The Bible Says What? ‘The Shema says God will make us perish’

The Bible Says What? ‘The Shema says God will make us perish’

Rabbi Sandra Kviat takes a controversial topic from the Torah and offers a progressive Jewish response

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem
Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

If you will indeed obey the commandments… then I will provide the rain your land needs, I will give you grass in your field for you and your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and worship them. For then the Eternal One will be roused to anger…and shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, and the ground does not yield its produce and you will quickly perish.

If you do X then God will make Y happen is not a comfortable theology, especially when Y will lead to our ultimate death. This is not the way most Progressive Jews understand the world, their role and their relationships to God. Yet the above quote from Deuteronomy is part of the Shema’s second paragraph.

Progressive Jews struggle with a description of a world determined by divine reward and punishment and because of this, the second paragraph is not found in the main service in Liberal siddurim, but at the back of the book.

However, we also believe prayers and their understandings change over time, as our relationship and perception of the world changes.

Looking now at the Shema again, for some, this paragraph is a warning about ecological disaster and what happens when we treat nature as a giant waste bin. For others, it is aspirational – we can help in the creation of a world where doing what is good and right is rewarded.

And some see it as describing how our individual duties are an inextricable part of the responsibilities of the community as a whole.

These changes in how we understand prayers are refreshing, but also make the prayers relevant in a world in which liturgy is usually relegated to our minds’ backbenches.

    • Rabbi Sandra Kviat serves Crouch End Chavurah

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