In this week’s Torah Portion, we read the timeless declaration known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
These words are appropriately cited as a call for monotheism; indeed, the Shema is often called the watchword of the Jewish faith; and Judaism, after all, is the faith tradition that introduced monotheism to the world.
But how ought we understand what this declaration of monotheism means? What does it mean to suggest, “God is one?” A cursory reading of the verse suggests that there is only one God, not two or three or many hundreds. But mere singularity is neither a sufficient brand of monotheism, nor is it in and of itself a compelling ethical mandate.
Bachya Ibn Pakuda, who in the early 11th Century sought to organize all of rabbinic thought into a coherent system based on rules of reason, understood the statement “God is one” to refer to God’s absolute unity. This, Bachya taught, meant that unlike anything else in the world, God was free of properties and thus was indescribable.
Building upon Bachya’s work, Maimonides (1135-1204) taught that the statement “God is one” should neither be understood to suggest that God is solitary nor that God is the sum of many parts. Indeed, “God is one” should not be read as a numerical claim at all, argues Maimonides. Rather, “God is one” comes to teach something much more salient: God is without equal and, what’s more, absolutely nothing in the universe is comparable to God.
Seven hundred years later, Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) sharpened this point when he suggested “God is one” ought be understood to mean that, insofar as God is without peer or referent, God is unique. Or harkening back to the words of the Prophet Isaiah (8th Century B.C.E.), “To whom will you liken Me that I should be equal!” (Isaiah 40:25)
What does all this mean? Consider that the ways in which religions describe God say as much if not more about these same faith traditions’ views of themselves as they do about the deity they worship.
So it is that the watchword of Judaism declares, “God is unique!” After all, our tradition’s ethical mandate, our raison d’etre, is to glorify God by celebrating the uniqueness of every human being. Or if you prefer, each and every one of us has been created in God’s image, not the other way around!
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)