The verse (Deuteronomy 6:4) Shema Yisrael – “Hear Oh Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One” – is understood to (in Wikipedia’s words) “encapsulate the monotheistic essence of Judaism.” It’s understood to be a declaration not only there is one and only one God, but also that God’s oneness is all-inclusive. God includes every particle of existence is within Him. God is not just ruling over the world. God encompasses the world. Time and space and all of us are within God. Nothing stands outside of God’s Oneness, and God encompasses all existence equally. God is universal in the most absolute sense possible. The Shema Yisrael is an expression of this deep universalism in the Jewish understanding of God.
However, there’s a second declaration contained within this verse. “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God,” is also a declaration. Its message is that the Jewish People – The Children of Israel – are God’s special people. God is “ours”. God is special to the people of Israel in a way that is unique and exclusive. There’s a level of intimacy between God and the people of Israel that is not shared with any other people of the Earth.
In contrast to the second declaration, “The Lord is One,” “Hear oh Israel, The Lord our God” is expressing a very particularistic message. It is declaring God’s special relationship with a people that comprise only 0.2% of the world’s population.
The verse is thus a paradox. It’s making two contradictory declarations, one that affirms God’s particular closeness to a tiny segment of humanity – Israel and the Jewish people; and a second declaration that affirms God’s absolute universality.
The most widely regarded master of Biblical commentary – Rashi – addresses this contradiction in his commentary on this verse. He explains its meaning thus: The Lord is currently our God, but is not the God of the other nations. In the future “our God” will be declared “The One God” by all the other nations. The nations of the world will one day acknowledge that God is the God of Israel.
According to Rashi, the God’s unity implies a prophetic understanding of history. The assertion that God is one is also an assertion that history is unfolding towards a redeemed future in which all the nations acknowledge the God of Israel as God, a future in which the knowledge and love of God fills the whole world. According to Rashi, God’s oneness is not just a theological statement. It’s also a statement that there is a direction to the course of history, leading the other nations to a more intimate and devoted relationship with the God of Israel. The Jewish People’s special intimacy with and knowledge of God will one day be a knowledge and intimacy with our Maker that is shared with all peoples. Rashi then quotes prophetic verses from Zephaniah (3:9) and Zechariah (14:9) that express this idea.
Rashi lived in 11th Century France. The Christians of his day, who ruled over the Jewish communities of Europe, had declared themselves to be the New Israel. In good times the Jews were tolerated. In bad time they were persecuted as Christ-killers. Rashi lived to see good times turn very bad. Prior to the first Crusade, there were a number of prosperous and thriving Jewish communities along the Rhine River that had become centers for the study of Torah and the teachings of the Jewish sages, including Rashi himself. When the knights and mobs of First Crusades arrived in May, 1096, they pillaged and mass-murdered the Jews of these communities, and offered the survivors the choice of death or conversion.
Rashi witnessed this disaster. His home town of Worms was one of the communities destroyed by the Crusaders. Somehow though, Rashi was able to see the horrific events around him through prophetic eyes. He knew that someday, the whole world, even the Christians, would come to see the God of Israel as the one true God.
For many in the Christian Zionist world, that day has come. There is a large and growing portion of the Christian Evangelical world that read and know the Bible. They know the story of the Jewish people and the teachings of the Jewish prophets. They have witnessed the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, they’ve seen the Biblical nation become reborn as a modern state, and they see the words of the prophets fulfilled. They see God’s word revealed in the story of Jewish people’s ingathering to the Land of Israel and the rebirth of the nation of Israel. They look at the modern Jewish Story, and they know that God is faithful to His people. God truly is the God of Israel.
I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know some amazing Christian lovers of God, and I’ve learned from them some important lessons about the unity of God. Here is one lesson that I learned from Donna Jollay, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working at Israel365. Whenever Donna finds herself at a gathering of Jews and Christians together, she usually tries to organize a Biblical psycho-drama that goes as follows: Quoting Psalm 126:2-3, she asks the Christians at the gathering to look at the Jews in the audience and say, “God has done great things for these” (meaning for the Jews). She then has the Jews in the audience respond with the next verse: “God has done great things for us.”
I was blown away the first time I experienced this with Donna at a conference sponsored by Breaking Israel News on Prophecy in the News. My image of Christianity in its relationship to Jews was shaken up. Here a Christian was inviting me, as a Jew, to feel pride in the special relationship of the Jewish people with God. A Christian was affirming to me that God has kept his covenant with the Jewish people.
Up until that point, my prototype for a devout Christian was as someone who felt compelled to change or convert us. Ever since the Church came into being, the Jew has been a problem. However, in this moment, these Christians were affirming my uniqueness, as a Jew. They were affirming our chosen-ness as Jews, our special-ness to God.
Based on Rashi’s understanding of “Shema Yisrael,” it’s clear that the Christian Zionists are themselves main actors on the Biblical stage. Their acceptance of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God is itself a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies cited by Rashi from Zechariah and Zephaniah. The Christian Zionist are in the vanguard, leading the whole world to a greater knowledge and love of God and an affirmation of God as the God of Israel.
Nevertheless, the contradiction in the “Here O Israel…” verse remains an apparent contradiction between a God that is uniquely connected to the Jewish people and an absolutely uinversal God. Furthermore, we’re living in a time when the assertion of God’s specialness to any people is not a politically correct idea. Although the Christian Zionists have accepted “our” God (the God of Isreal) as God, it still appears unseemly to claim our choseness – our special relationship to God.
The Jewish Wedding
My teacher and Rabbi, Rav Daniel Kohn, has a suggested a beautiful understanding of how to resolve this contradiction.
Rav Daniel’s suggests looking at the phenomenon of a traditional Jewish Wedding as a model for resolving the contradiction. The Jewish wedding takes place beneath a special canopy – the chuppah – under which the Bride and Groom become husband and wife. Surrounding the canopy, watching the wedding ceremony are the family and guests.
For the bride and groom, it’s one of the most special moments of their lives together. It’s a very intimate experience that takes place between them – as their souls are bound up with each other. In light of this special intimacy, it would seem more appropriate to keep the walls of the Chuppah closed until the ceremony ended. Then, once they were husband and wife, at the end of the ceremony, the walls of the chuppah would open, and everyone could celebrate together. Instead, the walls of the chuppah are open on all sides during the entire ceremony, and anyone present can gaze at the couple during this intimate experience between them.
There’s a very special emotional experience that’s accessible to the assembled crowd at many weddings, and that I’ve experienced more than once witnessing Jewish weddings. The energy of love between the bride and groom can be felt as a wave of love the spreads out to everyone witnessing. You can feel it. It’s a wonderful feeling of shared love and joy. The hearts of the onlookers are opened up by the special intimacy of love between the bride and groom. What intensifies this wave of love through the crowd is the intensity of focus between the bride and the groom. It’s when they are most focused exclusively on each other that this love is most felt by the crowd.
This is a beautiful and model of how the chosen-ness of the Jewish people fills the world with the love of God. It’s through God’s “standing” with us – His people – under the chuppah, that the whole world becomes filled with the knowledge and love of God.
God has been standing with us under the wedding canopy every since Mt. Sinai. However for the last 2,000 years, a foundation of Christian dogma has been the assertion that the Christians had replaced the Jews as God’s covenantal people.
Many Christian Zionists have challenged this assertion. They have witnessed the ingathering of the Jewish people in their land, and the re-emergence of the nation of Israel among the nations as clear evidence that God has kept His original covenant with the people of Israel.
Like the audience at the wedding, they have gazed at the expressions of the special love between God and Israel and, in response, have felt the love of God grow within them. They’ve chosen the God of Israel as God, and they honor God’s special relationship with Israel as part of their own path to a deeper relationship with God.
How Jews can Learn about God’s Unity from Christian Zionists:
This is a real revolution in the Christian world. However, we shouldn’t overlook its revolutionary impact on Jews as well. For Jews, the large and growing world of Christian Zionists teach us something very important about the Shema’s expression of God’s unity. The Christian Zionists highlight the power of God’s being “ours” as the doorway to the other nations being filled with the love and knowledge of God. It is precisely the special intimacy of God to Israel that opens that channel of God’s love to all people of the world.
Many Jews have unfortunately rejected the notion of the Jewish people’s special intimacy with God, and the Christian Zionists can help us see this phenomenon as a tragic turning away from a special mission. After 2,000 years of a very hard and traumatic exile, you can’t blame the Jews who reject their heritage as God’s chosen people. After so much pain and trauma, it’s no wonder so many Jews are estranged from their specialness. The Christian Zionists, however, are helping us wake up to God’s special love for us and to embrace our identity as God’s chosen people.