SOM Pod: Rabbi Lewis Eron on his new book, “I Am,” about the Sh’ma prayer


In this episode of the Seekers of Meaning Podcast, Rabbi Address speaks with Rabbi Lewis John Eron, Ph.D., who recently retired as chaplain at the Lion’s Gate continuing care retirement community in Camden County, NJ. Rabbi Eron has recently authored a new book, I AM: A Journey in Jewish Faith: A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Shema.

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Seekers of Meaning February 15, 2019
Guest: Rabbi Lewis John Eron, Ph.D.

Rabbi Address: [00:00:15] Shalom, and welcome again to another edition of Seekers of Meaning, the podcast for Jewish Sacred Aging. This is your host, Rabbi Richard Address. Seekers of Meaning, these podcasts are designed to take a look at some of the impact of the longevity revolution and the impact of that it has on our families our community and our lives. And you can reach us at, the Facebook page Jewish Sacred Aging on Facebook. Connect with us. To me personally at RabbiAddress@Jewish Sacred and we welcome your concerns and suggestions. And it is with great pleasure that we welcome to the Seekers of Meaning studios today Rabbi Lewis John Eron, the author of a brand new book called "I Am: A Journey in Jewish Faith, A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Sh'ma. And welcome Lewis. Nice to see you.

Rabbi Eron: [00:01:11] Well it's great to be here Richard and thank you for inviting me.

Rabbi Address: [00:01:14] Let's get the details out of the way. The book, recently published and is available where?

Rabbi Eron: [00:01:19] It's available through Amazon, through the publisher, and also through my Web site.

Rabbi Address: [00:01:27] And so the publisher is.

Rabbi Eron: [00:01:29] The publisher is Wipf & Stock.

Rabbi Address: [00:01:31] Ok. And your Web site is what.

Rabbi Eron: [00:01:33]

Rabbi Address: [00:01:47] Ok so I Am: A Journey in Jewish Faith: A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Shema is a very very interesting read, and some very, very fascinating insights in what some people call what the watchword of our faith, and you have a phrase right in the beginning and talking about this called spiritual shorthand. What did you mean by that?

Rabbi Eron: [00:02:10] By the word spiritual shorthand, it's a way of summarizing a whole deal of ideas and concepts, feelings and understandings in a short phrase. So, in one way, a spiritual shorthand can be understood as a bucket in which one can place one's feelings, ideas, concepts and understanding, so it's easy to carry around. In itself it isn't specific but it gives us a way of talking about things quickly and easily.

Rabbi Address: [00:02:56] Why, how come the Sh'ma? How has the Sh'ma become, like you know, you say in services, the watchword of the faith. Why has it become such a powerful prayer, as opposed to a bunch of other prayers, which have equal prominence in a religious service? But when the Sh'ma is like people are galvanized by it. there's all kinds of...why?

Rabbi Eron: [00:03:19] Are you asking this sort of from a historical point of view or a liturgical point of view, a theological point of view or a personal point of view?

Rabbi Address: [00:03:31] All of the above. But just you know you go to a service and people or seems to be more galvanized whether they stand or they sit or they cover their eyes, and as opposed to something like the Mi Chamocha, which, you know, they sing but they get to the Sh'ma, what's the pull there?

Rabbi Eron: [00:03:47] On one level, the pull is the structure of the service. Jewish worship services have two focci, or perhaps three. One is the reading of the Sh'ma or the pronunciation of the Sh'ma. The other is the standing prayer, the Amidah, which replaces the sacrificial service of ancient Israel. The shift from the biblical system of animal sacrifice to the rabbinic system of time sacrifice, and the third focus would be then the reading of the scripture. The Sh'ma, the announcement or the pronunciation of monotheistic faith, is the first of these three in the order of every service, and is surrounded by a series of blessings that cause us to focus on these words. The words are traditionally understood not only as a declaration of Jewish faith but also a declaration of Jewish identity, so Sh'ma is understood as our acceptance of the divine dominion, a way of saying that we are in a relationship with God that is more than just a personal relationship, but part of a community that is connected to God. So it says who we are as Jews, who we are as Jewish individuals, and that we stand in relationship to other Jews and to God. The way the prayer is presented, it is preceded by acknowledging God as creator, acknowledging God as the source of Jewish wisdom, and followed by prayers blessings that proclaim God is the one who liberates, and who proclaims, which proclaim God, declare God as the one who is our source of protection. So there's is a very strong liturgical focus for that. It is also a short prayer and it's easy to remember. It is a prayer that people are taught at a very early stage. It is a prayer that people say when they go to sleep and when they wake up, it's a prayer that people may say at the end of life, and at the beginning of life, so it has within Jewish tradition a lot of power, because it's putting us in the divine presence. People sometimes either want to, because it is putting us in the divine presence, people have responded to the prayer, not only verbally, but also in terms of how they position themselves. That includes people covering their eyes or closing their eyes, perhaps to concentrate on the meaning of the words, or perhaps to shade themselves from the overwhelming presence of the Divine. Within the Reform Jewish tradition, the Sh'ma has taken on even more power, and it is a point where the congregation will often stand or remain standing. Perhaps in a feeling that they are recreating the first acknowledgment of the divine standing at Sinai, or at least to evoke such feelings.

Rabbi Address: [00:07:50] You write also in the beginning of the book, about this concept of being a witness, you know and you know, it with the ayin and dalet enlarged but you write about this. Walk me through how your understanding of the power of being a witness this aid and how it flows out of your work your research and the Sh'ma.

Rabbi Eron: [00:08:15] I'm not going to talk about how it flows out of research as much as I really how it flows out of our personal experience. Within the Jewish tradition as I understand it, our faith is made manifest not merely by what we say, but by what we do. We are encouraged to behave in such a way so that our faith, our beliefs, our commitments, are clear and manifest to those around us. So everything we say, and do, witness, is a witness to our deepest commitments, and by finding the word aid within the Hebrew sentence, "Sh'ma Yisroel, Adonai elohayny, Adonai echad," our sages reinforce that, that we are not only declaring to ourselves that we are participants in God's dominion, but we are also witnessing it. We are making it available. We are standing up and saying it exists. It's important, it's part of our lives and should be part of the world.

Rabbi Address: [00:09:38] Lewis, immediately, you know the V'ahavta, it comes right after the declaration. Talks about love, and you do write a lot about this idea of how one can love God and this, I think you use the phrase "the loneliness of, the loneliness of uniqueness," which I found to be a fascinating phrase. So could you just talk a little bit about in your writing and unpacking of the prayer your approach this idea of love and loving of God.

Rabbi Eron: [00:10:17] I think is essential to any Jewish understanding of how we relate to each other, to creation, and to God, is this understanding of love. Love not merely as an emotional feeling, but as a way of practice and behavior. It is feeling love, doing love and receiving love. And that it is the guiding principle to the way we unfold our Jewish lives. In the blessing preceding the Sh'ma, the gift of the Torah is seen as an act of love, and our accepting the Torah is a acknowledgment of our love, and our, our desire to live our lives according to those precepts received from our tradition, is an expression of our love.

Rabbi Address: [00:11:33] So one of the things that's just occurred to me, you spent a significant amount of your career as a chaplain at a CCRC, a continuing care retirement community, and you're writing about the Sh'ma and love. I just wanted to ask you ,just as you were talking, just popped into my mind, how much of your work, the interactions that you had with the residents at Lions Gate, in your career there as a chaplain dealing with these these individuals, how much did that impact your motivation to write this book about the Sh'ma? Is there, was there any linkage at all, I mean, in your work and in what came out in the book?

Rabbi Eron: [00:12:19] The book is a direct result of my life experience. And it is also a direct result of my career within chaplaincy. One of the things that I realized quite early is that to be able to relate to people who are undergoing crisis points in their life, and facing challenges to the way they see their world, cognitively and spiritually, one needs to be grounded. I needed to know what I believed in, so that I could hear what they believed in. I needed to know, in a really deep sense, where I stood, so that I would not be frightened, or threatened, or concerned when I listened to them. That my essence will not be challenged. So this was the result of a sense, also a project, to see where I stood. What is most important to me, first of all, I could hear other people, understand where they're coming from, and then give an authentic response to my own experience, hopefully in a supportive non-judgemental way, but also try to help me understand how I made those decisions that affected the way I cared for various people with whom I had contact, whether they were elders, seniors in a nursing home, people in the hospital facing disease, families that experienced crisis, people in disasters, all those various things that touch me, all those various human conditions that I had to deal with. I had to know where I stood and how I could help them make decisions. So understanding that the fundamental Jewish principle was that we act on Love was really quite helpful. For example, end of life decisions. And you know as well as I do, that there is an extensive Jewish literature about how we make those decisions, how people try to decide, from a halachic -- that is the principles of Jewish law -- what to do in any specific situation. And for all our understanding and wisdom, each situation is unique and each situation is gray. So that when people are presented with all the various alternatives, the suggestions from physicians, the advice from friends, the wisdom from clergy, it can be confusing and overwhelming. So ultimately, my sense was, is that we're in a world, you're in a situation in which there are no clear answers, and that one needs to do what is right, according to what one knows and make decisions out of love. If you can figure out what you think would be the most loving thing to do for the person you care about, not necessarily for you, but for them, you can't go wrong. Because the Torah is a gift of love. It is to guide love, and we can use love to make our make our decisions. If you make decisions on practice, even from a Jewish point of view, from the most halachically, that is, legally correct manner, and it doesn't manifest Divine Love, it's probably the incorrect answer.

Rabbi Address: [00:16:49] So does acting on love trump acting on the basis of halacha?

Rabbi Eron: [00:16:55] No. Acting on love manifests acting on the acting on halacha. Halacha without love doesn't work. Love without structure doesn't work. So you need to know, you need to get all the knowledge you have and then you can make a decision.

Rabbi Address: [00:17:15] So would you would you affirm the idea that in your writing in the studying of the Sh'ma, the writing about the Sh'ma in your book, that at the heart of this is this idea of love.

Rabbi Eron: [00:17:29] Yeah I think I'll be the central part.

Rabbi Address: [00:17:32] You write as well that the primary Jewish religious experience is that of belonging. Is that the understanding that the power of community and the power of relationships.

Rabbi Eron: [00:17:47] Yes that now we're connected to other people we don't experience life as individuals, we experience life through community.

Rabbi Address: [00:17:54] Can you be Jewish alone.

Rabbi Eron: [00:17:57] No, you need other Jews and you need Jews in the past. You need Jews in the future. You need to be sense of being connected, connected through a community. Our values come to us through community, our language comes to us through community. Our practices come to us through community, we don't invent it ourselves. We are given it. We inherit it. We are gifted it.

Rabbi Address: [00:18:21] So one of the gifts that emerge out of the liturgy is this idea of chosen this which you talk about and it is you know it's a challenge for many people. I think it's a challenge, increasingly, for some modern Jews who maybe look at the idea that we're chosen and the theological implications of the chooser. So could you just talk a little bit about that and how you understand that in the context of the book?

Rabbi Eron: [00:18:50] Well I think the God that I'm presenting the book is a God that is that doesn't do, but rather is, that it is not a God that is, that's traditionally active in the world. It isn't a God who necessarily reveals, or redeems, protects or cares, though those are the things that we associate with the divine, and help us experience the divine in our lives. So often when we talk about God, and saying what God does, it is a way of talking in a spiritual shorthand about what we hold as our values, our goals, and in terms of chosenness, our sense of community and sense of purpose.

Rabbi Address: [00:19:47] You also write in the book is this very very interesting a sentence: When the Jewish people gather and pronounce the words Sh'ma Yisrael they activate an interlocking network of messages sent and received that bind them to each other. I find great spiritual strength within this net. Is this another way of saying that we can't be a Jew, you can't escape history, because we're part of this ongoing flow.

Rabbi Eron: [00:20:17] Yes, that we are part of a matrix, that the Jewish tradition I think I talk about in other parts of the book is a conversation, that people come and people go, ideas come in, ideas come out. I think I use the image also of a river, a stream, sometimes broader, sometimes wider and moving slow, moving fast. That there is a certain dynamic to the Jewish tradition, there's a movement within the Jewish tradition, and that we are able to participate, participate in it, to be part of it for our lifetime, but we'll be in and we'll be out, some of the ideas that we have, our beliefs, our practices, will flow on and some will continue and some won't.

Rabbi Address: [00:21:07] And through Jewish history as part of being it is there's lots of things that on the river bank of the Jewish flow that just didn't make it?

Rabbi Eron: [00:21:15] That don't make it or they may pick up later on. They may be floating and they come up.

Rabbi Address: [00:21:21] And that's why I like Ecclesiastes chapter one, because it has this image of the, oh you know, the flowing river into the sea, and we're part of this thing, it's a beautiful image, and you are you are correct. You also note, it's in a historical sense about the change and restructuring of Judaism with the with the Napoleonic breaking down of the ghettos in Russia, several hundred years ago of the Jews allegedly into modern Europe. And so looking back on what you've done in your work and your career, and the manifest change that is taking place within the community right now there's just no argument about that. Do you think we're at a one of those pivotal points in Jewish history right now in the United States of America where, for a whole variety of reasons, things are about to or in the process of radical change?

Rabbi Eron: [00:22:15] I think in terms of the broad sweep of Jewish history, we are in a period of change, a period of expansion, if you use the image of the river at this point, we're not in a narrow stream, but we're really in a broad overflow. The structures that have guided the Jewish people for, at least perhaps from the completion of the Talmud to late modernity, have now broken down, the banks have become soft and low. So there's lots of things happening. If today or this year or this decade is a crucial turning point, I think that's overstating the matter. I think from the last hundred and fifty, two hundred years from the beginning of the Napoleonic period, there has been a radical change in the structure of Jewish life, and we're still experiencing that. And we won't know how it's going to come out for another couple hundred years. So yes, things are happening, they're happening strangely, they're happening definitely, old forms aren't holding up. I think this is sort of in some way equivalent to what happened, let's say from the time of Alexander to the time of the Mishnah. It's a period of lots of ideas lots of thoughts a lot of variety. Many Judaisms for the Jewish people, and time will tell what is going to survive, and what's not going to survive. I remember we had a discussion at our JCC, maybe ten years ago, about what Judaism with look like in 100 years. It was a really interesting discussion, and when it came to me, all I could say is that it's going to look different. I have no idea what it's going to look like, anymore than I can tell you what style clothes would look like, or hair or food or anything else. It will be different. The other thing is that it will be connected, and I think one of the beauties of the Jewish tradition is that we always can find ourselves, figure our way back. Once we end up, we can then trace the the why, the why, how to do it in some way perhaps we're leaving little pebbles. There could be other choices, equally, equally good. But those are maybe the ones that panned out for whatever circumstance, whatever reasons that I don't know. But I also think that's also the course of our personal lives. Don't worry so much about what it's going to look like. Worry about how you're doing it right now. Scientists enjoy the ride. That's right. Be present. This is what you have enjoy and make the most of it. Your Jewish life should be full of love. Should be full of joy should be full of happiness. You should enjoy it and it should be meaningful to you. Perhaps if you're lucky. What's meaningful to you will be also meaningful to other people and you'll touch them will be part of a growing Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Address: [00:25:22] We're speaking with Rabbi Lewis Eron, the author of a recently published book called I Am: A Journey in Jewish Faith: A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Shema, and available Amazon?

Rabbi Eron: [00:25:34] Amazon and through the publisher, which is Wipf and Stock, they're out of Eugene Oregon.

Rabbi Address: [00:25:48] You write towards the end of the book this phrase, that intentionality plays a central role in Jewish expression unquote. What do you mean by intentionality?

Rabbi Eron: [00:26:03] One needs to be aware of what's doing. One needs to be present. One needs to be mindful that the way one lives one's life isn't haphazard or occasional. One needs to be alert and aware, one needs to understand who one is and why one is making the choices one makes. So it's a sense of being present.

Rabbi Address: [00:26:32] This idea of being present which is increasingly popular today in a variety of different ways and the intention of of focusing on the now and being present with me. Does this translate, or is it translating into prayer? Because as I travel the country in synagogues of various denominations, the role of prayer, is it receding or is it just undergoing a revolution and in many cases an exciting new development? In your experience is you in your work and as you've traveled and the experiences that you have is prayer still a central component of Jewish life?

Rabbi Eron: [00:27:23] I think for many people prayer is difficult. I think that for many people the language of prayer gets in the way of the experience of prayer. The Jewish prayer experience, particularly within the communal synagogue context, is difficult. It requires a person to have some background, an immersion into a tradition, an understanding of how that developed, and a connection to a community. Those things are not as common today in American Jewish life. We just don't have the knowledge, the background. The Jewish prayer language is something that is developed over thousands of years, and is using metaphors that were, at one time, quite powerful and easily understood, and now are archaic, ancient and difficult to access. People also make the mistake of thinking that prayer language is theological language, that what we say in prayer is expressing belief, rather than what we're saying in prayer, particularly Jewish prayer, is to evoke a feeling. We are trying to get around that, to open it up, if you see the development of new prayer books in all the movements, including the Orthodox, are coming with many commentaries, many new approaches, new ways of looking at the prayers, paraphrases. People are trying to introduce new melodies, trying to sometimes even get beyond the words by using traditional concepts such as the wordless prayer. You go and try to break that sense that prayer language is theological language, rather than prayer language is suggestive language. Personal prayer is something that many Jews have forgotten about, because of our Jewish educational system in which we train young Jews to perform certain synagogue activities.

Rabbi Address: [00:29:58] That they teach to the test, the bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Eron: [00:30:01] Basically they teach the test and then the bar mitzvah is a way to make sure that the child is able to do some fundamental things in the community, but doesn't always address the fundamental personal needs of the child right. So that also makes prayer difficult for Jews. What is often strike me as funny is how difficult it is for rabbis to do spontaneous prayer. People are alway,s my colleagues often say that they just don't feel comfortable doing it. That's something I could never understand. I mean, I could drop a prayer out and anytime you want. You want a prayer, Richard? Tell me what you want, give me the situation and give me 15 seconds, and I'll move you. You know, it's I think part of what we should be able to do, but people are often scared of saying the wrong prayer.

Rabbi Address: [00:30:49] Right. There is a barrier. Are you a fan, before we start running out of time, are you a fan of the electronic mode of prayer, you know, downloading it on your on your iPhone or iPad, and praying that way, or the visual Tefilah, which a lot of the congregations are moving to, you know, come into the synagogue, just look at the screen and follow the bouncing ball.

Rabbi Eron: [00:31:17] I think it's really very much what a community needs, what an individual needs. No, I'm a rabbi. I've spent years studying this material. I go and pray any place, and I can easily get beyond any siddur and get to the place I want to be. So you know I'm pretty much an expert in it. So for me personally and so I can do it, I can pray easily.

[00:31:40] You don't need the tools.

[00:31:40] I don't need the tools. But you know again I'm a rabbi I've been a rabbi for over 40 years a long long time here. You know I have lots of education, so no I've been doing this and I have lots of spiritual training so for me it's easy, I can't say I'm a fan, but people need to know what works for them. And they also have to understand that it's a tool and when it no longer helps them they have to give it up and do something else.

Rabbi Address: [00:32:07] So in conclusion, the book, I Am: A Journey in Jewish Faith: A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Shema, if you had one closing message to give to people about this prayer, what would it be?

Rabbi Eron: [00:32:23] When you say the prayer, think about certain basic questions. One is when you are called to listen, what do you want to hear? Another is, as you recite the prayer, you're going to hear your own voice. So how does listening to your own voice, your heart, mind, soul, help you hear the voice of God? How do these words, which is Sh'ma Yisrael, in some way God speaking to Israel, but Jews saying the prayer, God doesn't say it, how do we hear our voice and God's voice together? Also, how can we know another without knowing ourselves? If you think you know yourself, do you know yourself well enough so you can begin to know other people including the absolute other, God? How does your knowledge of yourself maybe you strengthen you and open you up to the knowledge of other people, the world, all creation, and God? And then, if you're not starting now, why not?

Rabbi Address: [00:33:40] Right. And if not now when?

Rabbi Eron: [00:33:43] If not now, when?

Rabbi Address: [00:33:44] I Am: A Journey in Jewish Faith: A Spiritual/Theological Reflection on the Shema by Rabbi Lewis John Eron. Lewis, thank you very much for coming into the studio and talking about this very, very lovely book, and I wish you just great success with this. I think it's a great teaching tool for congregations, book clubs, organizations within the Jewish community. So good luck. Good luck on the, on the circuit, so to speak so thank you. Thank you for joining us.

Rabbi Eron: [00:34:13] Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Rabbi Address: [00:34:15] To all of you, thank you for joining us again for another edition of Seekers of Meaning, the podcast of Jewish Sacred Aging, and again you can contact me for suggestions and ideas at Visit us at the website,, like us on the Facebook page for Jewish Sacred Aging on Facebook. These podcasts post every Friday morning, and they are produced by Steve Lubetkin at Lubetkin Global Media here in beautiful Cherry Hill, New Jersey. To all of you, thank you for listening. We look forward to meeting you again on the next edition of Seekers of Meaning, the podcast of Jewish Sacred Aging. Todah, shalom. Thank you.

About the Guest

Rabbi Lewis Eron, chaplain at Lion's Gate CCRC, Voorhees, NJ, pictured in The Lubetkin Media Companies TV studio in Cherry Hill, NJ

Rabbi Lewis John Eron is the rabbi emeritus of Lions Gate CCRC, a life-care community in Voorhees, NJ, where he served for almost a quarter of a century as the Director of Religious Services and as the Jewish Community Chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey in Cherry Hill, NJ.  He received the title of Rabbi in 1981 from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, and a doctorate in Biblical Studies from the Religion Department of Temple University in 1987.  Rabbi Eron also studied at Johns Hopkins, at Yale and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. ​

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