Why is God’s name considered holy? Has it always been holy? What is unique about God’s Hebrew name and how has it affected religious thinking around the world throughout the generations? A conversation with Hillel Ben-Sasson, doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem researching the meaning of God’s explicit name in Jewish thought:
What exactly is research into God’s name? What is the importance of God’s name?
The unique nature of the explicit name of God, YHWH, or the Tetragrammaton as it is known, lies in the encounter it generates between religious thought and philosophy. There are many gods in the world, and their names function as definitive expressions. In other words, they distinguish one deity from another in a way similar to how names establish the identity of people. By contrast, believers in one God attribute central importance to the name for different reasons: God’s personal name in a monotheistic religion is the object that maintains the closest link to God and represents Him in the fullest way possible. In other words, the name of God is itself is a kind of abstract temple of God within human language in particular and within the world in general. It is the place where the sublime meets the earthly and the transcendent meets the imminent. This is also the reason why supreme magical powers are attributed to God’s name. The name of God actually more like a concept that conveys something substantive about the thing it represents than a personal name which marks something by placing a name on it.
The importance of God’s name in monotheistic religions is further enhanced when these religions are non-iconic. In such a case, God’s name becomes the central icon of God in this world and allows a personal relationship with Him. This is the only linguistic (as well as graphic and physical) representation of the Absolute. The attitude to God’s name becomes the attitude to God Himself—sanctification, awe, desecration, and love for God become the sanctification of His name, the desecration of His name, awe for His name, and love of His name.
God’s name is so central to the religious position in Jewish tradition the epithet that substitutes for the Tetragrammaton, and is therefore also the epithet whereby one refers to God in regular daily discourse, is "The Name.”
Can you expand on the sense that God’s name has a unique place of its own in Judaism?
In reading the Tanakh and, to a large extent, rabbinical writings of Hazal, it is hard not to feel that God is presented with a distinct personality. God can be sad or happy, He can love or hate, He can nod His head or act with His mighty arm. He can speak with people and hear them. Despite being altogether "Other," He is also very, very human.
Therefore, when Hazal tries to explain God’s name of "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh" as it appears in the section about the burning bush (Exodus 3:10-15), their interpretation understands the name as expressing family relationships. One could say that, for Hazal, God’s name is very much like "Mother" or "Father" (i.e., "the One who is always there to help me"). The midrash says:
“Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: Rabbi Yaakov the son of Rabbi Avina in the name of Rabbi Huna of Zipporin said: ‘The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Moshe: Tell them that I am with them in their enslavement [to redeem them] and that I am with them [to redeem them] in their [future] enslavement’” (Exodus Rabbah 3:6).
There were those who thought that the explicit name of God, YHWH, was special in another way, apparent in the connection between this name and the Hebrew root HYH (the root for the verb "to be"). This visual connection is enough to assume that the explicit name says something about existence, about being—if not about being in general than about God’s being. In fact, already in intra-biblical commentary, the explicit name was understood as a name with a clear link to the verb HYH. Throughout the generations, God’s name was understood as representing being.
This is not however, the end of the story. The encounter between the Tetragrammaton and Greek thought about "That Which Is", as seen in the Septuagint, is one of the most dramatic turning points in Western metaphysical thought. In the Greek translation there is an encounter between Greek thought, which places the question of being, of existence, in the center, and religious thought, which places the question of God in the center. The results of this encounter, discussed as early as Philo, were expanded on in the theological thought of the early church fathers and reached a climax in the classical philosophy of the three monotheistic religions during the Middle Ages. In general, one could say that when the Hebrew Bible met Greek philosophy, God lost His personality and became a non-personal, eternal idea, very much uninvolved in this world.
A charm for success featuring God’s name
What is the significance of this change?
The explicit name is one of the cornerstones of any religious language. The way each one of us refers to God, or, more precisely, the way in which we understand His nature through thinking about His name, greatly affects the entire structure of our religious imagination. We already discussed that the understanding of the name underwent a revolution in the transition between the Hazal period and the Middle Ages when instead of a very personal God that is involved in this world, we witness the initial understanding of YHWH as a concept revealing God’s absolute, eternal, and unchanging being as the result–the effect of the Septuagint and the encounter with Greek philosophy.
I would like to argue that this revolution in religious language is a fascinating expression of the revolution experienced by our religious imagination with regard to God. The religious imagination in which a God with a personality and emotions who is directly and immediately accessible to people is central greatly affects the way in which we understand many of our religious practices. For example, this religious imagination affects our intentions during prayer as well as the words we choose for our prayers; it affects our belief in miracles, our attitude towards prophecy, and perhaps even the question of keeping the commandments.
On the other hand, if we think of God as an eternal, uninvolved being, reminiscent of a Platonic ideal, our religious imagination changes accordingly. In this case, the places we look for God, are in science, mathematics, and cosmic order. The issue of intention in practicing the commandments becomes secondary, and the status of prayer is likely to change from being a conversation between man and God to a ritual that demonstrates nothing more than a belief in God. If, in the ancient era the religious imagination was characterized by intimacy, in the Middle Ages it strove for objectivity.
You’re talking about developments in religious thought that took place in the distant past. Is the attitude to God’s name undergoing change today as well?
I believe that we can say, with caution, that present and future religious thought stem from engagement with the Tetragrammaton. In the theological work of recent generations, undertaken primarily by students of Levinas, we see an attempt to release the name of God, and through this God Himself, from the metaphysical bindings of the Middle Ages.
Contemporary philosophers, such as the theologian Jean-Luc Marion, claim that understanding God as a kind of great human figure should be considered idol worship as well as limiting God’s freedom and infinity within the construct of ideal perfection.
If God is in fact the absolute other that is way beyond anything we know, He must also be beyond being. In recent years, we have seen the first attempts to understand the name of the Being not as a personal name expressing a personality, nor as a concept indicating the transcendent, disengaged divinity, but rather as a kind of dynamism that never remains in place.
Can such significance also change the religious imagination of believers? This is what I hope to examine in my research.
Hillel Ben-Sasson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.