Talking to God?

Talking to God?

Dr. Ben Sommer explains the Shema and other ancient Near Eastern Texts

Dr. Benjamin Sommer
Dr. Benjamin Sommer

What is the Shema?

Yes, as we are told, it’s the central part of our liturgy, ancient, stirring, anchoring.

But what exactly is it? What does it mean? “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Clarify, please.

Dr. Benjamin Sommer of Teaneck, a professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages, will talk about that and other Jewish issues as scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-el of Closter. As always, he speaks as an academically rigorous scholar who is also an observant Conservative Jew, an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

“Prayer is defined as speaking about or addressing God, so the Shema is not really a prayer,” Dr. Sommer, who grew up in Hillsdale, said. “In the Shema, God, or maybe Moses, is addressing us, in the opening line, so it’s a funny kind of prayer.

“In my talk, I will suggest that when you look at ancient Near Eastern treaties and contracts, they have a certain number of stock elements, boilerplate language. There is a particular formula for the contract between the emperor and his vassal kings. It often has been noted that the books of Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus have these elements, which are found in ancient treaties.”

Those elements, Dr. Sommer said, imply that “the entire nation Israel has been put into the role of a vassal king — the entire nation of Israel, men, women, and children.” The three paragraphs of the Shema include language that “very succinctly is a contract between an emperor and his vassals.

One of the many obvious ways in which the ancient world differs from our own was that almost nobody could read or write.

“In the ancient world, the treaty had to be read aloud to the vassal king on a regular basis,” Dr. Sommer said. “Part of the vassal’s responsibilities were to hear it recited. In the Shema’s first paragraph, we are told that we have to recite it morning and evening.” In that recitation, he added, we each take on the roles of both the king — powerful but most likely illiterate — and the scribe, physically and political weaker but able to read.

Another way of being subject to a contract in the ancient world was to touch it, Dr. Sommer said, perhaps with the fringe of your garment. “When we take the tzitzit, touch it to the Torah, and kiss it, we are acknowledging the contract.” Rather than signing the document — something ancient people could not do — they symbolically recognized that they were bound to it by touching it with something with which they symbolically were bound.

A contract had to be kept someplace safe in the ancient Near East, and people have to know where it is. A mezuzah, anyone? There it is, right there on the doorpost!

As time went by, Jews forgot the legal boilerplate of a culture that no longer was their own, but they still knew that the Shema involved “binding themselves to an overlord,” Dr. Sommer said. “They say that accepting the commandments is accepting the yoke of heaven. The rabbis are preserving a much older interpretation. Even when the form was forgotten, the meaning was passed on in the oral tradition. People often think that new methodology” — that is, the kind of literary biblical criticism that involves studying historical, linguistic, and other kinds of context, and putting the text firmly into that context — “are opposed to each other, but they’re not. Often the rabbis were preserving an older tradition, that goes back to the Bible itself,” and modern scholarship uncovers that older tradition.

His most recent book, “Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition,” “shows that a particularly modern way of understanding the nature of revelation and the authority of Jewish law is far deeper and has more ancient roots than people realize,” he continued. “In the book, I argue that the view of revelation associated with theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel in fact has predecessors in the Bible itself.

“The accounts of revelation at Sinai in the Torah encourage us to wonder exactly how the laws that result from the revelation relate to God’s will,” he said. “The narratives in Exodus 19 and 20 make us wonder whether the nation Israel heard the specific words of the 10 Commandments from God directly, or only through Moses’s intermediation. In a total of five different ways, the narrative there sheds some doubt on whether we heard it through God or through Moses.

“It would have been very easy to phrase it in ways that make it clear that it was one or the other. God or Moses. If it all came from God, then the extent to which we human beings can be involved in creating the commandments was very limited. But if it is the case that from the very beginning Moses was interpreting God’s will and then bringing it to the Israelites, that means that human intervention in and involvement in and participation in the creation of the law that results from the revelation was there in some form since the very beginning.

“And the ambiguity in the text is no accident,” Dr. Sommer continued. “If there were one or two ambiguities, that would be one thing — but there are five! The narrator of the text wants us to wonder about this question. He wants us to be involved in the question of the extent of authority.

“It’s the debate itself that is being commanded, not the resolution of the debate.”

That sounds very modern, but “debate and ambiguity is rabbinic, too,” Dr. Sommer said. “The mishna begins with a debate about how we say the Shema in the evening, and it continues with debates on every single page.

“In my book, I show that in light of modern biblical criticism, we see that the Bible — and especially the Torah, the Five Books of Moses — turns out to be a very rabbinic book.”

Although the Bible does not present an infinite number of ways in which it can be read, there are significantly more than none. Often, that is because different voices have been left in, free to tell different versions of the same story. “This really tends to be distinctive to the ancient Israelites, not to the ancient Near East as a whole,” Dr. Sommer said. “There are other books that were put together in similar ways, by combining and expanding certain documents, but still the final version has unity. It flows well.” For example, the Babylonians’ Gilgamesh epic seems to have been put together from a few sources, “but it doesn’t contradict itself.

“The Torah, on the other hand, contradicts itself immediately,” with its two versions of the creation of human beings, and “it presents different theological views of who the one God is and what it means to be a human being. That’s pretty much unique in the ancient Near East. The rabbinic love of debate, the machlochet” — the so-called “argument for the sake of heaven” — is unique to Jewish culture. You don’t find it anywhere else in the ancient Near East. But it’s not just a rabbinic tendency. It goes all the way back to the Bible.”

Dr. Sommer also will be scholar in residence at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, in the Bronx, in a few weeks, and at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood on the weekend of March 4. (We’ll provide more information about that later.) He’ll talk more about “Revelation and Authority” at those shuls.

The book has won the Goldstein-Goren prize as the best book in Jewish thought, 2014-2016; it also was a finalist for the Jewish National Book Award last year. This most recent book before “Revelation and Authority,” 2009’s “The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel,” won the American Academy of Religion’s award for excellence in the study of religion and the Association of Jewish Studies’ Jordan Schnitzer Award; “Revelation and Authority” was a finalist for that award too. Dr. Sommer’s earlier books have won many awards, too many to list here.

Dr. Sommer is proud of those awards, but he uses them to talk about his pride in his institution, the Conservative movement’s flagship body, the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is not alone in the number of awards he’s won, he said; his haul is nearly standard for a JTS professor. Look at graduate programs in Jewish studies around the world, he added. Many of them are excellent programs, run by brilliant gifted scholars and teachers, but “none of them garner the number of awards we garner.

“There is a myth out there that JTS’s glory days are in the past,” he said. “Actually, its faculty, academically speaking, has never been as strong as it is now.”

When it comes to awards, “I am not atypical but representative of the JTS faculty,” Dr. Sommer said.

Who: Dr. Benjamin Sommer

What: Will be scholar in residence

Where: At Temple Emanu-El of Closter, 180 Piermont Road

When: On Saturday, January 27; he’ll speak during services, which begin at 9 a.m., and then lead an informal discussion at a dessert reception afterward.

For more information: Go to or call
(201) 750-9997.

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