April 23, 2019

Respecting the name of God

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

In this week’s parsha, Emor, we find out what happens when we take the Lord’s name in vain: We could be stoned to death. At least that’s what happened to “the blasphemer,” a certain fellow of the Israelite community with an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father, who was taken into custody for this crime and then executed at God’s direction to Moses.

On first reference, in Leviticus 24:11, the Torah says the problem was that he committed the blasphemy of “saying the name” (“HaShem” — literally, The Name). Then, just to make sure we are clear about what name this is referring to, in Leviticus 24:15-16 it says, “Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name ‘Lord,’ he shall be put to death.” Here, the English is playing a game with us. In fact, the Hebrew doesn’t say “Lord” (Adonai); rather, it says the “Holy Name,” a word sometimes expressed using the English letters YHVH, because in Hebrew it is spelled yud hey vav hey.

You may notice that I spelled it out but didn’t attempt to suggest a pronunciation. This is a word that the Jewish world stopped saying millennia ago. It became relegated to just the priests in the Holy Temple in biblical times; when that was destroyed, all pronouncing of the “tetragrammaton” (the four-letter word) ended. We say “Adonai” when we see it in Hebrew, and “Lord” in translation. We also avoid saying “Adonai” more than we have to (once, as we read it in a prayer), moving on to further euphemisms such as HaShem or Adoshem if pressed to repeat it.

Names have a powerful control over the one we name. Some say one’s name is the sweetest sound in the world. Thus, to say God’s name is to have control over the universe. The Jewish people have long considered themselves the keepers of The Name, and also the people who are privileged to not utter it — out of respect (because we don’t know how to pronounce it correctly anymore, and we wouldn’t want to make a mistake), out of fear (remember the blasphemer!) and out of love.

Stories are told that the angels utter the Ineffable Name to zoom back up to heaven. Amulet makers in the Middle Ages would write the Holy Name on parchment to create powerful, healing magic for their customers — the founder of Chasidism was known as the “Baal Shem Tov” (master of the Holy Name) for this reason.

It is the presence of this word that makes the printed Torah on my desk a sacred book. And if the editors of this Jewish newspaper were to type these four Hebrew letters, God’s actual name, here in my column, it would turn this issue into a holy writ that could not be disposed of in the trash or allowed to lie on the floor.

Different Bibles have different approaches to printing and translating God’s name. My favorite is Everett Fox’s Schocken Bible, which uses “YHWH” in the English every time it appears in the Hebrew. How should one pronounce this when reading this book? Fox suggests that the reader replace each appearance with “The Lord.” That’s some serious mental gymnastics, and he acknowledges this: “While the visual effect of ‘YHWH’ may be jarring at first, it has the merit of approximating the situation of the Hebrew text as we now have it, and of leaving open the unsolved question of the pronunciation and meaning of God’s name.”

That is to say, God’s name, and the rules about not pronouncing it, create a conundrum that is not easily resolved. It is awkward to use a euphemistic bandage such as “Lord,” (or “HaShem,” as I prefer to avoid gender specificity), to hide the unpronounceable. It makes you “trip” and have to catch yourself, so as to remember what’s underneath. It makes you stop and look, to pause and reflect. God is so much more than we can represent in a word, spoken or written, and we never want to miss an opportunity to remember that.

A parable is told in the Jerusalem Talmud of a king who had a small key to a treasure chest. He was concerned that the key might get lost, so he attached a long chain to it. In the same way, taught Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, quoting his teacher Rabbi Yannai, the not-pronouncing game is a gift to the Jews, a chain connecting us to the key — God’s name — that unlocks the treasure that is religious experience. Having a deliberately difficult way to call upon God helps us remember to step outside the routine of our lives when we pray, and also to stand out among the nations as a people.

It is when we remember that we are a distinct community with a distinct heritage, and a unique, personal connection to God as keepers of The Name, that we are elevated into relationship with The One.

RABBI AVIVAH W. ERLICK is a board-certified health care chaplain in private practice. She owns a referral agency for Jewish clergy (CommunityRabbis.com) and is a provider of inclusive Jewish after-death ritual (Sacred-Waters.com).