Torahthon: Shema for Beginners

Ariella and I went to an evening of learning called “Torahthon” tonight at Temple Beth Am. Rabbi Mitch Malkus from the Pressman Academy lined up about 20 great minds from the greater Los Angeles Jewish Community (mostly Conservative rabbis and professors) to teach some short classes to the community.

The two sessions I attended were amazing. I went to Rabbi Avi Havivi’s “Shema for Beginners” section first, where we explored what the 3 (or 4, depending on how you look at it) parts of the Shema are trying to convey. We probably spent a full 10 minutes talking about what we weren’t going to talk about (the blessing before and after the Shema, the meaning of the paragraphs when looked at in context from where they were taken from the Torah, the ritual choreography involved in reciting the Shema). I learned more than I expected. It will be a huge boost to my kavanah when I recite the Shema next (which ought to be tonight when I go to bed, but we’ll see about that).

One of the most interesting things we talked about was the “Adonai Echad” component of the first sentence. Sure, there is the usual perspective of monotheism vs. polytheism which probably made a lot of sense during biblical times and maybe even when the liturgy was being canonized. But the most interesting suggestion that Rabbi Havivi made was that the Echad was referring to God’s uniqueness. To paraphrase, God is unique, a singleton, in a category all by God’s self, and the One-ness of God cannot be compared to any human experience we might try to understand.

In storytelling, we use metaphors to understand God, but we’re aware that these are merely tools to help us humans understand the Divine. We recall that God led the Israelites out of Egypt “with a mighty outstretched arm” but of course we know that God doesn’t actually have an arm. Similarly, at various points in Tanach we conceive of God as having love, anger, or jealousy, but God doesn’t actually have any of these emotions, at least not the way we understand them as humans experience them. Similarly, God’s uniqueness cannot be compared to the way we think of individuals being unique. God is the one any only member of a set.

As a computer scientist, I could say that this all appeals to me so naturally and intuitively, with set theory and discrete mathematics and all. But it works for me on a spiritual level as well.