The Shema & Ambiguity: Why It’s So Hard to Follow Scripture (Deut. 6)

Following scripture: it’s one of the core functions of the believer. Many of the debates of various religious groups have centered on how best to follow these holy books—how to honor God, pray, and how to act in a “Godly” way (or a way that “pleases” God). This is a gross simplification, of course—so pardon me that—but the core, I think, is still true. The eternal question of the religious has been along these lines: Is there a right answer to how best to follow scripture? From a skeptic’s perspective, the answer, probably, is no. The why, however, lies in the question.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.* These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

This passage is known as the “Shema,” and it’s probably one of the more famous parts of Deuteronomy. I bet, if you’ve been to any type of Christian church service before, you’ve heard it, and if you’re Jewish, at least if you are practicing, you should be reciting it twice a day. (It’s called the “Shema” because of its first word, “hear,” which is shema in Hebrew). For ancient interpreters and readers, this—part of Moses’ last words—was not just a nicely written paragraph, but a mandate. Scholar James Kugel, in his essential book on the Old Testament, How to Read the Bible, captures the questions that ancient readers and thinkers were asking: “But—come to think of it—how is one supposed to [carry out the Shema’s words]? That is, what does the text mean by telling people to love God ‘with all your heart,’ and how is that different from loving Him with all your soul and all your might?” (How to Read the Bible, 341).

You may think, at least if you are Christian, that I am parsing these words too carefully. But the questions Kugel asks are only the beginning of the inquiry. Various ancient Jewish thinkers have considered these words in detail, wondering exactly how to follow them and how to best, by extension, follow God. There was eventually some consensus, but the ambiguities of the language still remain: How does one talk about God every moment of the day? Should one literally write them all on the doorframes? And if so, which ones? All of them? As Kugel noted, how does one really love God in the ways this passage indicates? What counts as love and what does not? Where the line to be drawn between the two? Could we envision, and then precisely define, a way to follow this passage?

That last question should be particularly troublesome. Writes Kugel: “A modern reader would probably say that the basic import of this paragraph is: love God deeply and think about everything I (Moses) have been telling you…” (How to Read the Bible,  341). This may be a simplified meaning of the passage, indeed. But, at least for this reader, the ins and outs, which escape proper definition, are troubling. This places us at the roots of the difficulty: one probably can never follow or act in a way that completely aligns oneself with the mandates of these words, because the words themselves, at a core level, escape complete logical definition. While we can sum up the general meaning (as Kugel does), we cannot make that simplification square perfectly with the original words. Whether this reveals the inherent problems with organized religious worship or encourages you to strive ever harder to comport yourself with God—we here think the former—remains the individual’s decision. Either way, it is hard to argue that ambiguity plays a role.

*The translation Kugel uses below has “might” for “strength.”

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