Posts Tagged 'Shema'

Unconscionable : On Capital Punishment, Law, and Identity

The Shema is a Jewish statement of creed that serves as a centerpiece of the morning, evening, and pre-bed prayer services. After the Shema we see the VaAhavta which spells out some of the central practices of this faith statement. I was thinking about these statements in that they are both found in Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Take to heart these instructions with which I מְצַוְּךָ֛- charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The charge – מְצַוְּךָ֛ is to keep the Mitzvot– Commandments. In this sense traditionally Jewish identity is defined as how we live our live by these laws. This is interesting in juxtaposition to Christian’s identity which often is defined around love and not law. For Judaism our commitment to law is our expression of our love. 

I was thinking about this idea of identity recently when watching an extraordinary TED talk by Byran Stevenson. It really is a must watch:

The topic of how we need to talk about an injustice is very compelling. For me the most brilliant part of his talk is how he framed the conversation about the legal system in America around the idea of identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. There he said:

It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.

In America we clearly disassociate ourselves from the law. It is unconscionable how these laws are radically unjust to people of color.  And for many of us who are not subject to this discrimination we have the luxury of being unconscious about the impact of this legal system. Our laws should manifest our attempt to bring about justice in the world. What would it look like if we identified ourselves by our laws? It seems that our laws are mostly punitive. What would our laws look like if they were framed as an expression of love?

These questions come to a head when we discuss capital punishment. About this Stevenson says:

In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?

Our faith in law needs to be an identity that is wrapped up in seeing the infinite worth of every human being. It is unconscionable to abide a law that falls short of recognizing this fact. In each and everyone of us is an element of the divine. We need to express our love to God by how we write and live out our legal system.

Love Till the End: Rabbi Akiva and the Shema

In Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Shema, the traditional Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our Gcd, the Lord is one . You shall love the Lord your Gcd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4- 7)

About this Rabbi Eliezer asks, “If it says ‘with all your soul’, why should it also say, ‘with all your might’,  and if it says ‘with all your might’, why should it also say ‘with all your soul’?” (Berchot 61b) The Gemara goes on to ask,  ” Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; ‘with all your soul’; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, ‘with all your might’.”  Rabbi Akiva responds claiming that ‘with all your soul’ means that even if Gcd takes away your soul. The rational for the seemingly extra language around the conditions of loving Gcd is to account for every situation a person would experience in life. 

There is no doubt that living in a modern culture the entire construct of belief in, let alone love of, God is challenging. Living in a post- Holocaust generation Rabbi Akiva’s claim seem impossible. How could such a violent Gcd which took away six million Jewish souls  be worthy of our love? It is not much easier to fathom how we could have a loving relationship with a dispassionate God that would allow the Holocaust to happen.

That Gemara it goes on to the tell the harrowing story of Rabbi Akiva’s resistance to the government. Despite their forbidding him to learn and teach Torah he risks his life and persisted. Eventually he was captured by government forces, imprisoned, and was taken to be executed for his crime of teaching Torah. There we read:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all your soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if Gcd takes your soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word “ehad- one “until he expired while saying it.(Berchot 61b) 

This is a powerful story of self-sacrifice of a religious person. It is easy to understand how this story would give strength to our people throughout all of the generations facing the anti-Semitic murders of history. So while we might have our theological challenges today, this story always stands as a national mandate. We carry the memory of millions who like Rabbi Akiva went to their deaths saying the words of the Shema. And even in that moment I want to cherish how Rabbi Akiva lived more than how he died. Beyond being a person of faith he was a devoted teacher striving to teach his students until the bitter end. In a beautiful way this act of altruism of sharing his wisdom was born out of a life filled with grit and curiosity. Rabbi Akiva was troubled  his whole life trying to understand the meaning of the Shema. Even at this moment of pain so close to the end he was striving to understand and make meaning.

More than his death, Rabbi Akiva’s life forces me to the ask some questions.  When faced with such hatred would I have the fortitude to respond with love? When faced with the end would I still be as open to growing and learning? Even if I could figure this out would I have the presence of mind to share my thoughts? What will be my lifelong “trouble”?  If I answer all of these questions will I truly know what it means to love?


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