Jewish Journal

Do We Need to ReName God?

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

December 27, 2013 | 12:47 pm

n the traditional Jewish cycle of Torah reading, we are near the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the transformational story of successful resistance to slavery. But in the classical Jewish tradition the book is not known as Exodus, but rather as The Book of Names (Sefer Shemot).

Interestingly, early in The Book of Names, God goes through a name change.

This is no minor sideslip. Think of the furor when Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali; think of the political and personal transformation undergone when David Grün changed his name to Ben-Gurion.

And these were mere mortals! For the Eternal One, Who suffuses the entire universe, to undertake a name change is seismic, cosmic.

It happens first at the Burning Bush. Here, Moses faces the unquenchable fiery Voice who sends him on a mission to end slavery under Pharaoh. Before accepting this great challenge, Moses tells the Voice that the people will challenge him, asking for a divine name to support Moses’ claims.

And so, the Holy One (the Wholly One) answers, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — “I Will Be Who I Will Be” — a fitting name for the animating Spirit in a universe in which the powerless poor can be empowered and a pharaoh’s power can dissolve like powder into the Sea of Reeds. Then God adds, “But that’s a mouthful, so you can just use Ehyeh — I Will Be — as my nickname.”

“And, oh yes, you can also call me YHWH.” But we actually can’t! There’s no way to pronounce those four letters without vowels (as they appear in the Torah scroll). And for a couple of millennia now, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing this mysterious name, but instead to use Adonai — “Lord.”

Now, why do we think that God undergoes this name change?

YHWH (Ex. 6: 2-3). This time, Moses is in Egypt; his first try at liberation and at organizing Brickmakers Union, Local 1, has failed miserably. The Voice then says explicitly that the name by which God was known to Moses’ forebears — El Shaddai, the Breasted God --  the “God of Nourishment and Nurturance”  — is not sufficient for the liberation process at hand.

Why this second voicing of the new name?

I suggest that Moses, since the bush and during his first effort in Egypt, has been too reticent about using the new name. He has too often reverted to the old one on the warm-hearted assumption that his listeners would be more comfortable with it. But the old name alone will not inspire a new sense of reality. That is an essential reason why Moses failed and the Brickmakers Union collapsed.

The point is that when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named; God is different when the world is different. Human beings cannot deeply absorb the newness of the world and their own crucial need to act on that newness unless they are challenged to rename reality.

Today, even more so than in the days of Moses and the Israelites, the world is undergoing a radical transformation; the great web of life is stressed as never before in the history of the human species. We must rename God to be truthful to this changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new and bold ways.

It is for this reason that I have been urging people in our generation to come to know God anew by “pronouncing” the unpronounceable name by simply breathing deeply and consciously — YHWH, with no vowels — YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh -- the Breath of Life, the One who sustains all of life, “Interbreath.” We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out; we breathe each other into life, and YHWH flows through all of these interactions.

What we call the “climate crisis” is a radical disturbance in the Earth’s atmosphere that has thrown out of balance the mixture of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out, that is, the balance of CO2 and oxygen. Human action is sending more CO2 into the atmosphere than Mother Earth can breathe.

If we hear  YHWH as the interbreathing of all life, then that Name itself, and the reality it seeks to express, is now in crisis. God’s breath is constricted. Choking.

We cannot begin to engage in a meaningful healing process so long as we refuse to name this deep wound and invoke different names for ultimate reality. Continuing to simply use the established names for God, especially those associated with domination — “Lord” and “King” — will not work. We must reclaim the deep truth of YHWH, the healing breath within the name.

In making this urgent call for renaming, I am not suggesting that we do away altogether with all other names for God in the Jewish tradition, but I am challenging us (as feminist thinkers did so powerfully in recent times) to think deeply about the names we use for God and what they do and do not inspire in us. How can our sacred language be most powerful in helping us meet the urgent issues — ecological and otherwise — of our time? I believe that the name YHWH needs to be included more regularly and consciously in our ritual lives (by substituting at least some of the familiar names with the mindful breathing of this ancient name), so that we can go out from our synagogues and study houses ready to take meaningful ethical and political action.

Try an experiment for yourself: "Baruch attah Yahhh elohenu ruach ha'olam ... "Blessed are You, Interbreathing-spirit of the world ..."  Are you attracted by ReNaming God in a long breath --  Naming God as the Prophet Elijah heard God speaking in a "still small Voice" -- the sound of simply Breathing.

The Hebrew word “davar” can mean either “word” or “deed.” If we can conceive of God through a new word, a new name, we can also act far more effectively to bring about the changes that our planet so desperately needs. For Moses, the new name made possible both resisting Pharaoh and shaping a new kind of society. For us, it means resisting the modern carbon pharaohs that bring new plagues upon our planet, and taking greater responsibility for building a global society that is based on a heightened awareness of the interconnection of all life, that indeed, YHWH, the Breath of Life, is one.

* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center <https://www.theshalomcenter.org>

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center.

He was legislative assistant to a US Congressman, 1959-1961; Resident Fellow of the Inst. for Policy...

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