Today is day 28 of the Omer. Almost there! I can feel the Torah wating for us!
Why are we so bad at referring to God?
By David A.M. Wilensky
However it happened, it seems that we progressive Jews have lost our ability to talk about God. If we look to our Christian neighbors, we find that God is simply referred to as God. In the Muslim world, God is either God or, in Arabic, Allah. We can even look to secular Israelis who might simply state in casual conversation that they either do or do not believe in El, a generic Hebrew term equivalent to God.
Of course, our tradition provides for more diverse options than that. Most of us probably know that Judaism traditionally refers to God most commonly as Adonai, My Lord, or YHVH, the mysteriously unpronounceable, biblical, personal name of God.
And here we already have problems. If we cannot pronounce God’s personal name, how can we possibly relate? Our substitute for YHVH, My Lord, is of no help here. How many of us have or will ever have a lord? Or what about Malkeinu, meaning Our King, a common way our prayers refer to God? How much help can this term offer us? Neither does another common term, Avinu, meaning Our Father, sound so authoritative in our increasingly non-patriarchal society.
Progressive Jews, with some success, have sought throughout this century to rectify these problems by creatively translating (or mistranslating) prayers. Thus, Father becomes Parent, King becomes Sovereign or Ruler, and Our Lord often becomes simply Eternal! More recently, attempts have been made to address the issue directly in the liturgical text. The Reform Movement’s new siddur, Mishkan T’filah, sometimes removes the offending language altogether (as in Ahavah Rabah, where words such as Father are deleted from the Hebrew text entirely) or changes the terms to reflect different metaphors for God (as in Hashkiveinu, where Our King becomes Our Guardian).
Some people seem to think that it may be best not to refer to God at all. Because Judaism forbids us from writing out God’s name and then discarding it, many seem to have become obsessed not only with not writing out God’s name, but also with not even writing out a substitute for God’s name. As such, we have become familiar with tallitot that present us with the blessing for putting on a tallit with the word Eloheinu, meaning Our God, spelled out Elokeinu, following a very literal interpretation of not taking God’s name in vain.
Even more common than that is the Jew who writes G-d, instead of God. Jewish Renewal offers a most creative alternative to this: instead of G-d, to write out G!d. The serious implications of this are limited; clearly there is nothing wrong with this, but the level of ridiculousness I see in it is quite high. We begin with a Hebrew name for God that we cannot discard. Then we replace that unpronounceable name with Adonai, which arguably, being a direct stand-in for YHVH, is also not something one can simply toss aside. From there, we move into English. Once we get here, and once we get to the word God, I can see no remnant of God’s name here and feel totally comfortable writing God out, rather than writing G-d or G!d. RELATED
And what about YHVH?
You probably know that most biblical names come with an explanation. Yehudah, Judah, for instance, (from whom we get words like Judaism and Jew) is named for the root of todah, thanks, for his mother was thankful when he was born. So what about God? Does God’s name mean anything? Some (with whom I do not agree) have suggested that because the letter vav in archaic Hebrew was pronounced more like a “w” in modern English, this name was pronounced “Yaaaaahh…Waaaaahh…,” an inhalation and an exhalation, a complete breath. The theory here is that our ancestors recognized God as the breath of life or something of that nature and so they created a name for God that embodies that concept. Unfortunately, there is evidence that our ancestors really did conceive of God along the lines of an old bearded man in the sky in those days, so that theory is basically out as far as I’m concerned.
So, what are some theories about God’s name that you do like?
More compelling to me is the idea that God’s name is an unknown form of the Hebrew verb “to be,” ehyeh. This is the most common theory put forth and certainly the most widely accepted. It is also supported by God’s explanation to Mosheh that “Eheyh asher ehyeh.” “I am that I am,” or perhaps, “I will be what I will be,” or simply, as NFTY alumni band Jewbilee puts it, “I am who I am.”
Though I see this explanation as the most likely, there is one less likely explanation that I like much more. Jewschool’s YehuditBrachah (“Hail the vowel god!” October 17, 2007) puts it like this:
As opposed to the Phoenician system of lettering, the Hebrews developed vowels, which allowed people to read out loud their texts, contributed to the spreading of the Bible, and the lasting impact of Judaism. Also, we loved it so much we named our god after the achievement. An article from the Jerusalem Post explains further.
“In short, the patriarch, matriarch, and deity of the Hebrews all get their names by adding a heh to convert otherwise common words into special ones. The Hebrews used their vowel-letters not just to make writing possible, but to create their most important names…We find a…four-letter name for God, the tetragrammaton (which means “four-letters” in Greek). The four letters are yud, heh, vav, heh. Common pronunciations such as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” miss the point. What really matters here is the remarkable fact that this name consists entirely of the Hebrews’ newly invented vowel letters, each included once, with the particularly special heh repeated. The tetragrammaton is unique in ancient Hebrew, in that its pronunciation seems divorced from its spelling. It also seems to lack any plausible etymology, and is unattested in similar ancient languages. Now we know why. The Hebrews paid homage to the vowel letters that made it possible to spread the Word of God by using those letters to refer to God.” (“The Jews Invent Vowels,” Joel M. Hoffman, October 3, 2007)
Take the actions of the editors of Mishkan T’filah in their version of Hashkiveinu one step further. Edit a service for your TYG or region in which every reference to God is rephrased to relate to the theme of prayer.
Consider this issue
I suppose that everything I’ve said so far here is a total grab-bag of only slightly-connected thoughts. The intent of this isn’t to solve a problem neatly, but merely to point out our deficiencies in this realm. More food for thought is available in the resources section of this iTorah.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
How do you refer to God?
What do you see at the root of our inability to connect to our terms for God?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David A.M. Wilensky was El Prez of his TYG, went on EIE in the fall of 2006, and has spent three summers at Kutz. He will be back at Kutz again this summer as head librarian/program research sssistant. He hails from Austin, Texas originally, though he is now a religious studies major at Drew University in Madison, NJ. He is involved a wonderful progressive non-denominational chavurah in Madison called Chavurat Lamdeinu. He has been working on his own siddur, called Sidur Eilu D’vareinu, since June of 2007. This is his third iTorah.
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And now, the Omer: