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Watch the 2018 High Holy Day sermons!

 

Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

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Va-etḥannan - Oneness

 

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

    “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You shall love your God Adonai with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

 - Deuteronomy 6:4-5

 

P’shat – Explanation

Anyone familiar with Judaism knows that the Shema is considered the quintessential Jewish prayer, “The watchword of our faith” in modern parlance. What is fascinating about this designation is that the Shema isn’t technically a prayer at all. It neither asks anything of God nor is it even directed to God.  Instead, Moses speaks directly to the Israelites, “Hear O Israel!...,” challenging the people to recognize that the God who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, gave them the Torah, and led them to the Promised Land is the unique and only God. Moses is commanding the people not to listen to the many competing spiritual traditions that uphold other deities as the true gods determining humanity’s fate.  Moses is reminding the Israelites that they have personally experienced God’s redeeming power: They heard God’s voice at Sinai, and they received a divine gift—the Torah—as a spiritual constitution for creating a just and compassionate society: a giant leap forward in the evolution of humanity.

Furthermore, Moses is also signaling that the God of the Israelites is not solely their God, but rather is the One God who created all of life itself.

In essence, the Shema is the spiritual glue binding the Jewish people together in its commitment to seeing Adonai as the one true God. The Talmud, Berahot 13b explains: “It has been taught: Symmachus says, ‘Whoever prolongs the word ehad (one) has his days and years prolonged.” So, too, in Berahot 13a we read, “The Sages say that it may be recited in any language.” In other words, the Shema is such a central affirmation of our faith, the Sages wanted to be sure that all who recited it would understand its meaning. Reciting it, they believed, was one of the most important ways of fulfilling the commandment to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”           

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“We shall not come to experience the reality of God unless we go in search of Him. To be seekers of God, we have to depend more upon our own thinking and less upon tradition. Instead of acquiescing passively in the traditional belief that there is a God, and then deducing from that belief conclusions which are to be applied to human experience and conduct, we must accustom ourselves to find God in the complexities of our experience and behavior.”  - Mordecai M. Kaplan

In rejecting the image of God as a supernatural being, Kaplan asserted that the only way each of us can experience God’s reality is by actively undertaking our own personal spiritual journey. In Kaplan’s theology, the spiritual challenge is to continually discover the Godliness inherent in our everyday experiences and behavior, and thereby demonstrate what it means to “love God with all our heart and soul and might.”

 From a modern understanding of this biblical commandment, we are to love God with all we have by seeing all we are—physically, intellectually, and spiritually—as reflections of divinity itself.  For Kaplan, God’s oneness is found in recognizing the spiritual unity that joins all people regardless of individual differences. Each of us, he believed, can find God in the same way: in the everyday miracles of life, from our bodies’ abilities to self-heal to our mental abilities to understand, innovate, and improve the world. He explained: “The term Shehinah [the traditional mystical, intimate, feminine term for God] implies that God is not aloof from human life with all its defeats and triumphs. God is in the very midst of life. The rabbis say that when people suffer for their sins, the Shehinah cries out. The Shehinah thus moves from Israel to all humanity.”[i]

In this way Kaplan gave expression to the universality implied in the Shema.  He taught that God, a manifestation of the sacred, encompasses all of life itself. 

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Affirming Our Jewish Identity across the World

Sailing across the Arabian Sea to Dubai by cruise ship began as a potent reminder to my wife Didi and me of the fragility of our privileged lives.

The ship security stood guard 24/7 on the bridge, watching for possible attacks by Islamic fundamentalists or Sudanese pirates. From talking to the guards, we knew our ship was armed with powerful water guns and high-tech sound blasters to dissuade smaller crafts from approaching with evil intent. 

Meanwhile, the largely Australian and New Zealand passengers sipping cocktails and enjoying the entertainment on board seemed blissfully unaware of the dangers.

            That Friday night, I conducted services on the ship for the Jewish passengers, who turned out to be from all over the world—– England, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Hungary, France, Germany, Russia, Iran, as well as America,. As we welcomed Shabbat together, I invited each of us to share something about Jewish life in our country.

Despite our differences, and perhaps because all of us were aware of the many hostile, inhospitable nations we were sailing past, when we reached the part in the service where we stood as a united community, closed our eyes, and sang together, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Ehad – “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone,” our voices grew ever stronger with each word, and I could feel our individual and collective commitment to belonging to the Jewish people and participating in the ongoing evolution of Jewish civilization being reaffirmed in all our hearts. We knew that many thousands of Jews before us had voiced these same words of spiritual affirmation over thousands of years of Jewish history. We could feel the presence of the Divine as one.

 

 

 

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Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780