On Shavuot, Jews worldwide gathered in synagogues to hear the Ten Commandments. Those paying close attention may have noticed that the First Commandment, “I am Y-H-W-H your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” contains no actual directive. Rather than command a behavior (as in “Honor your father and your mother”) or prohibit an act (as in “You shall not murder”), the First Commandment simply identifies and names God (Y-H-W-H).
Awareness of God’s name is enshrined in the Ten Commandments as a primary Jewish concern. Why? Because only through identifying God by name can we be invited to a real relationship.
Names help us relate. They enable us to bundle and synthesize information we have about others – aspects of their appearance, their outstanding characteristics and qualities, associations we have with them, and memories we have of or with them. In this way (to borrow language from modern French philosopher Emanuel Levinas), other people, who are, in actuality, unfathomable infinities, can become for us manageable and relatable totalities. We tend to have deeper and more meaningful relationships with those who we know by name than we do with those who remain nameless.
The great irony, of course, is that names, the tools we use to help us deepen our relationships with others, can also limit them. No matter how much information I know about her, or how many experiences we have together, my wife will always be greater than the sum total of the data I have about her in my mental file-folder labeled “Adira.” My relationship with Adira depends on my having the file-folder reserved for her, but it invariably limits her in my mind.
In this sense, one can understand the Jewish impulse to avoid invoking God’s name, for doing so risks confining God, the quintessential infinity, to a finite set of data. The name Y-H-W-H, which means something like “The one who causes to be” or “The one who is, was, and will be,” evokes God’s eternality, presence in each moment, and role as creator. These are beautiful associations with the Divine, but they only reflect part of God’s essence. As Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes in P’ninei Halakhah, “It is impossible for any person to know God’s glorious self. All we can know is how God manifests in the world. And each kind of manifestation prompts its own special name.” Any name for God can only describe certain finite aspects of what is, ultimately, an indescribable infinity.
And so it is that when we arrive at God’s name, even in the very statement that commands our awareness of it, we avoid saying it. Instead, we substitute a euphemism: “Adonai,” Hebrew for “my Lord.”
We have been making this substitution for a long time. By about 300 BCE, only the High Priest knew the Tetragrammaton (the Greek term for God’s name, meaning “having four letters”), and even he only uttered it once a year. And when the Temple, along with the high priesthood, was destroyed, the correct pronunciation vanished.
As knowledge of the name became increasingly lost, the substitution “Adonai” became more ubiquitous. When the Bible was first translated into Greek in the 3rd Century BCE, God’s proper name was replaced with the Greek for “Lord.” The convention of substituting God’s name with “Lord” in Bible translations continues to this day. And it has become enshrined in Jewish ritual life: every instance of God’s name is uttered as “Adonai.” Thus the impulse to protect God’s infinity by refraining to call God by name has, in practice, simply led to calling God by a different name.
And despite what Shakespeare wrote, a rose by any other name does not necessarily smell as sweet. “Lord” is more limiting and problematic than the name it replaces. “Lord” is, by definition, masculine, whereas God, the Jewish tradition affirms, is neither male nor female. Additionally, “Lord” connotes, above all, power and authority; a subject’s relationship with his or her lord is marked by obedience. While it is true that the tradition portrays God as powerful and authoritative, the tradition also insists that God is defined by love and compassion. Finally, a lord holds himself at a distance from his subjects. While Judaism understands God to transcend the world, it also asserts that God is immanently part of the world, “The whole world is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3), and that God desires an intimate nearness with human beings, “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in your midst” (Exodus 25:8).
Not only does the term “Lord” distort the totality of the Jewish conception of God, but also most Jews, living in democracies, do not relate to the term or even believe in the kind of God the term reflects. Yet in their most significant religious moments, this is precisely the God the tradition directs them to address. Perhaps this is one reason why contemporary Jews, though possessed of a belief in God, convinced of the possibility for a relationship with God, and hungry for spiritual meaning in their lives, increasingly separate God and spirituality from religion, and increasingly separate from their religion.
Without truly knowing how to pronounce the Tetragrammaton, returning to its common use may be impossible, if not unwise. But even so, I wonder whether it is time, after two millennia of exemplary service, to retire “Adonai.” Another name, however limited it may be in describing God, may better serve as a way for us to enter into a fuller relationship with the Divine.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania.