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Variations on the Shema

The following is a transcript of Episode 151 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Claire: Hello, and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Claire Sufrin, editor of Sources, a journal of Jewish ideas published by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Identity Crisis is on hiatus until the end of August. In the meantime, I’m here to share some of my favorite articles from Sources. Sources is a print and digital journal promoting informed conversations and thoughtful disagreement about issues that matter to the Jewish community. 

The article you’ll hear today is Sam Fleishhacker’s “Variations on the Shema,” from the Fall 2022 issue. Sam is a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His article is a rich meditation on Judaism’s central prayer and statement of faith. Seen through Sam’s eyes, the Shema becomes the thread that guides a Jew from childhood to adulthood, and from place to place. Now, I’ll hand it over to Sam. I hope you enjoy this audio version of his essay. 

Sam: Variations on the Shema. 

Theme and variations: you hear a melody, then different versions of it—faster, slower, in a minor key, with different rhythms—turning it, perhaps, from a silly jig into a meditative rhapsody, sometimes rendering it barely recognizable. The variations are scattered about randomly, or so it seems. There is a last one, but not really a conclusion.

In classical music, a theme and variations contrasts with sonata form. Sonata form represents order, rational development from one idea to another; a theme and variations suggests that we don’t need such order, that we can look at the same thing in many ways, without supposing that those ways need to fit together. If sonata form is an emblem of the grand narrative that promises us a comprehensive understanding of our world, then a theme and variations represent a protest against such narratives. It gives us insights into just this or that aspect of our world, rather than a comprehensive understanding of it.

I think the experience of saying the Shema every day, the fact that we repeat it even though we already know it so well, pushes us to see it through the lens of a theme and variations: something we should never expect to grasp fully, and that we approach each day from a different angle, bringing the diversity in our lives to bear on this hymn to unity.

What follows are some excerpts from a collection I call “18 Ways of Looking at the Shema.” Each stands alone but can also be read in light of the other pieces—here illuminating, there questioning or undermining what the others have to say. I hope they will provide readers with new insights into the Shema; at the least, their variety may prod readers into seeking out such new insights—refusing to let the familiarity of its words blind us to the riches they contain.

Middle Ground

The Talmud opens by asking when we should say the Shema in the evening. It’s a perplexing start, clearly addressed only to people who are already immersed in the Jewish tradition.

The Torah, by contrast, starts where one might think any foundational religious document should start: with creation.

Are these beginnings really so different? The creation story in the Torah tells us little about the universe, stressing just that it was created by, and is subject to, one God; the Shema makes the same point, but more explicitly. By beginning with the evening Shema, the Talmud also alludes, implicitly, to the beginning of the Torah, where each day starts with an evening.

There are many beginnings, temporal and logical ones, personal and communal ones, religious and secular ones. Where does Judaism, as a whole, begin?

Well, when do we start to be Jewish? At our circumcision, perhaps, or a simchat bat. But we don’t remember our own circumcisions and semachot bat, and when (if) we perform them on or for our children, we have already been immersed in being Jewish for a long time. Perhaps a convert can regard the moment of coming out of the mikvah as his or her first moment of being Jewish, but most of us are not converts, and even the convert will have spent months learning about Judaism, and engaging in many of its practices, long before entering the mikvah.

So perhaps being Jewish begins with our first day of Jewish education? But long before that, we’ve been to Seder and Kol Nidrei and the lighting of Hanukah candles. We have also become aware of our Jewishness from dinner conversations and offhand remarks that our parents barely notice having made.

Perhaps then it’s silly to look for a first moment of being Jewish. But there might still be a first element of Judaism—a grounding doctrine for it. What would you choose for that role, however? Monotheism? That’s too general: it doesn’t pick out Judaism from other religions. How about the sacredness of the Torah? Better, but surely that can’t be a starting point for our religion: it depends, for one thing, on a belief in God. How about the first thing that the Torah tells us—that God created the universe? But the story about our coming out of Egypt, and receiving the Torah, defines Jewish faith more deeply than the creation story, and indeed, we generally understand the creation story only in the light of its significance for our other commitments. The story of creation in the Torah itself seems oriented primarily towards bringing out the importance of Shabbat.

It’s even hard to figure out what the first Jewish holiday is. Passover is the first holiday of the Biblical calendar, Rosh Hashanah of the rabbinic calendar. Shabbat takes priority in importance over both; it is “more holy than all the other seasons,” we say in the liturgy for Friday night.

So perhaps the Shema—whether that means just the word shema” (“Listen!”) or the statement it initiates, or the whole three paragraphs that we say twice a day—is the real beginning of Judaism, its true foundation? Central creedal statements like this are meant to sum up the teachings of a religion’s sacred text (compare the Shahada in Islam); the faithful also usually study these texts, in detail, long after they learn the statement. Jews do frame the reading of the Torah on Shabbat and holidays with the Shema: it’s the first thing we say when we take the Torah scroll out of the ark, suggesting that everything we read from the scroll should be understood through that lens.

The Shema as a whole (the three-paragraph version) also contains allusions to creation. In the middle of its middle paragraph, we get references to esev, the grass that comes up on the third day in the first creation story in Genesis (1:12), but hasn’t yet sprouted at the beginning of the second creation story (Gen. 2:5); and to matar, the rain that God has not yet sent in the beginning of the second creation story (ibid). There are also two mentions of adamah, the word for “earth” in the second creation story—from which our own being, in the person of Adam, springs—and two of eretz, the word for “earth” in the first chapter of Genesis. The heavens and the earth, the subject of the very first line of the Torah, are also called in at the very end of the second paragraph, as they will be just before the end of the whole Torah (Deut. 32:1), as a kind of cosmic witness to the Jewish mission, or destiny.

So perhaps our lives in the world, as gestured to in the middle paragraph of the Shema, is the true starting point or foundation for how we should think about being Jewish?

But can that possibly be right? The starting point of the Shema itself—its ground, literally and figuratively—would then be found in its middle.

Why not? Many epics, and not a few novels, begin in medias res. That’s after all where we find ourselves whenever we start looking for a starting point. “How did we get here?” is a question asked by people who have already been heading “here” for a long time.  Narratives feel realistic when they start in the middle, and work backwards and forwards from there.

Another alternative is that starting points are not very interesting. “Plunge in, wherever you are, and see where you get to!” Not bad advice. Enough with the beginning.

Shema and Haggadah

The Shema makes a famous appearance in the Passover Haggadah: Five rabbis stay up all night in Bnei Brak, talking about the exodus from Egypt; they end their Seder only when their students come in to tell them it’s time to recite the morning Shema. Which leads the Haggadah to consider why we read the third paragraph of the Shema—which mentions the exodus from Egypt—at night.

Why does the Shema come in here at all? How does it function in the context of the Haggadah? Well, the story of the five rabbis in Bnei Brak comes immediately after the Haggadah has told us that all that we really need to say, on Seder night, is the little paragraph beginning, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…,” but that it is praiseworthy to elaborate upon this paragraph. The story of the five rabbis then illustrates just how much one can elaborate upon this paragraph—and most interpretations view the students’ reminder of the need to say the morning Shema as setting an outside limit on this elaboration. The rabbis should, and we should, stop our sedarim by that point.

But I think this is a misreading of the entry of the students. Especially when we bear in mind that the Haggadah moves on immediately to a discussion of the third paragraph of the Shema, I think that what the students are saying is that the rabbis can continue their discussion by saying the Shema. We mention the going out of Egypt in the Shema after all. So the Seder doesn’t have to end in favor of saying the Shema instead. Rather, the students suggest that the Shema can be regarded as a continuation of the Seder, a way of recalling the coming out of Egypt by other means. This reading fits in better with how a remark by students to their teachers normally functions in the rabbinic world. Students don’t come in to tell their teachers that they are making a mistake. They are much more likely to suggest to their teachers, gently and cleverly, how they can see a certain action as right by their own lights. Here, it turns out that saying the morning Shema is the right thing to do even by the lights of those who want to keep talking about the exodus— because saying the morning Shema is a way to keep talking about the exodus.

If this is right, then the Haggadah is suggesting that participating in a Seder is like saying the Shema and saying the Shema is like participating in a Seder. A wonderful idea! But a puzzling one: the Seder we think of as a lively discussion, the Shema as a moment of meditative devotion. Perhaps that’s the point: when we say the Shema, we should be open always to internal debates we might have with its terms, “elaborating” on them as we go through life; and when we participate in a Seder, we should bear in mind that it is supposed to have something of the mood of meditative devotion, even during its lively arguments.

More deeply, now, if the Haggadah and the Shema are continuous with one another, then the Haggadah may be about keeping commandments, and breaking free of the pull of our arrogant ideologies and selfish desires, and aspiring to holiness, and standing before God, as well as about freedom from slavery. And isn’t it about all these things? We speak, in it, of having originally been idolaters, and celebrate our emergence from that as well as from Egypt. Later, in Dayenu, we suggest that we came out of Egypt in order to come to Mount Sinai and receive the Torah. After we say Dayenu, we move to a commemoration of the sacrificial meal our ancestors had on Passover (symbolically, in mentioning pesach, matzah, and maror, and eating the latter two; and literally, in the meal initiated by these symbolic foods)—the closest they came to being like priests, to taking on the vestments of holiness. And then we sing, joyously, as if in the presence of God.

So perhaps the mention of the third paragraph of the Shema at the Seder table does not tear one sentence of it out of context. Perhaps, instead, it bestows a richer meaning on that one sentence—reminds us that “coming out of Egypt” is not something we did once, long ago, or can do now only on Seder night, but is instead a constant process of pulling ourselves out of slavery to our own desires and egos, in favor of standing before the ultimate and absolute Good: Who also helps pulls us toward Him or Her or It, lovingly, and in the spirit of One who does not want us to be enslaved.

Unifying Myself

By saying we have just one God, we are also saying that each of us is one—I, who am the same person I was yesterday and last week and 25 and 40 years ago, attest that the God I worshipped then is the God I worship now. If I was not that same person yesterday and last week and 25 and 40 years ago, I could not attest to this: that other person might have worshipped a different God, or several different gods. I call myself, across time, to account before the one God, and I commit myself to standing before the one God in the future.

I may also be unified across time, at least insofar as I identify myself as a religious Jew, by saying the Shema. I remember having said the Shema as a small boy (I imagine that converts and people who became religious later in life may remember saying it from the moment they started to identify as a Jew, or a religious Jew), and I expect I’ll be saying it in all my tomorrows for a long time to come.

Saying the Shema thus helps unify me. Or perhaps God does, as I say it. In any case, I commit myself to having a unified self—to unifying myself—as I commit myself to a unified God.

Unifying myself allows me to make sense of the various things I do, to put my tastes and interests together and have them inform one another.

Unifying myself also pushes me to take responsibility for everything I do. I can’t just say, “That wasn’t me,” when a lie or moment of cruelty in my past comes back to haunt me (I might say, “I’ve changed,” or “I’ve repented,” but that’s different from saying, “That wasn’t me”: to repent, I need first to acknowledge that it was me who did the things I regret). Nor can I cordon off parts of my life from one another, and pretend, say, that I am single when I am in some places, even though I am married in other places.

Unifying myself pushes me to take responsibility for my actions in another sense as well: to integrate my thoughts and feelings with how I appear externally, to make sure I do not divide off a real, hidden self from a false, hypocritical appearance of myself. Unity of myself is, in this sense, quite literally integrity.

Unifying myself allows me to hope that my childhood aspirations will be realized, or at least to bear them in mind and allow them to guide me when I feel disoriented, am at a loss about what to aspire to, in middle age.

I said the Shema as a child, I am saying it now, and I will be saying it tomorrow and next year and when I am old. That means that the child-me is not forgotten, with its naïve hopes and dreams and beliefs about God and how the world could be improved; and the mature me now, more confident but cynical and bitter in many ways, yet still able to recall the child-me and to try to live out its promises to itself; and the old-man-me of the future, who will, I hope be driven by the best of the child-me and the mature me, the person with hopes, confidence and realism rather than the cynicism and bitterness that have grown, like ivy, over my emotional system over time—all of these personae can connect to the me of “there is one God”: one Good unifying the universe, which means that good things can happen for me and for the world. And if all these personae can say this, then I can resist the temptations in me, in the child of the past and the middle-aged cynic, and probably the old man of the future, that call on me to yield to the desires of my eyes and my heart. Then I can resist everything in me that gives up on any higher good, and says instead, “all is vanity, so everything is permitted.”

I was the child who needed the Shema simply to be repeated to me, because I couldn’t yet understand it. I became the adolescent and then the adult for whom this repetition served simply as a background habit onto which true learning, true understanding, could be grafted.

I am the child, still, who needs simply to repeat the Shema to myself, needs habits that I don’t fully understand to carry me through when I despair of grasping anything, and to serve as a practical, habitual background on which my attempts at understanding things can be based. I am also the adult, teaching myself what the Shema may mean and refusing to be satisfied with repetition.

By unifying ourselves, do we perhaps also help unify God? Is God in dispersion, as Lurianic Kabbalah teaches? God’s name—the way we conceive God—is certainly in dispersion: varied, sometimes unspeakably tender or merciful, sometimes upright but harshly just, sometimes terrible, even unspeakably so. By unifying ourselves in a commitment to God, we commit ourselves, among other things, to unifying God’s name. And perhaps that helps unify God as well. We hope, in any case, that one day God will be wholly one, and God’s name one.

I and my God are one. I and my God and the Shema are one.

Sometimes I feel an urge to run away from myself, to discard my “home” self and live as a stranger. My love for travel probably arises in part from that; others, probably, play out this urge by becoming actors. But after being on the road for a while, I also yearn to come home and return to my familiar home roles; in my experience, actors also yearn at some point to “be themselves” again: to inhabit (to have) their own identity, rather than taking on the personae of other people. The Shema teaches us that our home and away selves must come together—that’s one meaning of saying it when we are at home and when we are “walking by the way.” I am responsible at home for what my away self does, and my away self carries in it my home self. It’s always me, whether at home or away. Saying the Shema reminds me of that: another way in which it brings me together.

The faithful and the skeptical me, the orthodox and the heretical me, also need to be united with one another. There is some of each in the other. What is faith but a pushing-off of skepticism and heresy? What is doubt but a critique of one’s own inclination to believe? From the faithful perspective, certainly, there must be something good, even godly, about the side of ourselves that pulls, honestly, against our unquestioned commitments to the good and godly. These are also “home” and “away” selves.

Keeping Jewish practices helps unify me. Obviously so, in some ways: At each Seder and Shabbat dinner, I remember what I did or what happened to me at other sedarim and Shabbat dinners; as I plan out what I’ll be doing next week or next month, I bear in mind the Jewish holidays, and the bris or shiva minyan I need to get to. I’m also marked throughout my activities, to others and to myself, as the person who needs to set time aside for prayer in the morning, who doesn’t eat certain things or in certain places, who goes to classes and lectures on the Torah or the Talmud, etc. I have “a Jewish identity,” and halakhah plays a central role in shaping that.

But in an additional, deeper sense, a commitment to Jewish practice comes to affect which of my desires and interests I’m inclined to endorse as “really mine.” There are certain things that part of me would like to do but that I keep myself from because they conflict with how I see myself Jewishly. And only this orientation towards keeping commandments, rather than doing just what I feel like doing, guides me ever toward God, or what I take to be God. Others, perhaps, would see themselves as encountering God in a more purely mystical way, independent of commandments; that is not the way of the Shema, or of Jews more generally. As I go along the way of the Shema, I am unified as a particular kind of person: an Israelite, a Jew, and someone with reverence for law, custom, and established practices. I know no other way to achieve my unity.

Claire: Thanks for listening to our show. This episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Yoav Friedman. It was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. And our music is provided by Socalled.

If you liked this article, find it and all other Sources articles online. Our fall issue on the theme of danger and safety will be out in just a few weeks. You can read it for free or subscribe to our beautiful printed edition at See you next week, and thanks for listening. 

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