Shema Yisrael + Adonai Eloheinu = Adonai Echad
By Rabbi Ted Reiter, Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God,
Adonai is One.
What a great way for a rabbi to lose a congregation with the first words of his sermon.
Let’s back up. I want to tell you about a friend of mine. Jenny is a young woman that I
taught years ago in a 10th grade Confirmation class. She was sharp, challenging, and
engaging. Jenny’s parents were active in the synagogue and in their Judaism. And she,
more than anything, wanted to be a rabbi. I could anticipate what she would be like – a
firebrand. Leading marches for feminist causes, taking the side of the underdog,
speaking for those who had little voice. She went on to college and lit up the campus.
Along the way, she accepted an offer to a Shabbat dinner with the on-campus Orthodox
rabbi. One dinner led to another, and one of those long evenings filled with song and
prayer and conversation and laughter, she met a young man from a similar Reform
background, and seemingly overnight, her whole direction in life changed. I remember
their wedding so well, because I was brought in to placate all of the parents. See, their
new Orthodox rabbi was officiating, and though he would not count me as a kosher
witness, he did understand the parents’ need to have their own rabbi at least recite one
of the non-essential blessings. We stayed for the dinner and we stayed for the dancing,
and we shed a few tears with the father of the bride when he was not allowed to dance
with his daughter on her side of the mehitza, the ritual divider between men and women.
Over the years, I’ve stayed in touch with this young woman and I’ve learned more about
her journey. She loved her childhood and her temple community. She loved the activism
and the sense that she had a responsibility to repair the world. She loved our services
and the rituals that her family regularly conducted. She loved the Shema Yisrael! But
she was missing something deeper than the ritual of her childhood. She was missing
the spiritual. She was missing a God connection that bound her to something greater
than herself, her community and her family. And, Jenny found it on the other side of the
mehitza, under a wig, and responding to a new name.
I could easily tell stories this evening of our children, growing up in motivated and active
Reform and Conservative households and later finding their connections in Jewish
orthodoxy, Christianity, Buddhism or New Age Thought. Their stories continue every
year. Children growing to adulthood, realizing somewhere along the way that there is
more to religion than the food we eat and showing up a few times a year for a service or
life cycle event. They leave us. Or, perhaps, they stick around but only with their
bodies, not with their souls.
It’s these men and women, who could really enrich our congregations, but instead
search elsewhere for the answers to the big questions in life: What is our purpose, What
does God want from us, Why are we here?
Do you know these children? Do you know these adults? Are you one of them?
Prayer can be an art form. Even when the prayer is not in our everyday language, it can
tie us in inexplicable ways to something much greater than ourselves. Shema Yisrael –
Listen O Israel / Hear O Israel. These are the first words we teach our children, we are
commanded to recite them every day and every night, and they are the last words on
our lips as we breathe our last breath on this earth. Yisrael, in this prayer, refers to the
People of Israel. In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s name is changed to “Yisrael” by an
angel of God after an all night wrestling match. The prayer thus calls out, “Listen People
of Israel,” “Listen Jews,” “Listen all of us.”
And many of us do listen. We observe Jewish rituals, we study Jewish teachings, we
come to services. Some of us answer this call by sheltering the homeless, by marching
to end genocide around the world, by speaking out for social justice. Some of us
experience Shema Yisrael by eating a pastrami sandwich at the local deli or a falafel in
Jerusalem, or going to the Jewish film festival, or belonging to a Jewish organization.
For many of us, the religious and cultural stuff, we’ve got down. But sometimes we
stumble on the rest . . .the spiritual. So, we label ourselves as “religious but not
spiritual”. Perhaps we know how to recite all the appropriate prayers but are not
comfortable talking to God – or listening for the answers. We are the ones gung ho to
complete a mitzvah project, but don’t realize that stopping and resting for Shabbat can
be an even deeper way of finding meaning. Religious but not spiritual people are the
ones who insist that the way it has always been done is the way it should always be
done, but don’t really know why.
The critics say that it is just this kind of religious activity without spirituality that leaves us
feeling dry and unfulfilled. In Jewish terms we say it is kevah without kavanah (form
without intention) or as the kabbalists described it: A beautiful but empty goblet. And, it
is the empty vessel that so many go elsewhere to fill.
Of course then there is their counterpart, their foil – those who are spiritual but not
religious. These folks connect with the second part of Judaism’s central statement:
Adonai Eloheinu / God is our God. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I hear as
a precursor to a meeting with a bar mitzvah family, or bride and groom, or grieving
family: “We’re spiritual, but not religious.” I often want to shake the person and say,
“what does that mean? You meditate but don’t gesticulate? You light candles every day
of the week to create a spiritual ambiance but never on Friday evening? You speak to
those who are dead but not to those who are living? What does it mean?”
I’ve been around long enough to know what is intended by this disclaimer. Self-ascribed
“Spiritual but not Religious” people believe that God is more easily accessible in the
forest than in the pew. They feel more comfortable browsing the bookstore shelves on
new age or Eastern thought than davening from our prayer book. They typically would
rather pick and choose the best of different traditions than be bound by what they label
as dogma. Or perhaps, they just pass around dog-eared copies of Eat, Pray, Love.
“Spiritual but not religious” get the Adonai Eloheinu / God is our God, but the first part,
the religious imperative to “Listen Israel” – that gets missed.
Some of today’s leaders have been outright critical of the “spiritual but not religious”.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple writes, “. . .all too often ‘spiritual’ asks nothing of us
– it is the narcissism of non-involvement. . . spirituality allows one to feel good about
Is it narcissism that leads some to define themselves as “Spiritual but not Religious?”
Perhaps for some it’s a matter of ego. Or maybe embarrassment over what it “looks”
like to be a “religious” Jew – black hat, kippah, tzitzit, wig. It looks outmoded and out of
touch. Maybe it seems fanatical.
Maybe, as some suggest, it is an issue of commitment. “If I’m religious I have to do all
these things – holidays, rituals, mitzvot . . .” Maybe it is a discomfort about not “knowing
enough” – whatever we self-define as “enough”. Or, maybe the “Spiritual but not
religious” had a bad experience way back when with a synagogue.
Perhaps it is guilt: We are not living up to the standards that we feel we should live up to
so we just abandon it all together. It’s kind of like slipping a bit on a diet and then
deciding that since I already had a bite of the cake, I might as well eat the whole slice,
plus ice cream on top.
Whatever the cause, I believe that spirituality needs religion to keep it rooted – to keep it
connected. As you have heard me teach before, “religion” from the Latin “re-ligare”
means to re-connect, just as a ligament connects our body parts, religion reconnects us
to our source, to our community, to ourselves. Religion is how we give structure to our
beliefs, how we pass it on to our children, and how we express ourselves to the
universe. It is religion that has the social power to heal and to make whole. And . . .
religion needs spirituality, because it is the spiritual which gives us the sense of awe,
which gives our practice meaning, which truly fills our cup.
It seems these days that more and more we are dividing the world into the religious, the
spiritual, and the none-of-the-above. When it comes to those who are spiritual but not
religious or religious but not spiritual, I can speak with some authority. Not because I am
a rabbi. Rather, because I was once in that bifurcated place too. And what I found to be
the key to moving beyond that place is in the third part of the Shema: Adonai Echad –
God is One. But before we get there, let’s back up once again.
I did not study to be a rabbi because of a deep spiritual connection or even a strong
belief in God. I became a rabbi because I wanted to change the world. The Jewish call
for social justice is why I advocated to bring the Interfaith Homeless Shelter to our
synagogue, it is why I was so eager for TAE to be one of the first sponsors of Jewish
World Watch. Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – is why I have been so interested in
increasing our outreach through our caring community to those who are faced with
illnesses and death.
Becoming partners with God in the co-re-creation of our world has been my theme song
for over 25 years! But to be quite honest, even I did not get it. I spoke about this holy
idea of repairing the world with God; of being God’s hands and voice in this world. And
intellectually, it all made sense.
And. . .I don’t think I’m so unusual among liberal rabbis. At the Hebrew Union College,
the oldest rabbinical school in North America, we read the classic Jewish texts by
Maimonides and Bahya ibn Pekuda, and we studied Torah and Talmud. But while God
was sometimes a subject, God was never actually invited to class.
Then, a few years before I came to this synagogue – well after I had received my
rabbinical ordination – I finally admitted that I needed to experience God. I had no idea
what God was all about. Theologically – yes absolutely. But rarely had I felt God’s
presence. Or at least I thought that I had rarely felt God’s presence. I knew it was time
for me to go on a God journey. Much like Jenny, I had to fill the “God gap” that I was
I can think all the way back to when I would come home from Jewish camp as a kid –
even if we used the same melodies, even if we created our own services, even if we
tried banging on the tables – it seemed that something was missing at home. But
nothing was missing. At home, something was added: A barrier, a binding, an
insulation. It took me almost 30 years to figure this out. It was not that a special
ingredient was missing at my home congregation. Instead, my home recipe added an
unfortunate and over-flowing cup full of self-consciousness. At home, for some reason,
we look around. What are they doing over there? They are bowing. Am I supposed to
bow? They look like they understand the readings. But I don’t think I understand the
readings – Hebrew or English! They must have it figured out because they are wearing
a black hat or tzitzit, they are Israeli, or they know where to sit and avoid the draft from
the air conditioner. But what I have learned, is that our self consciousness serves as a
spiritual inhibiter. It shuts off a Divine valve when what we really could use is a clog
remover. We need to be spiritual plumbers to allow ourselves to let go.
I had to let go of my childhood understanding of Judaism that did not allow for a
relationship with God. I had to let go of my own judgment: “This is what spiritual people
look like: They wear long flowing purple outfits, they have wild eyes and unruly hair,
they are just this side of nuts.” I had to let go of the Reform and Orthodox labels that we
I also had to let go of the labels that I had been assigning my own experiences for
years. I had to actually give myself permission to recognize that the visions I had of my
grandfather were not simply memories – they were visits. I learned to accept that my
serendipitous reaching out to someone, unbeknownst to me at exactly their time of
need, was not simply lucky timing, it was because I had received a message. It was
allowing myself to be in the moment with others, and with myself, and recognizing that
God was there too. It was a letting go.
The truly amazing thing that I discovered, is that once I let go of my judgment of what it
meant to be religious or spiritual, I was able to access a new freedom to experience the
world in a different way. Once I was able to let go of the heady stuff and the doing and
the activity, I was able to drop into my heart; I was able to be in awe.
For the first time I felt the fullness that is available to all of us. The wholeness that Jenny
and so many others search for in other faith traditions. It’s right here; within liberal non-
Orthodox Judaism. Certainly we can learn so much from other faiths and other peoples,
but the richness that we have at our fingertips is profound.
For me, the key to this tug of spiritual not religious, religious not spiritual, or none-of-theabove
is in the last words of the Shema. In Hebrew we say Adonai Echad. And, we
often translate this as God is One. Some prayerbooks are a bit more avant-garde and
print “God Alone.” We usually think of this last word in monotheistic terms – there is only
one God. Well . . .yes and no.
More accurately, I think we can translate it as “God is everything.” OK, now you are
probably thinking that I am going to start walking around with flowing colorful robes. But
to me this is the really exciting part. We have all been brought up to recognize a dualism
in this world. I am here and you are there. I am a person and this is an object. I am me
and God is God. But this core message, that we teach every one of our children, and
we post on our doors inside of mezzuzot, and we call the watchword of our faith, holds
THE secret! There really is no dualism in the world. God really is all that there is. Much
like physicists describe everything as matter. God is all. The Shema is a simple
equation: Listen Israel PLUS Adonai is our God EQUALS Adonai is everything. Religion
PLUS Spirituality EQUALS Wholeness.
And now the fun part. I believe that those who are committed to living a life of spirit
without religion can eventually get to the place where they see that all is One. And, if all
is One, then we have to take care of all for the sake of the One. If, on the other hand,
we are committed to religion without spirit and we work to take care of the world,
eventually we can realize that we are all responsible for one another, eventually, again,
we can realize that we are all One. But none of this can happen without letting go of our
judgment, our self-consciousness, our egos.
OK . . . very simply: Some of us practice our religion through ritual, or social action, or
community activities. If we can get beyond our ego and fully experience these activities,
we can discover that we are all responsible for one another. If we can get to that place
in our heads, it is only a small step to take with our hearts to the realization that we are
all one – we are part of the same whole; part of God.
If, however, we most often find ourselves in the spiritual realm, with this recognition that
we have a deeper or higher connection with the universe, each other, Divinity, it is only
one more small step to realize that we therefore have a responsibility to one another
that is most easily and consistently expressed through the actions of our religion.
A very simple exercise. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Now switch the
second word. No longer are we calling upon the people of Israel, but instead we direct
this statement inwards. We use our own name. Shema (Ted / Theodore / ElNatan),
Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Feel God’s presence as we repeat these words over
and over again. Don’t worry about the person next to you, or the person who does this
sort of thing, or the person you see yourself to be.
Let yourself feel the power of these words that have been handed down to each of us.
Because it is only when we feel each of these words directed toward us that we realize
the final word of Oneness encompasses it all.
I’m now in my 14th year in the rabbinate, and I know there will always be more Jenny’s --
Jews who grow up in our congregations and end up looking elsewhere for fulfillment.
But don’t forget that we have a choice. We can wear the clothing we were born into and
let go of needing to change into flowing colorful robes in order to “get” whatever we’ve
convinced ourselves they’ve got “over there”. We can let go of the labels; of our own
ego. We can stop bifurcating our religion and instead find wholeness within our rich and
If all that we can offer our children is empty ritual or conversely spirituality without a
container, I don’t blame them for leaving. If, instead, we can teach ourselves that letting
go will unclog divine valves, that anyone can go on this journey, that the rewards will be
boundless, then we’ll be able to sing with full voice:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God,
Adonai is One.