no rain. The earth will not grant its produce.You will quickly perish from the good land that Adonai grants you. . . .
The third paragraph begins with the mitzvah of tzitzit:
Adonai said to Moses: Speak to the children of
Israel and tell them to makethemselves a tassel on the corners of their clothes in every generation, and toput a blue thread on the tassel of each corner. Let it be a tassel for you. Whenyou see it you shall remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them,and not follow your mind or eyes which you follow in false worship.
Then it closes with the lines that we are familiar with:Thus will you remember and do all of my commandments and so be holybefore your God. I am Adonai, your God, who led you out of the land of
Egypt to be your God. I am Adonai your God.Early Reform Jews, starting with David Einhorn in his Olat Tamid ,eliminated the second two paragraphs of the Sh’ma from their worship, retainingonly the first paragraph (and adding a closing line from the Numberspassage). They justified their actions based on their firm belief that it wasonly the first section which was originally part of the liturgy when this prayerwas recited in the
Temple, and, more importantly, they rejected the theologyof the second two paragraphs. They believed in and wanted to affirm thecentrality of the Exodus but strongly repudiated the strict, this-worldly reward-and-punishment directly at the hand of God presented in the secondpassage from the Book of Deuteronomy. The opening of the third passage,with its reference to the wearing of tzitzit (fringes), was precisely the type ofexternal Jewish ritual the ear ly Reformers disapproved of.
By and large, we don’t like the Deuteronomic theology any better than ourReform predecessors. Instead of the assurance that everything is for a reasonand is explicable as the direct consequence of a just God, today we find thecounter-theology of the Book of Job a better representation of what we believe.For Job, God’s reasons are inscrutable; illness, disaster, suffering cannotbe explained as the consequences of our actions. Even in non-Reform synagogues, in recognition of the difficulty of this passage, the second paragraphsof the Sh’ma are universally recited silently and never read out loud.This passage remains seriously problematic for myself and, I believe, the overwhelming majority of Reform Jews. Why then are some Reform Jews askingfor it to be included in our liturgy? Well, we have, as an overriding theologicalvalue, the commitment to k’lal yisrael–the unity of the Jewish people.Some times we are willing to make significant compromises with our ownpersonal preferences in favor of maintaining continuity of practice with eitherthe pre-modern historical traditions of Judaism, or with normative Jewishpractice outside our movement. Is this such a case?
In one Reform synagogue, a recent, experimental edition of the prayer bookincludes the full traditional text. A lengthy footnotes explains that:
This warning has ironic ecological significance in today’s world. “Servingother gods” could be interpreted as serving the gods of greed, ambition, andshort term profit at nature’s expense; “the skies will close up, the rain willnot fall, and the land will not produce” would be an accurate prediction ofthe environmental disasters caused by pollution, as opposed to a sign of divineretribution.*
Is this an adequate solution to the theological difficult ies this passag e presents?Does the reduction of the divine justice to a mechanistic cause- andeffect response diminish the image of God which the Torah seeks to teach?Are there are other metaphorical readings of this passage which would makeit more acceptable to us?
Another theological value we hold is fidelity to tradition. But, as you read in“But It’s Traditional!”, (see Session 1), the tradition is rarely if ever monochromaticor uniform; do we have a particular obligation to maintain fidelity to ourReform tradition? Having integrated this liturgical passage, by taking the lastlines and adding them to the first paragraph, Reform Judaism created theV’ahavta as we know it; what would it mean to split them up again in orderto restore an older practice? Is the desire to replace a two hundred year oldReform Jewish liturgical tradition with its second century, Mishnaic original,an instance of our buying into the theological and religious conceit, thatthe more ancient something is, the more “authentic” or “proper” it must be?Or is this an example of fidelity to our ancient tradition and compromise in
order to maintain fellowship and commonality with the wider Jewish community?
1. Look at “The Sh’ma & V’ahavta in Traditional and Modern Prayer Books,”How do the three original paragraphs relate to one another? Whatphrases and themes do they have in common? How do the two paragraphsin the Reform version relate?
2. Out of our commitment to k’lal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people,we sometimes make significant compromises in order to maintain continuityof practice with the pre-modern historical traditions of Judaism or withnormative Jewish practice outside our movement. In your opinion, is thissuch a case?
3. One Reform congregation’s prayer book interprets the second paragraphof the V’ahavta as a prophetic statement about our responsibility to actwith responsibility towards the environment. Is this an adequate solutionfor you of the theological difficulties this passage presents? Does the reductionof the divine justice to a mechanical cause-and-effect responsediminish the image of God which the Torah seeks to teach?
4. Are there are other metaphorical readings of this passage which wouldmake it more acceptable to us?
5. Do we owe more fidelity towards our immediate past or our ancientpast? Do you believe that the Jewish people at one time or the other wasin closer touch with God’s word or teaching?
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