Reverence for God

Va'era By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 8, 1994 / 5754 | Main Commentary

When I was in high school, the name of Immanuel Velikovski was already well known to me. That is because my father took a deep interest in any scholar who tried to confirm the historical accounts of the Bible. And Velikovski did just that with a passion and independence that infuriated the scientific establishment. Like Freud, a psychoanalyst and humanist and also a Jew, Velikovski dared to explain the ten plagues in Egypt on the basis of a heavenly cataclysm. It was, he argued, the alleged birth of the planet Venus some 3500 years ago as a giant comet spun off by Jupiter that brought it twice near Earth to unleash the natural catastrophes described in the books of Exodus and Joshua (the sun standing still) and, incidently, in many other ancient sources, which he collected assiduously. Velikovski’s spectacular theories led to his summary exclusion from the halls of American academia. But my father had a weakness for the underdog, and his marked copies of Velikovski’s books still stand on my shelves.

Yet I don’t look at them much any more, because I no longer agonize over the historicity of the plagues. Something surely happened to enable Jacob’s progeny to shake off their shackles, but neither the sequence nor the substance are recoverable. I can render the story more plausible by extending the timeline, as I said last week. It is not inconceivable to me that a series of calamities struck Egypt over several years or more, which were given radically different interpretations by Moses and the court. By the time of the third plague, which is the first that Pharaoh’s magicians cannot duplicate, they do begin to concede Moses’s case: “This is the finger of God (Exodus 8:15).”

The deeper meaning of the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, however, lies not in the realm of history but theology. The root issue is not over who can deliver the most awesome miracles, but whose conception of God comes closer to the truth. Pharaoh mocks Moses in their first encounter: “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go (Exodus 5:2).

Pharaoh could hardly be indifferent to the challenge. Was he not himself the personification of a god, the son of Re, the sun god of the Egyptian pantheon? The monotheism of Moses, without myth or magic and little to say about the afterlife, could make no sense to him. This was to be a titanic struggle between two worldviews and hence our parasha opens with the revelation of God’s personal name. “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name `Adonai (YHVH)’ (Ex. 6:2).”

That holy, ineffable name, known as the Tetragrammaton (that is, made up of four consonants) is one of the keys to understanding Judaism. Moses had demanded to know God’s personal name already at the time of the burning bush and was treated to the enigmatic response: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Am Who I Am (Ex. 3:14),” which both Rashi and Buber take to mean that I will be there for you when you need Me. Now, in our parasha, Moses recognizes that God’s name is a form of the verb “to be” signifying both divine existence and compassion. It articulates the paradox of monotheism. Though the infinite source of all that exists, God is also near and tender.

For Judaism, God is a verb and not a noun. The Torah wastes little time with static portraits of a deity who defies our imagination. There is no pre-history, for example, to the story of creation, which might give us a clue as to where God came from or what God looks like. With austere directness, the Torah simply affirms God as creator and the spoken word as the tool of creation. If the pagan pantheon was filled with feuding male and female gods, the ineffable name points to a single God beyond form and gender. The emphasis on verbal descriptions is meant to convey relationships. God is not without affect. On the contrary, as the rabbis claimed, the name “Adonai” connotes the unstrained quality of mercy, a divinity in quest of human partnership.

Moreover, a quick glance at the language of the siddur also reveals the controlling influence of monotheism. There are no nouns used in reference to God other than king and father. The vast preponderance of descriptions such as in the amidah (the silent devotion), are cast in the language of action verbs: We praise God “who graciously grants intelligence,” “who welcomes repentance,” “who redeems the people of Israel,” and “who blesses the years.” Verbs depict the multiple ways that we sense God’s concern for us, for Israel, and for all humanity. Monotheism has largely spared our liturgy from an excess of male metaphors.

On the basis of the similarity in spelling between God’s proper name and the Hebrew word for Jew, yehudi (the first three letters of both are identical), R. Yohanan in Palestine in the 3rd century declared that “anyone who repudiates idolatry merits the name Jew.” The most basic definition of Jewishness is to embrace monotheism by avowing the Tetragrammaton.

After the return from the Babylonian exile in 537 B.C.E. that four-lettered name was gradually removed from circulation. In the later books of the Bible it appears with far less frequency. To preserve and heighten its numinous quality, the name was no longer pronounced as written but as if its consonants spelled the word “Adonai”, meaning simply “my Lord,” A beginner in Hebrew will always identify himself by trying to read YHVH as written, rather than as stipulated by tradition. In time, it was even claimed that Jews who insisted on retaining the original pronunciation of God’s proper name would forfeit their place in the world-to-come. Only in the precincts of the Second Temple on Yom Kippur did the rabbis permit the High Priest to pronounce God’s proper name correctly on ten occasions in the Musaf service. Upon hearing the ineffable name the masses assembled in the Temple would fall on their faces, as we still do in our synagogues today when we reenact that ancient ceremony, though without presuming to use the Tetragrammaton.

In truth, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., knowledge of how to pronounce that sacred name disappeared. Only the circumlocution remained to attain soon enough the status of a proper name requiring its own substitutions, such as Hashem (the name) for Adonai, until we arrive at the preposterous modern practice of treating the English proper noun “God” as if it were the equivalent of God’s ineffable name and writing it “G-d!”

Reverence for God also deterred Jews from destroying any written material that carried one of God’s many names (shemot), ineffable and other. It was rather to be stored for eventual burial. Fortunately in Old Cairo, known as Fustat, such written documents, especially from the 11th to the 13th centuries, were never brought to the cemetery. Instead, they survived in a synagogue genizah (storeroom) till discovered and brought back to Cambridge University by Solomon Schechter in 1897. With its vast horde of Jewish literary and commercial texts, the genizah constitutes the largest archive of any sort to have survived from the world of medieval Islam and an inexhaustible treasure for modern scholars in many disciplines. Rarely has reverence been so handsomely repaid.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld