Monday, December 13, 2010

Vayigash! Or, how "Shema Yisroel" is not like "Allahu Akhbar"

One of the pleasures of not being a respected religious scholar is that I am at liberty to free associate, to make connections that are remotely plausible, but certainly interesting, at least to me. The following is presented in that spirit.

KFJ, over at his personal blog, writes the following:
The local Chabad newsletter sent me this gem today:
Our Sages point out that the Hebrew verb vayigash (“and he approached “) is employed by the Torah to describe a person entering into battle as well as one engaging in prayer. Indeed, use of this word often implies a combination of the two — an approach that is both a plea and a confrontation (as in the case of Judah’s approach to Joseph, which gives the Torah reading of Vayigash its name).
Does that mean Judaism also has a theological concept easily misrepresented to portray violence? Jews and Muslims have so much in common!
The man's got a point, and it's on his nose. When bearded Jewish ninjas hijack civilian airliners and smash them into American cities screaming "Vayigash!", then we'll have something to talk about. Although, I suppose if "Jihad" is the Muslim equivalent of "Vayigash" (and it's not), then "Allahu Akhbar" ("G-d is Great"), the ubiquitous Muslim battle chant recited in a variety of circumstances, particularly those of danger, is roughly equivalent to the Jewish "Shema Yisroel" ("Hear O'Israel"), a prayer recited twice daily, but also by those on their deathbed or in imminent danger.

This, of course, is where all attempts at drawing out a commonality between our two faiths necessarily end. "Shema Yisroel" are actually the first two words of the Shema, an essential, three paragraph Biblically mandated Jewish prayer which affirms G-d's Kingship and sovereignty, our acceptance of His commandments, our performance of His commandments (among them the mitzvah of tzitzis), and includes a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. More specifically, the first two words are short notation for the first line of the prayer, which underpins the totality of our faith - Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, "Hear O'Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One."

Commentary on this one sentence in the Jewish texts is voluminous; the implications of every word, from the standpoint of Jewish law to mysticism are inexhaustible. For the purposes of our conversation, it's sufficient to note that while Muslims say that "G-d is Great", we Jews say that "G-d is One". Let that simmer for a second.

How do we know that G-d is Great? It's obviously because He does great things, and I don't need to elaborate. Does G-d think of himself as great, though? Great in relation to what? It's nonsensical. Great is not what G-d is, it's what G-d does. Compared to the power of a human being, or to the power of an imposing beast, G-d is great - i.e. He performs great feats.

What G-d is, to the extent that is possible or necessary for us to comprehend, is One, because there is nothing but Him. "One" is not something He does, that's who He is. The very premise of our existence, of our people's existence, of humanity's existence, is geared towards actualizing and internalizing this reality, that G-d is One. G-d innermost desire is not to be One - He IS One - but to be understood by His creation as such, to be made whole through the free will of entities which see themselves as independent beings seeking a return to his Oneness, like the reunion between estranged lovers, a prominent metaphor in Jewish mystical texts and liturgy.

It appears to be a small thing, a focus on what G-d does, rather than what G-d is, but one could make the case that it concerns issues of substance. The moment you focus on what a deity beyond the laws of nature does, the interest naturally shifts what that deity can do for you, and how you can elicit this cooperation. You are apart from the deity, aloof from the deity, you have big plans for rearranging this world to your liking, and it would make your life so much easier if this external, super-natural entity could clear the obstacles in your way.

"G-d is Great" is an attempt to elicit and harness G-d's power to bend and break the rules in the service of man. "G-d is One" is an attempt to elicit and harness the free will of human beings in the service of G-d.

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