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Good golly, if it isn’t hard to know what to call
by David Holzel

Does God mind being called names?

Lord. The Almighty. The Holy One Blessed Be He. You can even call him her. Whichever way you address God, it is nothing more than a metaphor to describe the indescribable.
The ancients believed that one’s name


was one’s essence. That may explain how God got so many names – each one stands for another attribute of The Man Upstairs.
One of God’s many attributes, apparently, is the ability to read his name when the vowels are missing. And not just in Hebrew. To be on the safe side of desecration, some Jews write G-d in place of God. Rendering the supernal as Gee-dash-dee has the unfortunate side effect of giving the Master of the Universe the look of a gap-toothed 6-year-old.

The popularity of certain names for God are tied to historical periods or were confined to certain Jewish circles. Medieval Jews with an Aristotelian bent favored the philosophical “First Cause,” while Medieval kabbalists, the most inventive with names, labeled an ultimately remote God "En Sof" – The Infinite.

Then there are your evergreens: Elohim (a plural noun rendered in English as God) and the four-letter-never-to-be-pronounced name that Jews have euphemized into Adonai (Lord) or Hashem (The Name).

Elohim and Adonai are the two names the Torah most often gives to God. The fact that they seem to be used interchangeably in the text led critical biblical scholars to conclude that the names are clues that the Torah was knitted together from several strands.

Critic Harold Bloom took this idea to its extreme in his fascinating “Book of J,” which looks at the Adonai strands as fragments of an independent work of literature. “We are dealing with a writer of Shakespearean scope an originality, an author beyond genre,” Bloom writes, “a consciousness so large and ironic that it contains us.”

The traditional explanation is that Elohim and Adonai refer to distinct but complementary aspects of God’s nature: Elohim reflects God’s aspect of power. Elohim is the God of “In the beginning God created...”

Adonai is the personal God, the God of the Adam and Eve story. The God who looks at the world with mercy and tempers Elohim’s tendency for divine justice.

Which leads to the next vexing question: Is God a guy?

Not entirely.

Medieval mysticism introduced the idea that God has his masculine aspects and he also has his feminine aspects. The Shekhinah, God’s presence in the world, is female. Part of this gender-bending is because Hebrew is a gendered language – Shekhinah is a feminine noun.


Contemporary writers have struggled with God’s gender problem in an attempt to bring the concept in line with more egalitarian and less literal understanding of the Divine.
Poet Marcia Falk refers to God as “Source of Life.”

And Rabbi Arthur Waskow looks at the unpronounceable name of God, rendered Adonai, but spelled yud, hei, vav, hei, and deduced the act of breathing. “Breath of Life” is his name for God.

As for G-d, if you can still read it as God, you’re still spelling God. Perhaps G - - would be safer. Or - - d. Better yet - - -. There’s piety for you. Never mind that the complications that arise over printing You Know Who’s Name – having to bury such texts or store them, rather than throw them out – only apply when it is spelled in Hebrew.

But why do things the easy way when we Jews can do it the hard way, right? God does not seem to be the least bit confused by this profusion of names, descriptions, euphemisms and nicknames. Tradition holds that whatever name you use, God will always turn to see who’s calling.

 Copyright © 2007 by David Holzel