In the friendly context of the collegial relationship between the Jewish Studies Program and Queen’s Theological College, I would like to share a personal concern about a pitfall in interfaith understanding. Today many of us realize that Judaism and Christianity have much in common. One expression of our commonality is using each other’s words, and the strongest example of that is using each other’s names for God. Treading on such holy ground, however, has its dangers.
According to Jewish tradition, the Hebrew language has seventy names for God. The number seventy symbolizes fullness; if we actually count, many more divine names can be found in the Bible and later Jewish tradition. These names, ranging literally from “All” to “Nothing,” each express something different about the divine.
The Jewish mystics teach that there is one name which is like the tree of which other names are branches and leaves. This is the “Tetragrammaton,” the four-letter name which appears many times in the Bible as the most personal appellation of the God of Israel. According to one tradition of interpretation, it is a form of the verb “to be” and points to God’s eternity. Jewish translators sometimes render this name as “The Eternal.” Another classical interpretation is that the name expresses God’s deep compassion. The Talmud gives its Aramaic equivalent as “Rachamana,” “The Compassionate.”
Because Hebrew is classically written without vowels, we know only the consonants of the name. However, scholars have tentatively reconstructed its ancient pronunciation as “Yahweh.” From academic texts, “Yahweh” entered some Bible translations and has become part of Christian prayer and religious discourse.
Christians who use the name in this way may feel that it provides a welcome connection with Christianity’s Jewish roots. Some believe that “Yahweh” is the contemporary Jewish name for God.
Actually, however, in Jewish tradition, this holiest name of God, out of numinous awe, is never pronounced. In Biblical reading and prayer, substitutes are used –most commonly “Adonai,” a respectful form of address usually (though inadequately) rendered into English as “Lord.”
This was probably true already in the time of Jesus. The name “Yahweh” is not to be found in the Gospels, whose quotations from Scripture use the Greek “Kyrios,” the equivalent of the substitute name “Adonai.”
This long-standing tradition expresses the insight that the divine is beyond anything we can express. In the end, each and every name for God is only a substitute.
In this context, to any Jew with even a moderately traditional or religious sensibility, hearing the name spoken aloud (or even seeing it written with vowels as I have had to do here) is shocking, even blasphemous. Its use in Christian circles, therefore, does not build a connection with Judaism, but introduces discord.
Therefore, I would ask Christian readers to refrain from using “Yahweh” and to encourage others to refrain from it as well.
May we continue to approach the divine together, learning from each other in truth and friendship.