Monotheism and the Shema: Lessons on Oneness and Unity by Ivy Helman

ivy tree huggingIn my last blog post, I explained what we lost when the Israelites became monotheists.  That post looked at the move to monotheism from a more historical, feminist perspective.  In this post, I want to understand monotheism from a more modern, feminist lens.  Using the Shema as a starting point for modern Jewish monotheistic thinking, my question is: how do we honor the deity based on who we understand that deity to be?  In my opinion, Jewish monotheism requires we honor G-d by moving away from one-sided gendered depictions of the deity and think about how we act in light of the interconnectedness of life.

Judaism highlights the Shema as the description of the divine.  It reads, “Hear, O Israel! The L-rd is Our G-d, The L-rd is One!,” (Deut. 6:4).  The key aspect of this verse is twofold. First, we have a relationship with the deity hence the description of the deity as “our,” and, second, this deity is one. 

Oneness used to imply that no other deities count, and perhaps also that no other deities literally exist.  For example, if one were to read the Torah, one would understand the deity differently.  On the one hand, the deity is one of many possible deities one could worship. On the other, it is quite clear that no matter what the deity is called, there is one specific deity that chose to help the Israelites.  In the Torah, the divine is always referred to as he, using only masculine pronouns for the deity. In addition, he is often called king, lord, and master. G-d is depicted as powerful, wrathful, jealous, and even scary.  

Moving away from Torah descriptions, Judaism rightly understands the divine to be theologically more.  The concept of oneness has evolved to include the idea that, yes, one deity exists, but it also implies that there is a unity within that one deity.  This deity is indivisible in its unity.  In his work, “The Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith,” Moses Maimonides layouts these theological insights.   

While not all of his principles describe G-d, many do.  In the first principle, he explains that G-d is the creator and the reason why everything exists. The second principle says that G-d is a complete and utter unity, as in undivided. The third details how the deity does not have a body and cannot be affected physical movements, and the fourth states that the divine is eternal.  The fifth principle requires that Jews only worship G-d, while the tenth deems G-d to be both all-knowing and involved in and caring for life here on Earth. In other words, Maimonides says G-d is an eternal creator who cares for the whole of creation, knows all that is happening, and, yet, is without physical form.  

Perhaps the most difficult among these ideas to comprehend is the non-corporeal divine nature.  In the Torah, G-d walks in the garden of Eden.  G-d has a gender; he acts behaving much like his titles: king, lord, savior and so on.  He is called G-d, which implies the male gender, as we are not calling G-d G-ddess, are we? Goddesses are female, and gods are male.  This means that even what we often consider a generic name for the deity, G-d, is gendered.  The Torah genders the deity and so do we.  This is detrimental to the understanding of divine oneness because the divine is beyond gender, as a  non-corporeal being.  

Yet, humans cannot truly understand non-corporeality and never will.  We are, however, moving toward more fluid understandings of gender, including non-gendered, gender-fluid, and multi-gendered.  We can create images of the deity that mirror our new understandings of the fluidly and culturally-constructed nature of gender.  

By depicting the deity with a multitude of genders and non-genders, we accomplish two tasks.  First, we destabilize our inherited patriarchal notions of the divine as he, king, G-d, warrior, L-rd, and so on.  We also better capture the words of the Shema.  Oneness as unity cannot imply sameness because there is no unity if everything is the same; there is just sameness.  Therefore, a diety with multiple diverse and different genders is closer to non-gendered and/or beyond gender than the warrior, god king we inherited.  In other words, we are being more faithful to the words of the Shema by making such changes to our characterisations of the divine; we are constructing a more accurate understanding of a being that doesn’t have a gender (because it doesn’t have a body).  

Another way to be more faithful to the Shema is to consider unity from another angle: interconnection.  treesUnity implies interconnection because it denies divisions. How exactly the divine is interconnected to creation is hard to put into words.  Certainly, the interconnection between creation and creator does not reduce the divine only to the physical world because that would limit both our understanding of the divine and limit who the divine is.  Yet, we do know that the diety cares for creation as its creator.  In this regard, given the undividable divine nature, which has concerns for creation, our actions on this planet may still have consequences for the divine. It is quite probable that the ways in which we hurt, diminish, oppress and limit each other must be felt by the deity; in other words the inequality and injustice we have created affects not only us but the deity as well.  Not to mention, how we treat the environment, clearly relates to the divine creator, as the interconnected unity.   

Clearly Jewish monotheism isn’t just about the idea that there is one deity or one understanding of who that deity is.  In fact, taking the Shema seriously has two implications. First, we have to choose carefully the images and language we use for the deity. Understanding G-d as he, king, lord and even G-d too, falsely restricts, lessens and constricts the deity.  Rather, embracing a spectrum of diversely gendered portrayals of the deity more effectively represents the non-gendered, non-corporeal unity of the deity. Second, how we act in this world matters as there is an intricate interconnection between Creator and creation.  The deity feels the affects of our actions. Therefore, in order to be faithful to the Shema, we have to act in ways that promote equality, justice, and care.


Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

4 thoughts on “Monotheism and the Shema: Lessons on Oneness and Unity by Ivy Helman”

  1. Maimonides believed that the unity of God meant that God is not affected by any relationships. He is complete in himself. Just like Thomas Aquinas. Hartshorne called this a massive theological mistake. In the second part of your essay you seem to be moving towards Hartshorne’s view. For Hartshorne the divine unity means that the divine character is always the same, God is always loving and understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Ivy
    I found your post today beautiful and hopeful and I am grateful to you
    Blessings be upon you and yours


  3. “Yet, humans cannot truly understand non-corporeality and never will.”
    Non corporeality suggests dis-embodiment – while we are alive I believe that immanence is what we need if we are to be present for all that is…

    I suffer from PTSD and the last two weeks have left me in a state of dis embodiment that I would wish on no one.


  4. I’ve been approaching similar thinking from a Christian perspective. The best solution I’ve found is abandoning the Neoplatonic ontologically simple view of God’s unity in favor of an ontologically complex view of God’s unity. (Note that I didn’t say “compound”). Maimonides was well aware of Neoplatonic thought, and borrowed the notion of absolute simplicity (a unity like no other) from the Neoplatonists–as did also the main line of early Christian thinkers. This caused no problems for Maimonides, but has caused great problems for Christian theology (just try fitting a Trinity within an absolutely simple unity without getting a hopeless contradiction!) While positing a complex unity would not permit you, as a Jew, to posit a Trinity, it would permit you to place both feminine and masculine within one complex God. A justification for this in the Torah would be that God said he created man–male and female–in his own likeness. Does this help?


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