By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
Zechariah vs. Deuteronomy: Is God One?
What does the prophet Zechariah have against “Shema Yisrael”?
The most famous line in the Torah appears in our parashah. It is the first verse we are to teach to our toddlers and the last we are to recite on our deathbeds: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Or: “...the LORD is one.” (Deut. 6:4; the JPS translation offers both options).
Either way, the point is the uniqueness of the God identified in our tradition by a particular name, YHWH. No other entity is really a god, says Deuteronomy. Nothing else deserves to be worshipped, no matter what other nations might call a “god.”
That unique status leads us, in Western languages, to write “God” with a capital “G,” as though that word too were a name. If there is only one, why not write “God” instead of “god”?
Fast forward a few centuries from the Deuteronomist to the post-exilic prophet Zechariah. His prophetic speeches offer not only a critique of Judaean society in his time but also a vision of an ideal future. Foretelling impending cataclysm, Zechariah’s prophecies adumbrate the apocalypse literature that became popular in the post-biblical era.
In the last chapter of the book of Zechariah, which shul-goers will recognize as the Haftarah for the Shabbat of Sukkot, we find a vision of “earth-shaking events lead[ing] to the establishment of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the place from which the LORD reigns over all” (Ehud Ben Zvi in The Jewish Study Bible). The chapter’s initial section of 9 verses ends in this: “And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.” (A more wooden rendition: “… on that day the LORD shall be one/unique and His name one/unique.”)
We all know that verse as the end of the Aleinu prayer that is the coda for all Jewish prayer, the finale (before kaddish) of each required service of the day. What does it mean, and what is it doing at the apex of our liturgy? And how can we conclude on such a discordant note? After all, isn’t Zechariah challenging the veracity of our claim in the Shema that our God is the only god?
The late Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism whose imprint is still felt on Jewish life in North America, liked to say that “king” as a metaphor for God is a relational noun: to be a king, one has to be king over a realm or over people. So it is with the term “god,” Zechariah is telling us. As seen from a human perspective, as long as some recognise other entities, going by other names, as gods, the LORD is not God but at best just “a god.”
Zechariah envisions humankind united in the recognition that there is but one God. It is to that day that Aleinu directs our hope, a day when all inhabitants of the earth finally recognise our common ancestry, our common humanity, the need for us to be one cooperative family rather than a contentious assembly of warring tribes. On that day, peace will reign and what the Deuteronomist describes in principle will finally be observed in practice: one God will be worshipped, and all the names by which that God is called will be one.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is Av Bet Din of the Israeli Masorti Bet Din.