Thursday, August 04, 2011

Naturally,just because I don’t believe it literally . . .

. . . the second paragraph of the Sh’ma is roughly twice as long as either the first or third paragraph. :(

A former rabbi of ours once told us that he thought one difference between Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews was that “Reconstructionists don’t believe in reward and punishment.” I thought he had a valid point, and I still do. And having spent roughly 20 years as a member of a dual-affiliated Conservative/Reconstructionist congregation before landing where I am now, I still don’t believe in reward and punishment.

So what am I to do with this paragraph, other than recite it because it’s a mitzvah/commandment to do so? As a traditional egalitarian, I’m stuck—I’m too traditional to skip it, and too egalitarian to follow the “women-are-exempt” practice.

Some have put an ecological spin on this text, arguing that ruining the environment is a sin against HaShem and will turn the earth against us as surely as worshipping idols would. It’s a good try, and better than anything that I can come with, but has about as much basis in the actual biblical text as the practice of maintaining separate meat and dairy pots in a kosher kitchen has. (Kosher folks should still keep the separate pots—it’s a rabbinic ordinance.)

Does anyone have a reasonable alternative interpretation for random-universe rationalists like me?


Anonymous jdub said...

if for no other reason, say it because for millenia, Jews went to their deaths with the Shma on their lips. don't overthink this one.

Thu Aug 04, 02:22:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Don't worry, JDub,I say the full Sh'ma daily (preferably twice), and that's one of the reasons.

Thu Aug 04, 03:06:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous rejewvenator said...

According to your own view the Torah, including these verses are human representations or conceptions of God. The view of God as master of reward and punishment is simply one stage in the journey of knowing God. You can honor that stage through your recitation even if you have moved past it.

Thu Aug 04, 03:15:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

That's a good ways of looking at it. Thanks, Rejewvenator.

Thu Aug 04, 03:30:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

While I accept that the words of the Torah are eternal. I think that the doctrine of '70 faces to the torah' refers to the fact that many interpretation come into and go out of relevance. The words remain the same, but the meaning changes.

Personally I read the 2nd paragraph of the Shema for today as a mixture of environmentalism and a recognition that your actions have consequences beyond those you can directly expect.

Thu Aug 04, 03:36:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"The words remain the same, but the meaning changes." That's a nice "70-faces" interpretation, Larry.

I agree that this paragraph does focus heavily on taking responsibility for one's actions and understanding that they have consequences. Maybe keeping that general theme, rather than the details, in mind would help.

Thu Aug 04, 03:42:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous Kathy said...

Well, my intention is to state this question respectfully, hopefully I'll succeed.

As I think you describe yourself as agnostic, I would think you'd have just as much trouble reciting (sorry, I'm going to have to use English not Hebrew) "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" as you would "I will give rain to your will eat and you will be satisfied."

If you don't believe in God how does it make sense to recite verses about loving him?

I see these verses as not being that much different that including the verse in Grace After Meals about not seeing a righteous man begging for food, or reciting the Eshet Chayil (which I don't think anyone achieves every week). More a desire and statement of faith in the ultimate goodness, than a literal statement of what will happen in a predetermined time frame.


Thu Aug 04, 04:08:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"As I think you describe yourself as agnostic, I would think you'd have just as much trouble reciting . . . "love the Lord your God with all your heart. . ."

Hmm, good point.

"More a desire and statement of faith in the ultimate goodness, than a literal statement of what will happen in a predetermined time frame."

That's a nice way of looking at the Sh'ma. Thanks, Kathy.

Thu Aug 04, 04:18:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Lanie said...

The paragraph is literally true, based on the latest environmental science. If we do things right, the world works the way it is supposed to (including, of course, natural disasters). If not, we have man-made disasters in addition.

Thu Aug 04, 05:01:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I guess it depends on how you interpret the phrase "V'haya em shamoa tishm'u el mitvotai . . . " If you listen, truly listen to my commandments . . . (my translation, which I hope is within hailing range of correct). What constitutes "my commandments," in this quote? The only "environment" commandment I can think of, from the Parshiot themselves, is Deuteronomy 20:19-20 from Parshat Shoftim, which commands us to spare food-growing trees during war. I happen to like the "ecology" approach, but I'm not sure that the text has enough of a connection. Please clarify.

Thu Aug 04, 06:09:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Too lazy to delete the comment 'cause I'd have to re-create the link, so I'll just post the correction: V'haya *im* shamoa . . . "

Thu Aug 04, 06:19:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Maybe I'm looking at the wrong part of the quote. Perhaps the mitzvah in question is indirectly pro-environment: perhaps "l'ahavah et HaShem Elokechem u'lovdo, to love HaShem your G-d and serve Him" might mean to take care of the world that He created and not mess it up. If we take care of HaShem's earth, the rain is, indeed, more likely to come in its season.

Fri Aug 05, 11:16:00 AM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

My old friend Lanie and I had some further discussion yesterday re the mitzvot mentioned in the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, as regards the environment. She reminded me that the Torah commands us not to force two animals of uneven size and/or strength to work together, which would probably shorten the life of the weaker animal and make growing crops more difficult. She also reminded me that I'd completely forgotten about a major environment-conscious mitzvah: Sh'mittah/Sabbatical Year. How did I miss that one?! Okay, while it may very well be that having an entire country's fields lie fallow for a year doesn't work economically, the principle of giving a field regular "down time" has turned out to be sound in practice, not only environmentally but also agriculturally and economically, since the soil of an overworked field becomes mineral-depleted and therefore less fertile and less productive. A loss of fertile soil could, indeed, cause the land not to yield its produce, which would make us perish from the good land that HaShem has given us.

Mon Aug 08, 10:20:00 AM 2011  
Anonymous Woodrow/Conservadox said...

The way I interpret is: if you fail religiously:

1. Your life will be empty, and you will be in a spiritual desert if not a physical one.

2. More in historical context, if you lose interst in God and Torah you will lose your interest in Eretz Yisrael, and you will VOLUNTARILY "perish swiftly from the good Land" as Naomi's husband and sons did when they bailed out during a famine.

Fri Aug 19, 11:55:00 AM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Nice interpretation, Woodrow. I appreciate the non-traditional perspective.

Sun Aug 21, 08:09:00 PM 2011  

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