The Final Issue of Sh’ma
How did the early rabbis decide that 24 books were enough for the Hebrew Bible? How did later sages determine that the Mishnah needed precisely 63 tractates? And how did their successors conclude that only 37 of those warranted further exposition in the Babylonian Talmud?
Although the resulting boundedness of these canonical works may make it seem like the answers were obvious, these were incredibly difficult decisions at the time. In large part, that’s because the animating question behind these choices – Does a literary work require more (writing, editing, revising, marketing) to achieve its goals? – is almost impossible to answer without the benefit of hindsight.
Over the past few decades, we – the publishers, editors, and funders of Sh’ma – have struggled with this question regarding the future of the journal. Initially published by Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz in 1970, Sh’ma has helped shape American Judaism over the past 50 years. As a lean journal of ideas – without much visual filigree – Sh’ma addressed every significant issue facing American Jews over the course of five decades. Modeling and pushing the boundaries of pluralism, Sh’ma featured a far-reaching array of voices – those of thought leaders and emerging thinkers. Rarely turning down an invitation to write – without compensation – writers courageously examined the day’s issues before those ideas entered the communal agenda.
Like many other publications that began as print journals, Sh’ma has also faced shrinking readership in a disruptive era of digital media. Over the course of the past few years, the funders of the journal experimented with new models of distribution, modified the journal’s format and design, and sought additional funding and institutional partners willing to invest in the journal’s future. Those efforts were, unfortunately, unsuccessful.
At the foundation, we asked ourselves whether our support for the journal was commensurate with our spending: Was the journal reaching enough readers – or enough thought leaders – to have the kind of impact on the communal discourse we sought to have? We have tried to meet the challenges of a changing readership, most recently partnering with the Forward, in the hopes of increasing distribution. Unfortunately, despite investing significant resources and effort, Sh’ma struggled to transcend its original print format and attract new readers in today’s digital world.
Weighing both its influence and its recent decline, we have wrestled with how much the continued publication of Sh’ma is helping achieve its mission of curating thoughtful, pluralistic conversations with deep relevance to the community. We have concluded – with a mix of sadness about the end of an era as well as enormous pride for the significant contributions that Sh’ma has made – that the upcoming 751st issue of Sh’ma will be its last.
What is particularly challenging in our decision is that we have no illusions that the job Sh’ma was created to do has been completed. As Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson explains in the final issue of the journal, Sh’ma was founded as a platform for American Jews to engage in machloket l’shem shamayim, principled argument for the sake of heaven. As partisanship and polarization increasingly define Jewish communal discourse, and American discourse as a whole, we recognize that the need for thoughtful, respectful debate is more pressing now than ever.
As part of Sh’ma’s 50-year legacy, we hope the thousands of people who wrote for Sh’ma and read it – all those American Jews and others who have benefited from the wisdom shared in its pages – will deepen their commitment to listen ever more attentively to those with whom they disagree, to wrestle with the holiness of pushing the boundaries of what we think we know; to raise the power of listening and hearing, of searching Jewish texts and wisdom to uncover the undisturbed corners of complacency.
We are hopeful others will fill the void Sh’ma leaves behind, and we believe the existing Sh’ma archive will offer significant guidance to them. It took a few hundred years from the writing of the last biblical book until the recording of the Mishnah; the latter was only possible because it drew so heavily on the former. What comes after Sh’ma will be best if it is able to build on the multi-vocal approach at the heart of the journal.
To this end, we are committed to finding ways to put the Sh’ma archive in the hands of scholars and rabbis, teachers and striving Jews, and also to celebrate its tremendous contribution. If you would like to stay apprised of this process, please sign up to receive updates.
Of course, we have no way of knowing with certainty if we’re making the right decision. That weighs heavily on us. But we also know that 50 years of Sh’ma – a full yovel, jubilee cycle – are a major contribution to the accumulated and accumulating Jewish canon. Could the Tanakh have been even more influential if it had 25 books? If the Mishnah had 64? Or if the Talmud had 38?
Maybe. But these works would probably not have had the same impact had they been expanded indefinitely. And while we have no pretensions that Sh’ma is or will be as important as these canonical texts, we believe an underlying lesson is applicable: It’s only possible to study a text cover to cover if there’s a cover on both ends. In the words of the sage Hillel’s contemporary, Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, there is immense value in turning a text over again and again (Pirkei Avot 5:22) – and in order to do that cycling, the studied text must have a beginning, middle, and end.
Our hope is that the words of all those who have contributed to Sh’ma over the past 50 years continue to be turned over again and again and that they model the type of healthy debate that Borowitz envisioned: “If we cannot have common answers, if we must live with the anxiety of alternatives, then let us at least know what the various views entail and what seem their major drawbacks.” Let us learn from those alternatives and, in the words of the classical prayer for completing a bounded Jewish text: Hadran alach, v’hadrach alan, may we return to you, and may you return to us.
Susan Berrin (Editor, Sh’ma: 1998-present)
Josh Rolnick (President, Sh’ma Institute: 2009-present; Publisher, Sh’ma: 2009-2016; Founding Director of Funding Partner, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah: 2013-present)
Aaron Dorfman (President of Funding Partner, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah: 2016-present)
Rabbi Ayalon Eliach (Director of Learning and Strategic Communications of Funding Partner, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah: 2018-present)
Yosef I. Abramowitz (Publisher of Sh’ma: 1998-2009)
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin (Editor of Sh’ma: 1993-1998)
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (President of CLAL 1974-1997; Senior Editor of Sh’ma: 1993-1998)
Rabbi Irwin Kula (President of CLAL; Publisher, Sh’ma: 1993-1998)
Rabbi Brad Hirshfield (President of CLAL; Publisher, Sh’ma: 1993-1998)
For media inquiries, please contact Rabbi Ayalon Eliach, Director of Learning and Strategic Communications, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.