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Do We Need to Rename God?

12/12/2013 04:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014

In the traditional Jewish spiral of Torah reading, we will soon (Dec 21, 2013) start the Book of Exodus -- the transformational story of successful resistance to slavery. As the British Army band played the song when the American Revolution became victorious, this book is a story of "The World Turned Upside Down."

Maybe the first such story. Maybe even the story that inspired many of the higgledy-piggledy Boston blacksmiths and Pennsylvania farmers who thought they could defeat the world's greatest Empire. It certainly inspired Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.

But to Jewish tradition, the Book is not known as "Yetziat Mitzrayyim, the Exodus from the Narrow Place/Egypt." It is known instead as "Sefer Shemot -- the Book of Names."

Early in the Book of Names, God goes through a change of Name.

This is no minor side-slip. Think of the furor when Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali; think of the political and personal transformation when David Gruen changed his name to Ben-Gurion.

And these were merely mortal heroes. For the Eternal Holy One Who suffuses all the universe to change The Name is seismic. Cosmic.

It happens first at the Burning Bush. As Moses faces the unquenchable Voice Who is sending him on a mission to end slavery under Pharaoh, he warns the Voice that the people will challenge him: "Sez who?"

And the Holy One, the Wholly One, answers: "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be" -- a fitting Name for a universe in which the powerless poor can be empowered and the pharaoh's power can dissolve like powder into the Sea of Reeds. Then God adds, "But that's a mouthful. You can use just 'Ehyeh, I Will Be,' as my nickname, if you like."

"And oh yes, you can also call me 'YHWH.' "

But we actually can't. There's no way to "pronounce" those letters, with no vowels. And for a couple of millennia, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing it but instead to say "Adonai, Lord."

Now why do we think that God's Name has changed? Maybe it has been these mysterious Names all along?

But God, and Torah say: Not so. The second time the voice tells Moses that the new Name is "YHWH" is in Exodus 6: 2-3. Moses is in Egypt, and his first try at liberation and at organizing "Brickmakers Union, Local #1" has miserably failed. This time the Voice explicitly says that the Name by which He/She/ It was known to the forebears -- El Shaddai, the Breasted God, the God of Nourishment and Nurture, is no longer the Name for use in the liberation process.

Why this second Voicing of the new Name?

I suggest that Moses has, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, been careless about using the new Name. He has often used the old one on the warm-hearted assumption that his listeners would be more comfortable with it.

But the old Name cannot inspire a new sense of reality. That's why Moses has failed, the Brickmakers Union has collapsed. So this time the Voice makes it absolutely clear: "Stop already! I am YHWH, not El Shaddai, even though your forebears knew me that way."

The point is that when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because God IS different when the world is different. And because human beings cannot deeply absorb, "know," "grok," the newness of the world and their own crucial need to act on that newness unless they are challenged to ReName God.

In our generation even more than in Moses' day, the world is indeed being transformed. The entire web of life as the human race has known it for our entire history as a species, including human life and civilization, is under great strain.

We must ReName God, to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways.

And that is why I have been urging us to know, grok, God in our own generation through "pronouncing" the Unpronounceable Name by simply breathing -- YHWH with no vowels, as the Interbreath of Life, the ONE that keeps all life alive, that intertwines, interbreathes, the trees and grasses and ourselves.

We breathe in what the trees breathe out;
The trees breathe in what we breathe out:
We breathe each other into life:
YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh.

What we call the "climate crisis" is a radical disturbance in the balance of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out -- the balance of CO2 and oxygen.

And therefore what we call the "climate crisis" is a crisis in the Interbreathing Name of God.

"Science" and "religion" fuse into a single truth.

If we are to do as Torah demands, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, I think we must do as Moses learned to do and ReName God.

I think we must rid ourselves of the old Name -- Adonai, Lord, King, dominating Dominus -- and address Divine Reality as the Interbreathing Of All Life. That is the Truth, and we are Called to say it.

With a sacred but outdated Name, an outdated way of understanding our world, we will, like Moses, fail at the task before us.

For years, I have encouraged prayer communities to breathe the Name as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and then to use "Yahhh" instead of "Adonai." And then I have said that anyone who feels deeply God-connected through the use of the "Adonai" which they have recited, chanted, sung a thousand times should -- for God's sake! -- keep on using what connects them.

But I have come to think this is an inadequate teaching. I am now intending to say all this, and then to add my understanding of why Moses failed at first. And why the Voice had to insist on the new Name. And I will invite people to keep that challenge in mind as they voice their own response to the Voice.

Interbreathing, not OverLordship, is how our world now works. How our world Is and Becomes.

The Hebrew word "dibbur" can mean either "word" or "deed." If we can conceive of God and Universe through a new word, a new name, we can also act far more effectively to bring about the changes that our planet needs.

For Moses, the new Name made possible both resisting Pharaoh and shaping a new kind of society.

For us, it means both resisting the modern Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing new Plagues upon our planet; and shaping a new society in which we are constantly aware that all life is Interbreathing, that we are interwoven with the eco-systems within which we live - that indeed, YHWH, the Breath of Life, is ONE.

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* Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is the founder (1983) and director of The Shalom Center ; newest books, a revised edition of Seasons of Our Joy (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). See also Waskow, "Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah," in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013)