A few weeks ago, during Torah Study here at Temple Beth El, our group ended up in an hour-long study of a single sentence in the torah portion. The beginning of parashat Vayera reads: “And God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey; I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai – but my name is Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey.'” (Exodus 6:2-3)
Of course, it wasn’t written in our Torah study books as “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey” – it was written as LORD.
But these four Hebrew letters, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, commonly known as the tetragrammaton, don’t exactly translate to LORD – in fact, we don’t know what the word “translates” to, because we can’t even pronounce the word – we lost the pronunciation of those four letters, which denote God’s name, almost 2000 years ago with the destruction of the Temple.
According to our texts, God’s true name, the true pronunciation of Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, was so holy that the only person who was allowed to know and pronounce God’s real name was the High Priest, and he only uttered it once a year on Yom Kippur, in the holiest part of the holiest place on earth, the Temple in Jerusalem. Once the Temple was destroyed, no more pronunciation.
So how did we get to LORD?
The Masoretes, 6th-10th century scholars who added written vocalization marks to our text (all of the little dots and lines we often think of as “vowels” in the Hebrew we read in our prayerbooks), took another moniker by which God is referred, “Adonai,” and transposed the vocalization of that word to the Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey to suggest that whenever we came across a Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey in the text, we should read it as “Adonai” – which translated to “My Lord.” To make sure people understood the difference between normal human lords and God-as-LORD, the publishers of our texts have chosen to capitalize the entire word. Thus, LORD.
After this discussion on Saturday morning, I had God on the brain. So, apparently, did others! I spent the next morning with our sixth graders and their parents, learning about the idea of covenant. At one point I handed out a text sheet with translations from the Torah. “Wait a minute,” one mother pointed out, looking at the sheet. “I thought we weren’t supposed to spell out G-o-d!”
There it was, right there in the first line. “God.” It was written out fully, just sitting there on the page, on this ordinary piece of copy paper.
Had the rabbi just committed blasphemy? And were we all now going to have to ritually bury these text sheets or keep them forever??
In short: it depends on who you ask, but current academic scholarship (and your clergy team) say no.
The word “god” is simply the English word for deity. We capitalize God when we talk about our God to note that we’re talking about not just any god in a pantheon, but those three letters do not hold within them the sacred and ritualized power of the name the high priest uttered once a year in the Temple in Jerusalem – far from it. Calling God “God” is just like calling God by any of the many descriptor words we use in our prayers: Our Rock, Source of Life. The list is long, because God has many attributes, but none of those titles are God’s name, including “God” itself.
So where did an entire generation of people (many of whom are potentially reading this right now) get the idea that we write “G-d” and not “God?”
It all comes back to our Ten Commandments, which we read this week. Exodus 20:6 reads, in its most common translation: “Lo tisa et shem adonai elohecha lashav.”
Let’s break that down:
“You shall not take the shem, the name
of Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, vocalized as adonai and thus usually translated as LORD
elohecha, your God
Clearly it is important to treat God’s name with care.
However, it also seems clear to me that God’s name is not “God.” God’s name is…well, we don’t know what God’s name is.
And so I learned in my rabbinic school career to stop removing the “o,” with the recognition that while the God we learn about and pray to is ultimate and singular and divine, the three letters that make up the English word “God” are not themselves imbued with that divinity.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with this understanding of God v. G-d. We are Jews, after all. Multiple opinions sit at the very core of our identity and help us make sense of the various shades of gray that exist in our world. Hopefully, this explanation adds a new layer of paint.
I leave you with words on the subject from contemporary poet Chana Bloch, whose poem Disquisition is published in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
One day I dared to put the O back
I watched Him bulge to God –
I brooded about my heresy
until I guessed
that God who loves the circle est
only to find
might after all not mind.
He’d take it to heart, perhaps,
if I chose to drop the caps.
But O that fine round O
fleshed out from the scrawny spine
of a minus sign –
or would He object that O
taking Him in vain?
an O is an O is an O,
and slyly checks
with His wry X.