"Hasidic Interpretations of the First Verse of the Shema" From Norman Lamm's "The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism."

Essay by WilldrinkCollege, UndergraduateA+, December 2004

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According to the mystic tradition as expressed in the Zohar, the first verse of the Shema represents the "Higher Unification" and the sentence immediately following, which is not found in the Bible at all, indicates the "Lower Unification." This classification arose out of the need to connect the non-biblical verse to the first verse and harmonize it with the phrase, "the Lord is One." Within the hasidic tradition, there arise two fundamentally different interpretations of the Zohar's "higher" and "lower" concerning the concept of divine unity.

The Lubavitch interpretation of Zalman takes the first verse of the Shema literally. For example, "God is One," more than denying the existence of other gods, indicates that nothing outside of God can be said to truly exist. It is for this reason that Zalman's view is referred to as "acosmic," a term which describes the complete denial of the cosmos. Accordingly, man's reality must be written off as nothing more than God's dream.

To Zalman, this is the correct interpretation of "Higher Unification." However, as Lamm points out, the "acosmic" view can potentially pose serious threats to the halakhic realm of Jewish life which relies on the assumption that the world is real. If everything is merely an illusion, then how does the observant Jew differentiate between right and wrong behavior, kosher and non-kosher foods, or any other laws found within the Torah? Further, what then would be the meaning of being religious at all?

Zolman explains that God wills man to behave as if the world he lived in were in fact real and not an illusion. In other words, halakhic life still has meaning because God ordained that it be respected in his divinely willed reality. To clarify this highly abstract and confusing formulation, Zalman applies the Cordoveran notion that the...