They Changed the Shema…Again!

Sermon delivered January 9, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Two weeks from tonight, we shall adopt a new prayerbook at Temple Beth-El. Mishkan T’filah offers beautiful prayers in a format that will permit each service to be unique, even as we pray from the same siddur, the Hebrew word for prayerbook. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully laid out and delightful to hold. Simply opening the siddur will be an inspiration. One of the book’s most welcome features is that it offers transliteration of every single Hebrew prayer, as I plan to discuss next week.

As we turn the pages of Mishkan T’filah, we move from prayer to prayer, until we find the Shema, the watchword of our faith, on one two-page spread. This stunning presentation highlights the singular importance of this declaration of our faith. We find the Hebrew, typeset in blue, with lettering as it is found in the Torah. After all, the Shema is a verse of Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4.

Underneath, we find a heretofore unseen translation of the Shema. For those who have been around Reform Judaism a long time, I must confess that it’s true: They’ve gone and done it again! The Rabbis who prepare our Reform prayerbooks on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis have again changed the English wording of our most oft-repeated and dearly beloved prayer.

In my lifetime, and in the lifetime of anybody my age or older, or even a little younger, we Reform Jews have prayed from four different prayerbooks. The Union Prayerbook reigned from the 19th Century until it was replaced by Gates of Prayer in 1975. More recently, the little siddur we use tonight was published as an interim prayerbook, never intended to be permanent. Now, we shall worship with Mishkan T’filah. Each of these four prayerbooks has offered a different translation of the Shema.

Of course, nobody really changed the Shema. The six Hebrew words are the same inscribed in the Torah scroll itself: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. Those are the first Hebrew words most of us ever learn. We know what the sentence means, even if the translation has changed. Adonai is the one and only God.

Or do we know what it means?

The Union Prayerbook adopted the translation of the old Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” As a child, I thought the words awkward. When Gates of Prayer emerged, adding one English word, “is,” the translation was easier to understand: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.”

But how many “is’s” are actually in the Shema, in Hebrew? Which translation is accurate?

Sorry, I can’t answer that and that’s not because I’m like Bill Clinton, unsure of what the meaning of the word is, is. Instead, translators sometimes have a hard time deciding where to put a word like “is” because there is no such word in Hebrew. Were I to translate the Hebrew word-for-word, it would be, “Hear, Israel, Adonai, our God, Adonai, one.” That’s just bad English. We need to insert the word “is” at least once. Some of you have heard me say, many times, “Every translation is an interpretation.” Never is one and only one translation a correct rendition of a sentence from one language into another. In this case, we must interpret, at least deciding where to put the word “is,” if we are to translate into correct English.

If the word “is” appears only once, the Shema is one sentence. The rest of it simply introduces the part that makes it a sentence: Adonai Ehad, “the Lord is one.” One could say that it’s also one sentence in the Torah, in Hebrew. Moreover, listen to how the Shema is chanted: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. The major break comes after the first two words, “Listen, Israel.” “The Lord our God” and “The Lord is one” have a less significant pause between them. If something like a semi-colon were intended between these two elements, the Shema would be chanted like this: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. I hope you hear the difference, despite my poor singing voice.

Admittedly, the Torah lacks punctuation altogether. The marks that symbolize the chanting and pausing were added a mere 1500 years ago, give or take. Therefore, the scholarly translators who added a second “is” were not renegades. Their goal, in preparing the New Jewish Publication Society Translation was to produce a more readable English Bible.

Now, the Shema would have two sentences; Israel is told to hear two messages: First, “The Lord is our God.” Second, “The Lord is one.” But let’s go back to that first sentence: Is it The Lord is our God; or The Lord is our God? Oy vey! The translation, already an interpretation, is open to interpretation.

Thankfully, this dilemma has a likely answer. The sentence almost certainly means, The Lord is our God. In other words, this particular God, Adonai, and not some other, is our God. In the days of the Torah, many different gods were worshiped by different people. The one God worshiped by Israel was and remains Adonai, or in English, “the Lord.”

1975 came and went. Ten minutes after Gates of Prayer was published, Reform Jews increasingly became concerned about gender equality. With respect to the prayerbook, God’s gender became a significant issue. If God, the ultimate source of power, is male, perhaps the historic reality of men’s authority over women is legitimate.

Now, of course, Jews have never believed that God has physical human characteristics, let alone a male or female body. However, Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish, and every noun has a gender. God is a masculine word, even if God isn’t a male. Unable to repair the Hebrew situation, Rabbis and lay leaders increasingly sought to eliminate use of words like “he” or “her” to refer to God in English. Clearly, no such language would be found in the next Reform prayerbook; and it isn’t in Mishkan T’filah. As many years were required to produce the new siddur, the matter came to be viewed as so important that an interim siddur was adopted: the slim volume we lovingly call “Gates of Gray.”

Well, the Shema has no pronoun, so there’s no problem of “he” or “him.” However, for many people, including the folks who published the prayerbook, the word “Lord” is considered to be masculine. Technically, of course, that’s correct. So they replaced the term “Lord” with “the Eternal.”

Yes, every translation is an interpretation, but some interpretations are more faithful than others. Admittedly, translating that particular word of the Shema is tough. We say Adonai, but truth be told, that’s not the word written in Hebrew. Instead, Hebrew readers see four Hebrew letters, the ancient proper name of God. That four-lettered name was pronounced only by the High Priest, only on Yom Kippur, only in the Holy of Holies. Some speculate that it was pronounced Yahweh, but that’s a guess at best. Since none of us is the High Priest, and the Holy of Holies is in our hearts, ever since the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, we’re not supposed to pronounce those four consonants anyway. Instead, in Hebrew, we say Adonai. That means “Lord,” literally translated, but it also stands for God’s name. “The Eternal” doesn’t sound anything like a name.

Even worse is the way this little prayerbook renders the end of the Shema. “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.” The last word of the Shema is Ehad. That translates directly as “one,” the number. Every translation is an interpretation, but not every interpretation is a translation. The phrase, “the Eternal alone” is an interpretation of the phrase Adonai Ehad, not a translation.

The worst thing about this third translation of the Shema is that it’s so different from every translation that preceded it. No, the English isn’t in the Torah. And yet, we recite the Shema so frequently that even the English rendition becomes sacred to us. Even the addition of a second “is” was disconcerting to many. Still, when praying with beloved Temple members whose formative experiences were with the Union Prayerbook, I hear, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” We should not be shackled by the past. And yet, faithfulness to our Reform heritage ought at least to be a consideration.

Having kept you in suspense, I’ll now tell you how the Shema is translated in Mishkan T’filah. I hope you will like it. I do.

“Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.”

It’s still two sentences, emphasizing both that we worship Adonai and that God is one.

The name for God is the one that Jews have used, in Hebrew, for two millennia. No attempt is made to translate a name that can’t be translated. Interpretation is kept to a minimum.

One day, Reform congregations will be filled with men and women like Sam Callahan here, all of whom read Hebrew and understand at least some key words. Perhaps then, no translation of the Shema will be required. Until that time, or at least until the next prayerbook is published, after I retire, we have a translation and a siddur that can inspire us.

And let us all remember: No matter how we translate it, the words and the deepest meaning will always be the same, every time we affirm our faith together, saying: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad.

Amen.