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Translating Shema

hema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad as Moses said to the children of Israel after laying down a few more laws before them. Maybe there was a bit of fidgeting at the back; children’s minds can wander. The imperative of shema seems to be a little rhetorical flourish, to get the audience back on board, the teacher clapping her hands ‘children, listen’; the radio DJ ‘listen up Israel’. Jacques Derrida preferrs different technology, he speaks of the telephonic shema, the ‘long distance… collect call’ from or to god. His alternatives for the translation of the first word include ‘call to Israel, listen Israel, hello Israel, to address the name of Israel’.

Who is making the call? Derrida is unsure. Is god calling the jew? The jew calling god seems more likely, after all, we are the ones praying. The daunting cost of a long-distance call to the heavens is even offset – it’s a collect call. Does god accept them all? All of them? Are we really making god pay?

Of course not. God is nowhere. Its a call from person to person. Hello Israel, good morning Israel. Good morning Israel; the address in the name of Israel. But how to address someone with no address? Where is Israel? How to addrress a name? The addressee is simultaneously multiple and irreducibly singular. The Shema is a postcard, the open letter both public and private, the addressee is anyone who answers the call, all who receive the phone call – and pay the collect charges.

But what do we hear when we pick up? Some crackles? A crossed line? Tsimtsum. Hello we say, hearing only a faint reverberation of our voice, bouncing back across the long-distance wires. The words are empty, their meaning only to be found in what they are not. Adonai, not yihyeh; adonai, not yechaieh. Not ‘will be’ or ‘****’. Adonai, not adonai; the sound is already a substitute for something unpronouncable. Something which is not even grammatically consistent; ‘my lord is our god?’. Is this Moses imposing his personal deity onto someone else’s children? Like Madonna adopting a black baby.

But remember the dalet. The giant dalet, writ large on the parchment. Desperately staking its claim to be a dalet, not a resh. Not a resh and a yud. Can we belive it? ‘my lord is one/ my lord is other/ my lord comes after’. The possiblities stack up in the system of differences. Meanings slip around even on the computer we think we can trust. Bill Gates’ Word respells god’s words She ma Ishmael Madonna Eloquent Adonis Chafed. We move seamlessly into a new faith; two new faiths (three?), after all this confusion, elohenu is rendered eloquent, but echad still chafes.

So to translate, which is always transformation:

hello/good morning Israel/Vietnam, Madonna/my lord (is) our god (and) will be other/ will come after

hello? hello?

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