E-had – One and All
The word E-had means ‘one’. In the Jewish tradition ‘one’ is more than just a number. ‘One’ is the core of our religious tradition. The observant Jew recites the verse of Shema Y’Israel twice each day to affirm our belief in the oneness of God.
For an idea that is so central to our tradition, it is surprising how little time we spend as a religious community thinking about ‘One’. It is hardly ever mentioned in traditional Jewish education and it would be a rare topic for a Rabbi’s sermon. So what do we mean when we say that God is ‘one’?
The ‘oneness’ of God means many different things. First and foremost it is our belief in the unity of all existence. This is obvious in science. We accept that the laws of nature are the same everywhere. When an astronomer studies the universe, he or she assumes that gravity works the same way on other planets, that light still travels at the same speed, and the fundamentally the laws of nature are universal. That is the basis of all science.
Our tradition takes that unity one step further. We believe that not only the laws of nature but also moral principles are universal. We believe that not only if you drop something on Mars will it fall, but if you murder someone on Mars it will be wrong. There are fundamental moral principles that are embedded in the very nature of the universe.
The second concept of oneness has to do with the interconnectedness of all being. That is also something that we are more aware of today than in the past. We have no problem accepting that if someone destroys the rainforest in Brazil, it will affect the weather in Europe. The unity of the universe assumes that all parts of existence are interconnected in strange and mysterious ways.
Our belief in oneness goes even further. There is a famous Midrash found in Bereishit Rabbah (39):
Rabbi Yitzhak said: it is a parable about a man who would wander from place to place, and saw a Palace burning. He said: can it be that this place has no overseer? The owner of the palace glanced at him and said: I am the owner of the palace.
So it was that Abram said: can it be said that the world has no overseer? The Holy One glanced at him and said to him: I am the owner of the world.
This parable highlights a third aspect of our monotheistic belief. We believe not only that the world exists but that there is a purpose, a design and a meaning to this existence. And this meaning is ‘One’ throughout time and across space. And ultimately, this meaning is good. Abraham, who looks at the world in all its glory and cannot accept that our world is only a set of random coincidences, is the prototype of the Person of Faith throughout the generations.
I am not sure where this faith comes from. For Abraham it was just obvious. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel believes that religious faith is intuitive. For some people the majesty of the world is just obvious, for others, it is a figment of the imagination. This insight is something that we don’t talk about much, but it is the basis of everything that we do in the Jewish tradition.
The number one is very small, but the idea of “one” isn’t a small thing at all. It’s what the world is all about.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner writes a blog about the most frequently used words in the Hebrew language. The blog aims to give readers a basic 30-word vocabulary to help them on their journey to greater Jewish literacy. If you’re interested in reading more, or want to receive his blog postings on a regular basis, you can sign up at myhebrewwords.wordpress.com.