In Jewish tradition, which is mine, there are numerous names used as metaphors for God. From the limited knowledge I have of other religious traditions, this is not unique to us.
The metaphors we use for God reflect what we want God to be all the time, everywhere, or what we want God to be at specific times of joy and sorrow. Mother, Father, Guardian, Protector, Thunderous Voice, King, Majesty, Sabbath Queen, Healer, Defender, Shepherd, Teacher, Friend. Maker of Peace, Source of Life, Creator of Light, Darkness, Earth, and Sky; Holy One of Blessing, Righteous Judge, Judge of Truth, Sovereign of the Universe. In Jewish practice, all the names or metaphors for God can be spoken with respect, aloud or silently, in public or in the quiet of personal prayer.
With two exceptions.
The Unknown Name of God. There was a Name that is lost, or perhaps better expressed is no longer known. It was a Name so holy, so filled with the attributes of the Divine, that it was known only to the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest, of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was spoken only at one specific time, in one specific place and by one specific person. On Yom Kippur, the Kohein Gadol entered into the heart of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and spoke aloud the Name of God. There was no leeway in the manner in which the High Priest entered, spoke on behalf of the people and invoked God’s Name in pleading for forgiveness for his people. The consequence of any misrepresentation, of any misunderstanding by the Kohein Gadol of the limits of his power, or casual attitude toward the privilege of speaking this Name on behalf of the people was death. A rope was tied on the Kohein’s ankle, so that if he should falter, those who could not enter the Holy of Holies could still retrieve his corpse.*
The Tetragrammaton. Moses wanted to know God’s Name. He had been chosen by God to be the human messenger of God’s promises and be leader of the Hebrews as they were delivered from slavery and undertook the long and dangerous journey to freedom. Moses wanted God’s name, thinking he would be better received if he could actually name the author of the promise of freedom. God’s answer was the enigmatic four Hebrew letters, yud-hey-vav-hey (יהוה).
This name, although often translated as Jehovah, and used as a name in Christian tradition, is not pronounced in Jewish worship. We substitute “Adonai,” my lord or my sovereign. One of the metaphoric names for God is “HaShem,” The Name. I do not want to wander too far into Rabbinic territory and get myself in any theological trouble, so I will simply express my view on why we do not translate or use this name directly.
It is a name that comes directly from God. Therefore, it is without question a serious and holy name. Pronouncing it aloud consistently and using it for the vast variety of circumstances in which we call upon God, could give it the kind of familiarity that can lead to casualness, which then might lead to outright blasphemy (using the name in vain, or in jokes for example).
The most important reason for me requires a bit of understanding about the structure and use of the Hebrew language.** Written Hebrew in almost all cases does not contain vowels. The Torah scroll definitely does not. Words are created from “roots,” generally consisting of three consonants. Depending on the vowels involved the meaning of the word can change, and with the addition of other consonants can become an entirely different word, although it is still in some way related to its root and many other words that grow from the same root. It seems complicated, and to some extent it is. It certainly provides fertile ground for sincere wrestling with the meanings of Torah. It also requires a familiarity with the context of the word, the words that surround it, and its place in the story. It gives great weight to the fact that translation is interpretation.
Which brings me to my most important reason. I believe that God gave this answer, not to be mysterious, although it is, or confusing, which it sometimes is. When God answers Moses and provides no vowels, God is indicating there are many names, or none, by which God can be called. Whatever name is used, whatever vowels are added, by an individual human being or in a communal religious ritual, at whatever time or place in the universe, God will answer to that name.
*A powerful poem based on this ritual was written by Rabbi Amy Loewenthal, which can be accessed here: https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/avodah
**If you are interested in learning more about Hebrew, this is a good place to start. https://www.jewfaq.org/alephbet.htm
©Martha Hurwitz, 9/21/20