As a child, I recited the Shema – the first few verses – with my mother every night in bed before I went to sleep. I also recited another prayer by heart: “Dear God, bless mummy and daddy, my sister and brother, booba and grossmutti, my aunts, uncles and cousins, and all my friends, and help me to be a good girl for Thy sake. Amen.” Many children in those days – the 1950s and early 60s – said bedtime prayers, and I imagine many do so still today. The curious thing about this nightly ritual was that neither of my parents believed in God. My father came from a fairly assimilated family and was bar mitzvah at a Liberal synagogue in Vienna. But my mother had been raised Orthodox, and she and her sisters and brothers – there were nine children in all, and she was the youngest – had grown-up reciting the Shema twice-daily, and praying the modeh ani morning prayer and n’tilat yadayim, the blessing for the washing of hands, as soon as they awoke. My mother never explained my night-time prayer routine – but then, she didn’t explain why she lit the candles on Erev Shabbat and the eve of festivals, while my father did not recite kiddush and motzi. That was just the way it was in our household: my mother took responsibility for our Jewish life, which also included, not eating prohibited foods at home, buying chicken and meat from Sainsbury’s, and having lashings of cream, Viennese style, with desert after every Shabbat meal.
I studied liturgy with Rabbi John Rayner, z”l, in my second year as a rabbinic student at the Leo Baeck College. Nevertheless, when I first led a service at a Liberal synagogue, although I was aware of the Liberal Jewish practise of standing for the recitation of the Shema in honour of the declaration of the unity of God, I was taken aback by the formality and reverence of the gesture. Childhood experience exerts a strong hold, and for me, saying the Shema is still associated with lying down in bed and preparing to sleep. At Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, where we try to be as inclusive as possible, we now invite those present to remain seated or to stand for the Shema in accordance with their own custom.
Liberal Judaism’s distinct stance concerning the recitation of the Shema – which includes, in many synagogues, opening the Ark – extends beyond the familiar first paragraph to the treatment of the remaining second and third paragraphs of the Shema. Many members of Liberal synagogues may not be aware that there are three paragraphs: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-31. This is because in every edition of the Liberal siddur, the evening and morning services include the first paragraph, beginning, Shema Yisra’eil, and the conclusion of the third paragraph, from L’ma’an tizk’ru, but omit the second, and the first part of the third. However, the most recent prayer book, Siddur Lev Chadash (1995) does include ‘The Shema In Full’ on pages 539-541 in the section ‘Prayers for various occasions’, so it is possible for people to look up the passages that are left out of our services.
The missing verses of the third paragraph concern the commandment to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the four corners of one’s garment – later transferred to the corners of the tallit, the prayer-shawl worn for Morning Prayer. This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, includes the passage that became the second paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-21). These verses are a powerful statement of biblical reward and punishment theology. To paraphrase: obedience to God’s commandments will ensure that the rains fall in due season, produce grows, ‘and you will eat and be satisfied’; by contrast, disobedience will cause the Eternal One to ‘shut up the heavens, so that there is no rain, and the ground does not yield its produce; and then you will quickly perish from the good land which the Eternal One is giving you.’ It’s very straightforward: God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience.
But of course, life teaches us that it isn’t quite as simple as that – which is why Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote his much-read book, When Bad Things happen to Good People (Barnes & Noble, 1978). As Liberal Jews, we are also uncomfortable with the notion of God as a zealous divine autocrat. But perhaps, in the context of the extent to which human beings are steadily destroying our planet’s ecosystem, these verses carry a potent warning. Rabbi David Cooper’s creative translation of Deuteronomy 11:13-21, included in the siddur of the North Kensington Liberal Synagogue, Beit Klal Yisrael, conveys the message: ‘Watch yourselves that you do not become seduced by the desire to dominate and possess, destroying the work of Creation. For then, the source of Creation will turn against you, and the world in which you live will no longer sustain you, and you will be lost upon the face of the earth which the Creator provided for you’ (11:16-17).
This week’s parashah is known as Eikev because eikev is the first distinguishing word of the portion. We read V’hayah eikev tishm’un eit ha-mishpatim ha–eileh – ‘it shall come to pass as a consequence – eikev – of you listening to these laws…’ (Deut. 7:12). The theology we encounter in the Torah – in particular in the Book of Deuteronomy – centres on consequences. As Liberal Jews, we may reject biblical reward and punishment theology, but perhaps, as we consider climate change and other urgent ecological issues, the second paragraph of the Shema may remind us of the consequences of our actions – and of our inaction – and be a spur to Shema! ‘Listen!’ and heed the warnings we see all around us.