Desert Island Texts

If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?

This week, Leo Baeck College faculty member Dr Jeremy Schonfield selects: The Shema

Desert islands are no fantasy for Jews. Much of our imaginative year is spent in a desert, the Torah readings leading us on dusty tracks for 40 years to a far-off homeland.

When the Judeans were later deported, their leaders devised a new form of worship – prayer – that would help them understand their exile to Babylon.

The Shema – a three-paragraph meditation – encapsulates most of what there is to say about being a Jew in exile.

The first paragraph (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) urges us to stay close to Torah and particularly to make its study a family affair. ‘Torah’ – including every form of wisdom and insight – is too much to master easily, but we must try.

 The second paragraph (Deut 11:13-21) describes the cost of ignoring Torah – social and environmental breakdown and exile. Since we are now exiled, we clearly must have failed in our duty. I think the Shema implies how. Its editors could have read on from the first paragraph (verses 10-16), rather than introduce the second paragraph.

But this mentions stealing the homes of the Canaanites and ‘extermination’ for abandoning Torah, so they preferred the similar passage from chapter 11 that ignores theft and threatens just ‘vanishing’.

This departure from the text brought exile, although it was designed to promote peace.

The third paragraph (Numbers 15:37-41) tells us how to survive exile. Its source – after the Spies episode, when the Israelites heard they would never arrive – argues that if we preserve our identity visibly, our fortunes will eventually change.

The idea that the Shema argues for a Jewish mission to pursue peace even at the cost of exile is just one of its many layered themes, a reason for its three paragraphs to be the desert island text.