The Creed of Judaism

Daily, when awaking and when retiring, the observant Jew recites aloud a creed. This creed is lifted from the Bible, from one of the books of Moses, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, along with two other texts. (It is completely presented in the Glossary of Terms section at the end of the book.) This sacred Jewish creed is called the Shema (pronounced, Ske-me or Sh'ma). Anyone who wants to understand what Jesus means by spiritual formation needs to meditate on the Shema of Judaism. It is the Jewish creed of spiritual formation, and Jesus liked it and, as we will see, transformed it for his followers:

Hear (shema), O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Loin your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

According to a specialist of modern Jewish devotion, the Shema "is the first 'prayer' that [Jewish] children are taught to say," and it is the "quintessential expression of the most fundamental belief and commitment of Judaism.

The Shema expresses what is most important for spiritual formation: YHWH (the sacred Hebrew name for God) alone is Israel's God, Israel is chosen by God, and Israel is to love God--with heart, soul, and strength. The Shema outlines a Torah lifestyle for spiritual formation: memorize, recite, instruct, and write out the Torah, and wear tzitzit (fringes) to remind themselves of Torah. There is promise attached to living life according to the Shema: when Jews lived by the Shema they would be "blessed" beyond imagination.

One can say, then, that the creed of Judaism is this: Love God by living the Torah. So where does Jesus stand in a world of Judaism that affirms a Shema of loving God by living the Torah?

The Jesus Creed As the First Amendment

As a good Jew, Jesus devotionally recites the Shema daily. Later in his life, he encounters an expert in the law who asks him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" For a Jew this man's question is the ultimate question about spiritual formation. He is asking for the spiritual center of Judaism. He thinks Jesus might know. He does.

Jesus answers the man by reciting the Shema but adds to it, and in so doing, transforms a creed so he can shape the spiritual center of his followers. I call it the Jesus Creed.

The Jesus Creed

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength." [So far, so good;
this is Deuteronomy. 6:4-5.1]
[And now Jesus adds a verse from Leviticus. 19:18.] The second is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
There is no commandment greater than these.

Right here we discover the Jesus Creed for spiritual formation. As Thomas a Kempis puts it, in the Jesus Creed Jesus has "put a whole dictionary into just one dictum:" Everything about spiritual formation for Jesus is shaped by his version of the Shema. For Jesus, love of God and love of others is the core. Love, a term almost indefinable, is unconditional regard for a person that prompts and shapes behaviors in order to help that person to become what God desires. Love, when working properly, is both emotion and will, affection and action.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note. To be sure, Jesus accepted the Shema, but he also added to it. The question we then ask is this: Is Jesus suggesting only a subtle amendment? No. It takes real pluck (or chutzpah) to add to the sacred Shema, but this addition reveals the heart of the Jesus Creed.

Most of my readers will know the Apostles' Creed and will know if I were to add a few lines after "and life everlasting"--such as, "and in supporting your local church by giving a tithe of income, before taxes!"--that even in a civilized church I would get sucker-punched. "You don't mess with creeds, sugar," the attendant would say to me in the ambulance as she carted me away.

But, adding is just exactly what Jesus does. Instead of a Love-God Shema, it is a Love-God-and-Others Shema. What Jesus adds is not unknown to Judaism, and he is not criticizing Judaism. Jesus is setting up his very own shop within Judaism. Loving others is central to Judaism, but it is not central to the creed of Judaism, to the Shema. So, what Jesus says is Jewish. But the emphasis on loving others is not found in Judaism's creed the way it is found in the Jesus Creed. Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

It is not enough just to observe that Jesus amends the Shema of Judaism. There is more here than first meets the eye. When the Shema becomes the Jesus Creed, it becomes personal. To see this we need to look at the Gospel of Luke to see how Jesus explains what it means to love God, because for Jesus loving God now means following him.

The Shema Gets Personal in the Jesus Creed

Jesus regularly invites others to join his small band of disciples. When one man hears about this, he volunteers to join and, in so doing, he thinks he will love God more deeply. The man comes to Jesus with a simple request, "Lord," I want to love God and follow you, but "first let me go and bury my father." Jesus abruptly states: "Let the dead bury their own dead." Ouch! All this man is asking for is an opportunity, with perhaps a little delay, but still an opportunity to love God with all his heart. Jesus, however, is redefining what it means to love God.

Surely, it is a stretch to understand Jesus' telling a man not to attend his father's funeral. So important is it in Judaism to bury one's father, an exception is made: "One whose dead is lying before him [awaiting burial] is exempt from the recitation of the Shema" Even the sacred Shema is suspended to bury one's father. Still, how could Jesus ask a man to skip his father's funeral? A little understanding of burial customs sheds light on how the Jesus Creed worked itself out in real life. These customs show how loving God becomes personal for Jesus.

At the time of Jesus, burials took place in two stages. First, immediately after the death of a father, the family (led by the oldest son) placed the body in a casket and then into a tomb so the body could decompose. The family sat shiva* (mourned) for seven days. The body decayed for approximately one year in the tomb. Then, second, the bones were removed from the tomb and casket, placed in an ossuary (a box for bones), and then reburied, this time for good. This is how good Jews showed respect for a father, how they applied the commandment to honor one's parents, how they loved God by following the Torah.

Many today think the proper context of Jesus' encounter with this man is between the first burial and the second burial. To begin with, it is unlikely that a family member sitting shiva (after first burial) would be out and about anyway, and it is hard to imagine Jesus' refusing this most sacred obligation. If the encounter with Jesus occurs between the first and second burial, then as much as a year's lag could occur before he would begin to follow Jesus.

The man is caught in the dilemma that the Jesus Creed creates: Should he follow Jesus or should he follow (how he understands) the Torah? Jesus calls the man to follow him and, in so doing, equates loving God to having a personal relationship with Jesus. To use other terms, the Shema of Judaism becomes the Jesus Creed: One loves God by following Jesus. This is a revolutionary understanding of the Shema, and it is what the spiritual life is all about for Jesus.

Let's put this all together now: As a normal Jew, spiritual formation for Jesus begins with the Shema of Judaism. But Jesus revises the Shema in two ways: loving others is added to loving God, and loving God is understood as following Jesus.

This is the Jesus Creed, and it is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches about spiritual formation. Jesus, too, knows what life is all about, and that life is about love--for God and for others. As Rick Warren states, "Life minus love equals zero." And: "The best use of life is love. The best expression of love is time. The best time to love is now."

It is also time to put that love into practice by learning the Jesus Creed.

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