Reflections at Shavout 5774
© 2014 S.H. Parker

What is the Jewish "declaration of faith?"

The Shma. Of course.

Not so. The Shma is not Israel's declaration of faith. In fact, Israel not only doesn't have a "declaration of faith," Israel cannot have one.

שּׁלּוש דבריט (I have three reasons for saying this):

In the first place; the very notion of a "declaration of faith," is completely goyishe and therefore unacceptable to me.

"A declaration of faith is a phrase that is said by a member of any religion to show either to themselves, their God or other members of the religion their belief and faith in the religion."

Every Christian church service has a section of its service that is a "declaration of faith."

But Israel has no required beliefs. In fact, our sages disparage those who display excessive zeal. While modern rabbis try to foist Maimonides' "13 Principles of Faith" on us, and these certainly resemble a creedal declaration, the fact is that there is no belief or creed required of an Israelite, not even the belief in G-d. There is, for example, a Mishna asking if a person who stands up in the shouk -- the public market place -- and proclaims "there is no god" is a blasphemer. Such a person is not, says the Mishna.

The Torah forbids us to "do after the ways of the nations." Therefore, I reject the recitation of a "declaration of faith" - even if Israel had one.

Two; the very concept of "faith..."

There is no word for "faith" in Hebrew. Therefore, there is no way to express believing in something for which one has neither evidence nor reason (which is what "faith" is, as that term is understood in the modern age). Therefore there is no way to conceive "faith" in the sense of believing a proposition to be true for which we have no empirical evidence.

I learned this from Abba Hillel Silver's book, Where Judaism Differed. Rabbi Silver states that the word usually translated as "faith" (אֱמוּנָה, emunah) really means something else, something quite different. But the most memorable thing is his assertion that Israel does not need the concept of "faith."

The key word here is "need." Israel has no need of the idea of "faith."

Why does Israel not need faith? 

Israel ... that is, us ... saw what happened in Egypt. We saw what happened at the Reed Sea. Most importantly, we stood under the mountain and heard God's word. As Rabbi Silver observes, Israel had no need of "faith" for the simple reason that God is a matter of empirical evidence for us. God and God's word are entirely a matter of empirical observation.

This is a powerful but entirely obvious observation on Rabbi Silver's part (now that he's put it into words, of course it's obvious!).

Israel's direct experience of God is so obvious that, while we understand the relationship of it to the (almost immediate) incident of the golden ox, the epistemological and theological implications pass virtually unnoticed.

Silver's conclusion is a consequence of the fact that אֱמוּנָה comes from the root א-ם-ן. This is the same root as "amen," "truth, to be trustworthy, firm, confirmed:" 

O.E., from L.L. amen, from Gk. amen, from Heb., "truth," used adverbially as an expression of agreement (e.g. Deut. xxvii.26, I Kings i.36; cf. Mod.Eng. verily, surely, absolutely in the same sense), from Sem. root a-m-n "to be trustworthy, confirm, support." Used in O.E. only at the end of Gospels, otherwise translated as Sošlic! or Swa hit ys, or Sy! As an expression of concurrence after prayers, it is recorded from early 13c.

אֱמוּנָה, emunah, "faith," therefore, does not mean believing in what you cannot see or any other proposition incapable of empirical confirmation. It means being confident; it means being reliable or being able to rely on.

Three; the Shma isn't even a declaration. Just look at the grammar.

The word "Shma" is in the imperative. That makes it an order. So the phrase "Shma Yisroel" is an order to Israel to listen. "Listen" to whom? To Moshe; it is Moshe who utters the Shma.

Hebrew and English are different, very different, in many respects. But in respect of one sentence functioning as both an imperative (order, command) and an assertion (statement, declaration), they are alike, one sentence cannot be both. No, the Shma is not a declaration....

The Shma is a command ... by Moshe. I do not know how we should understand the Shma; perhaps we should understand it as an admonition. Perhaps considering our continual backsliding into "the ways of the nations" the Shma should be understood, since we say it aloud, as an order to ourselves or to those around us. But, it is not any kind of declaration (besides, remember, we don't really need one, do we?).

We are, however, a stubborn people, stiff-necked. This is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so much. And we do need to be reminded and to remind ourselves, of the way of things. And it is sometimes not enough for a leader to stand up an yell "Shma" at us.

Hence, on Shavout, every Israelite stands up and publically fulfils the mitzvah:

  וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.

And you will speak and you will say in front of Adonai your God: "My father was a wandering Aramean. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number. And there he became a great people, mighty and numerous."

Devarim 26:5

In a few concise sentences, I -- as I stand in front of the priest, in front of all the gathered Israelites -- I recapitulate our formation narrative, my history.

Interestingly, there is no mention in my recapitulation of the Sinai/Horeb experience (nor is there in similar confessions in Devarim 6:20-24, Josh. 24:2-13, Sam. 12:8 or Pss. 78, 105, 136). But that is a subject for another time.

The historian, Gunther Rothenberg asserted that to be "Jewish" was essentially a political act. Ruth's "conversion" certainly seems a more political than theological act. "My father was a wandering Aramean" is a public declaration, the affirmation of each individual Israelite, "I am a member of this tribe. I am an Israelite, not 'a Frenchman of the Mosaic persuasion'." 

Every Israelite recites אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי on offering the first of his harvest (interesting: farmers only, merchants, manufacturers, etc., need not apply). The Shma is not Israel's profession, this is.

This confession/profession/declaration, "My father was a wandering Aramean," argues for "Jewishness" being political (membership in a people, a nation), not a "faith community" (especially as that term is understood today). Thus the public nature of the recitation.

So, let us examine this formula with greater care.

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי - Who is the "Aramean?" Why is this important?

Our Torah mentions many people. It typically goes out of its way to make sure we know who those people are. In some cases, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, etc., it's obvious. In other cases, Torah tells us their former name (Jose renamed Joshua). In still other cases, Torah gives us the patronymic, sometimes to three or four generations. And, then there are those rare cases where we aren't given the slightest clue.

For example, the Pharaohs of the enslavement and of the exodus are not only not named but no information, none, is given which would allow us to research the Egyptian "King Lists" to discover who they were.

"Who is the Aramean?", a case can be equally well made for Avraham or Yaakov. But, again, not only is the Aramean not named but no information, none, is given which would allow us to discern who he was.

When this happens,Torah is telling us something. Torah is telling us that the person is unimportant. It is not saying "you don't need to know," Torah is saying "this person is unimportant."

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי - My father was nobody.... I come from nothing. I am Muttle Kamzoil and Muttle Kamzoil is me.

וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה - And he couldn't even feed himself. He had to go down to Egypt to beg Pharaoh to allow him to purchase food to survive.

I really am, as the prophets later remind me, from the least of the nations.

I come from nobody. I couldn't provide for myself or my family.

But. Look where we have come to ... the conscience of the world, the constant reminder of God's voice on the stage of history.

How is this?

I stood at the mountain. I accepted the Torah - the droshim that G-d threatened to drop the mountain on us if we didn't notwithstanding - even before God spoke from the mountain, I joined the people, saying כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה.... We will hear and we will do. 

And after hearing, I again joined the chorus and said וְשָׁמַעְנוּ וְעָשִׂינוּ ("We hear and we will do.")

I started out as a wanderer who had to descend into Egypt to feed myself ... I wasn't chosen or holy and I wasn't really that special.

When I say "I will hear and I will do" then I become "somebody."

This is Israel's confession: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי.   

This is Israel's declaration, repeated annual at Shavout:

I will hear.

I will do.

Hag sameach.