Today’s meeting promised to be an exciting one. Rabbi Jonah Greenberg, Ben Kaplan, and Ben’s three medical students, Sarah, Josh, and Matt, were all gathered together in Ben’s office. They had all done their homework and were ready to present information on the all important question: Does the Shema support One God with a plural or complex nature?
Ben opened the discussion.
“Let’s look at the Shema again. I have it written on the whiteboard in English, in an English transliteration of the Hebrew, and in Hebrew:
Deuteronomy 6:4 1. HEAR, O ISRAEL: THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE.
Shemah Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad
שׁמע ישׂראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד׃
“Last week, Jonah explained the significance of the Shemah when he said ‘These words, recited morning and evening in the synagogue represent the core of what it means to be a Jew. God is One. There is, simply put , no polytheism in Judaism and Moses made that abundantly clear to the Nation of Israel before the people entered the Promised Land’.
“In addition we made a strong case that the word echad means one but not an indivisible one. There is a Hebrew word for an indivisible one and that word is yachid. Echad means one but it is clearly a complex one and we gave a number of examples of this from the Hebrew Scriptures. There are an enormous number of additional examples.
“Thus echad was the first portion of our “case” that the Shema speaks of a God who is most definitely One but He is a complex One. He is a single God with a plural nature,” said Ben.
“I’m with you Ben. Echad is a complex one. So God being called Echad could definitely mean that God is a complex One,” said Rabbi Greenberg.
“Thanks, Jonah. Let’s now take a look at the word Elohenu, written in bold above, and see where that takes us,” said Ben. “Then, we’re going to discuss Dr. David Cooper’s take on all this, OK?”
The Rabbi, and Sarah, Josh, and Matt, all nodded their agreement.
“Now, as we said before, Elohenu is a masculine plural construct noun. That is not controversial,” said Ben.
“Ben, I’ve studied Hebrew for many years and I agree. Elohenu is a plural noun. It is the first person plural possessive of Elohim and so it is essentially the same word as Elohim which everyone knows is a plural noun. No orthodox Jew would debate that. We orthodox Jews consider Elohim, the first word for God in the Torah, to represent the prerogative of a supreme ruler to refer to Himself in the plural form. It’s like a human king saying to his subjects We command you to do this or that. So I don’t see the significance of Elohenu being plural in your argument,” said the Rabbi.
“Jonah, I think that the point here is that Elohenu, a plural noun, cannot be explained by the majestic plural. It just can’t work that way in the Shema,” said Ben.
“Why can’t it work in the Shema, Dr. Kaplan?” asked Matt.
“The LORD gives Moses further instructions for the Children of Israel as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Let me paraphrase the relevant verse. Because I hope to make this as understandable as possible, I’m going to paraphrase this as if the instructions were being given to Jewish people today. And I’m going to put some additional words in parentheses to further facilitate understanding, to make things as clear as possible. I’m putting it on the whiteboard now.
We (the LORD, using the majestic plural, is speaking to Moses, the Leader and Lawgiver of Israel) command you (Moses) to tell the children of Israel (God wants all Jews everywhere to know what He is about to say) to speak the following twice daily in the synagogue: The LORD Our God (Our God meaning the God of the Children of Israel) is One.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see any way that the majestic plural has any possible place, grammatically or otherwise, in the translation of Elohenu. The majestic plural simply does not fit into Our God. There is just no way,” said Ben.
“I think you’re right Ben!” said the Rabbi. “But I have a question. Why is Elohenu, a plural noun, always translated as our God in the Tanach?”
“May I speak?” asked Josh and then, in an excited voice, proceeded to do so. “I don’t know Hebrew. But, I’m blessed to be able to use software that at least partially overcomes this lack of knowledge. Elohenu is translated our gods, meaning pagan gods of course, in the Tanach in Isaiah 42:17:
Isaiah 42:17 (ESV) They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, “You are our gods.”
“This is great research, Josh. Jonah, what do you think about all this?” said Ben.
“I’m impressed,” said the Rabbi.
“OK, how about we get an opinion now on Dr. Cooper’s work on the Shema?” asked Ben. “Sarah, please share your research with us.”
“For sure, Dr. Kaplan,” said Sarah. “Matt, could you lead off please?”
“Sure, Sarah. Straight and simple, here is how Dr. Cooper translates the Shema, literally. I’m writing it on the whiteboard now,” said Matt.
“Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our Gods is Jehovah a unity.”
The Rabbi was quick to speak up. “Ben, I don’t buy that translation for one second. Do you?”
“No Jonah. I don’t.
“Jonah, I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Cooper. He was a great scholar. He profoundly loved the Jewish people. His works are phenomenal and have helped me personally. But, although his translation of the Shema may be literally correct, Dr. Cooper is missing the point in this case. Our God is a plural God. Our God has a complex nature. But our God is emphatically One.
“And, the correct translation of the Shema is what we said it was earlier, as it is still written on the whiteboard,” said Ben.
HEAR, O ISRAEL: THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE.
“Jonah, are you getting closer to accepting the notion that God could be three persons making up one complex God?” said Ben.
“I am Ben, I definitely am. I’m not quite there yet however. I need to pray and think about all this. I’d like to come back in a few weeks. Is that OK?” asked Jonah.
“I think we are all more than OK with that,” said Ben.
Josh, Matt, and Sarah vigorously nodded their agreement.