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On the Names of God

Yom Kipper Service September 15, 2021

Whether you a true stalwart of worship at Temple Shir Shalom or this is your first visit since last year, already, just forty minutes or so into the new year, you have probably noticed some differences. Not the big screen, not the limited attendance, not anything that has to do with Covid-19. It is the language itself that has changed, or the translation, anyway.


Gone is "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe"—but that actually disappeared long ago. Also gone now is Sovereign of the world. Likewise, Eternal One. Similarly, Blessed One All of these locutions pretty well banished this year in favor of a number of “experiments," shall we say, phrases like Source of Being, Being Itself, Being and Becoming, experiments of which you, the congregation, will be the ultimate judge. My job, in the next few minutes, is to explain why all this experimentation.


The place to start is with the story of the Burning Bush, in Exodus Chapter 3. This is where Moses meets the God of his ancestors for the very first time. Moses is recruited to be the messenger of liberation to the Hebrew slaves of the Egyptians, and he asks God a very sensible question. When I go to these Hebrews and endeavor to lead them, he asks, whom should I say has sent me? The voice from the bush answers that Moses should tell the people that Ehyeh sent you.


וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה

 וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃


“And God said to Moses, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.” God continued, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, Ehyeh sent me to you."

The voice from the bush does not say to tell them that “G-dash-d" sent you, or Adonai sent you, or the Lord sent you, or the King of the Universe sent you, or the Eternal One sent you. The voice says to tell them that Ehyeh sent you, and Ehyeh is not a normal name at all, not like Michael or Paul, words that are clearly understood to refer to individual human beings.


Rather, Ehyeh is a verb form, an action word that is derived from a root that means "to be," or "to become." Ehyeh is also a cognate of the word YHVH, which is pronounced something like “Yahweh,” and for which we have been taught to substitute the word “Adonai.”


The voice coming from the Bush did not give Moses a name for God, like the names Michael or Paul. The voice gave Moses a description: "tell them that being and becoming sent you." In other words, the God of the Hebrews was not a thing or even a being that could be named. God is being itself, the field that allows for and supports existence. God, in God’s own words to Moses, the greatest of the prophets of Israel, is the reality of being and becoming.


This sublime message, sadly, was nearly lost by the tragic decision taken by scholars of the tenth century, known as the Masorites, to substitute the word "Adonai" every time the word Ehyeh or the word Yahweh appears in Torah text or prayer. It is not entirely clear why they did this; some scholars think that the change may have been meant to uproot a kind of magical thinking that built up around the power of the name.


The actual word "Adonai" was a title sometimes applied to non-Israelite deities in the ancient Middle East, and closely related to the prosaic word for lord or master, as in the lords or masters who ruled the Jews in Persia at the time, or in Babylon, or in Rome. Perhaps it made sense at the time, for the scholars and leaders of Judaism to encourage people to think of God as a more powerful version of the earthly potentates whom they knew. But for a modern, non-Orthodox Jew in the 21st century to think of God as Lord or Master or King makes as much sense as thinking of someone's beautiful new Tesla in the parking lot as a horseless carriage.


The problem with Adonai is that it is a word that meant to be applied to a thing or a person, albeit a powerful person. It tricks us, so to speak, into thinking God as just another thing, just another being, different in scale and ability from you or me, but not really that different in essence. The problem with Adonai is that it sent Judaism on a long slide to the absolutely juvenile conception of God that almost all of us grew up with—that God is basically some big, strong guy named Adonai. And for how many millions of people born as Jews in the last century or two was this the end of the line?


When the miseries and the randomness of the world convinced them that there was no big, strong guy named Adonai calling the shots, they thought that they had exhausted the wisdom of Judaism, and so they left. It is as if they were saying to 3500 years of spiritual wisdom, "If this is all you've got, a big, strong guy called Adonai—then I'm outta here." In this sense we might say that "Blessed art Thou, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe" is the most damaging phrase in the history of the Jews.


Now, not everyone has given up or been driven away by this tragedy, thanks to the God who is so hard to talk about. All of us here today, modern, non-Orthodox Jews who still cherish the spiritual meaning of our tradition—we are the survivors of this disastrous name change. We are survivors because we haven't given up or gone away, but nevertheless we have been damaged, and I believe that it will require a thorough change in terminology to even begin repairing the damage.


What is the nature of this damage we have suffered? Let me briefly describe just two of its manifestations. For many of us, it has choked off any serious contemplation of spiritual matters, because the only things we have ever been told about God seem stupid or unsophisticated; in other words, that God is some big, strong guy named Adonai that we clearly don't believe in. So while we may find a thousand other good reasons to continue on as Jews—the culture, the languages, the food, fealty to our parents and grandparents, the Holocaust, the commitment to social justice—there is rather a hollow core to all this commitment.


The original point of being a Jew was recognition and acceptance of a particular, expansive view of God as being inherent in the structure of the universe, but many of us are completely hollow on that point. The reality of God is something we have been battered into not talking about, because all we have ever learned to say is “Blessed art Thou, Adonai, our God, King of the universe.”


Or there is another kind of damage that I, personally, have felt more keenly. For years and years I experienced prayer as almost a game involving simultaneous translation. Not between Hebrew and English, but between an English translation I couldn't possibly believe in to an inner, personal translation that I could possibly believe in. I used to actually enjoy this; it was a challenging intellectual exercise to pray, to lead prayer, to translate between languages, and to translate between theologies, all at the same time. But sometimes, many times, this has left me feeling that our communal prayer involved a whole roomful of people reading in unison words which nobody actually believed.


And lately, I've lost patience for all that. I think the reason I've lost patience is the experience of facilitating online prayer during these nearly two years of Covid. In March of 2020 we were forced to turn away abruptly from our printed, static, prayer book that was revised just once in a generation, to something new and vastly more flexible.


All of a sudden, I could include in our Shabbat and holiday worship only the prayers I wanted to include, and I could translate them the way I truly understood them to mean. I was forced by circumstances to speak more clearly, out loud, just what I believe or intuit about the world. This has turned out to be a much more exciting intellectual and spiritual challenge than simultaneous translation ever was, and because this has happened not just to me but to tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews across the non-Orthodox world, I think it has a nearly revolutionary potential to revive and empower our next generations of Jews.


So the "experiments" that we have inserted into our worship, Source of Being, Being Itself, Being and Becoming—these do reflect my own personal beliefs about the universe, which have always been changing and evolving faster than the printed prayer book changed and evolved. But these experiments are not meant to sway you to my way of thinking. They are meant to challenge you and to liberate you to think more freely about the truths you see and feel.


Judaism does not necessarily or exclusively believe that God is a big, strong guy called Adonai. The Jewish conceptions of God, from the Bible onward, are much more sophisticated, open-ended, and searching than that. Let’s finally break the spell cast so unhelpfully by the word Adonai, by making room in our minds for an ancient, deeply authentic Jewish belief that God is the very reality of being and becoming, which is exactly what God told Moses at the Burning Bush. And let's work together to find new and better ways of saying exactly what we mean. I welcome your insights as our experimentation continues. Amen.


Rabbi Michael Joseph

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