Sacred or Secular (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote that I find academic study of the Bible intellectually important for my Jewish religious life. I promised an example of this from my friend Ben Sommer’s recent essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review on James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible, book #5 on my list of 10 books to get you started learning about the Bible. First, a bit of background.

The “watchword of our faith” (as I was taught to call it growing up) is the first line of the Shema, Deut 6:4. In the translation hallowed by years of American Jewish use: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The puzzling aspect of this for me was how to relate it to the rabbinic assertion that reciting the Shema involved accepting the sovereignty of God. I couldn’t see the connection. Ben explains, citing pp. 82-86 from Jon Levenson’s Sinai and Zion, #3 on my list.

The three paragraphs of the Shema‘ contain five of the six standard features of ancient Hittite treaties that spell out the obligations of local kings toward the Hittite emperor. Now, Levenson’s finding draws on modern biblical criticism, in particular on its comparativist school. (Many scholars had already noted that these features appear in descriptions of the formation of the Sinai covenant in Deuteronomy and in Exodus 19–Leviticus 26.) Yet Levenson’s point is quite relevant to traditional Jewish study and worship. It suggests that the recitation of the Shema‘ is really a sort of covenant-renewal ceremony. When Jews utter these lines, what they are doing (or what they ought to be doing, in the view of the ancient, probably prerabbinic sages who created the Shema‘) is acknowledging their role as vassals: they are accepting God’s sovereignty and agreeing to observe God’s commandments. This is just the sort of interpretation that one can bring into the synagogue productively, whether to teach it in the classroom or to present it from the pulpit.

That is, secular study of the Bible sheds light on something that the thinkers who shaped Jewish prayer also knew, but that Jews in general had forgotten: The Shema (as a whole, not just its first line) is to be understood as a covenant-renewal ceremony, because it follows the form of such ceremonies known to us—known then, and now known to us again—that were used in the ancient Near East at the time. So the rabbinic assertion, which is not clear from simply reading the text itself, becomes clear thanks to what scholars have been able to discover, and to teach us, in a non-religious context. This is as exciting intellectually as it is rewarding religiously.

I also promised a further post on my experience of text study as a path to religious experience; stay tuned for that one.

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