What’s in a Name?
When I first became interested in Judaism during my teenage years, I used to study the parshat hashavua, like many of my generation, using the Soncino Pentateuch, with the commentary and notes of UK Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz. I remember in particular the lengthy additional notes in which he elaborated on various issues and was wont to polemicize with modernist challenges to traditional Jewish faith and, specifically, a lengthy note “Does Exodus vi,3 Support the Higher Critical Theory?”
The issue is the title verse of this week’s parashah, “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai—‘All-Powerful God’—but with My name YHWH I was not made known to them” (Exod 6:3). The difficulty is, of course, that the name YHWH appears innumerable times in the book of Genesis in the context of God’s appearances to and conversations with the patriarchs. How then can our verse say that He was not made known to them by this name? The Bible critics conclude that this verse must belong to a different “document,” a different literary strand of the Bible, so to speak, in which this name does not in fact appear previously.
I will not enter into the thick of this old dispute (in any event I have addressed this issue at length elsewhere). The truth is that, for me, at this point, the issue of the historicity of one or another document is rather less interesting than understanding the text itself in depth and, in this case, the meaning and significance of the Divine Name.
The name YHWH also serves as a central point of attention earlier in Shemot, in the “Burning Bush“ chapter read last week. There, following various other questions, Moses asks God: Once I tell them that the God of their fathers has sent me, and they ask me “What is His name?,” what shall I tell them? (Exod 3:13). Here God answers, rather mysteriously, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (“I am that I am” or “I shall be as I shall be“), and continues, “Ehyeh has sent me to you.” He then adds that he should tell them: “YHWH the God of your fathers… has appeared to me,” concluding with the unique phrase, “this is My name for ever, and this is my remembrance from generation to generation” (v. 15). What seems most significant, both here and in our parashah, is that the name YHWH is used in conjunction with God manifesting Himself as Redeemer. In Exodus 3 the verses about the name are preceded by God stating that He has seen the suffering of His people and come to deliver them from Egypt—and hence charges Moses with the mission of going to Pharaoh as a kind of human mouthpiece in His behalf (3:7-10). In 6:5 this motif is repeated alongside the explicit statement, “And I have remembered My covenant,” followed by the promises, “I am YHWH, and I shall take you out… and redeem you… and deliver you… and take you as My people” (vv. 6-7). Hence, Rashi and other spokesmen of the Midrashic tradition interpret the two related names of Ehyeh and YHWH as “faithful to fulfill His promises.”
What then is meant by this name and its emphatic use in these passages, as if the name itself conveys important tidings? The name Elohim (or El) is the generic name for God, used even to refer to pagan gods; when used in connection with the true God, it refers largely to His abstract, universal aspects—e.g., the laws of nature or universal ethical principles, of the kind that may be derived through reason (e.g., in connection with the Creation or the Noachide Code). By contrast, the name YHWH is, so to speak, God’s “specific,” “personal” name. As emphatically implied in these chapters, it is used to refer to God’s redemptive involvement in history, to his honoring the covenant He made with the patriarchs to their children. In short, through the name YHWH God is conceived as a personality. This notion flies in the face of much that we are accustomed to thinking on the basis of both medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, viz. God as unmoved mover or as pure intellect. But, as convincingly demonstrated by such scholars as Yohanan Muffs in The Personhood of God and A. J. Heschel in The Prophets, the God of the Bible is a God of passion, of love for His chosen ones, such that even His ethical traits of justice and righteousness are in some sense personal.
Yet, strangely, the name YHWH is derived from the root HVH, “to be.” As if to say: God’s most salient trait is Hs Being, which is qualitatively different from the being of any other person or thing in the universe; or even: God Himself is Being. He is the ground of the very existence of the universe; He embraces and is immanent in all, while at the same time transcending all. How is one to relate these two very different aspects? I do not know whether the following answer is derash or peshat, but it seems to me that the idea implicit here is that God is at once unknowable, transcendent, utterly different from the gods of the pagan pantheons, while at the same time acts within history as Redeemer and Covenanter and Lawgiver to Israel. Perhaps one might say that His personal involvement is, so to speak, only a small part of His being; that history and the covenant with Israel are the arenas through which we may come to know Him, but that His essence, that which He is in Himself, is far beyond our understanding. Hence, YHWH, a mysterious name pointing towards Being; a name composed exclusively of vowel sounds, is if floating in air. The Talmud tells us that, until the future redemption, “Not as I am written am I spoken.” Is it any wonder, then, that the name YHWH is seen as ineffable, a mystery, as too holy to even pronounce under ordinary circumstances?