Holy Euphemism, Batman!

So ever since I started blogging I’ve struggled with what to do about the problem of how to talk about that thing. You know, the thing we religious people are always talking about, that divine, holy, transcendent Thing that, according to Maimonides, we can’t even say anything about, except what we know it isn’t.

You see, there’s this tradition in Judaism of not referring to G-d directly, on the principle that the name of the Holy One, Blessed Be He is so awesomely powerful that to say it frivolously or without being absolutely pure is to invite disaster. For a fun illustration of this principle with lots of computers, ants and cranial drilling, I invite my two or three readers to go watch that movie Pi, if they haven’t already.

This tradition kicks off fairly early. In Exodus, when Moses asks HaShem to reveal His name (oh watch how the pronouns come rolling in!) so that he can give an account of himself should the elders of Israel ask who might have sent him on his crazy task of liberating them from bondage, HaMakom is evasive, merely replying that “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” or “I will be what I will be.” Lots has been written about this. Suffice it to say that the Bible itself is fairly bizarre when it comes to this subject, alternating between the oddly plural Elohim (literally “gods”) and the four-letter word we gloss as “Adonai” (meaning something like “My Lord”), but which actually consists of the letters yud-hey-vav-hey and which nobody now knows how to properly pronounce. This is because the only person who was ever allowed to speak that word (which the tradition regards as the proper name of He Who Spoke and Caused the World to Be) was the high priest, and that only on Yom Kippur, when he was safely ensconced in the Holy of Holies in the temple and nobody else was around to hear. This obviously became a problem once the second temple was destroyed by the Romans, and the secret of the original, correct pronunciation was lost. All we had from that point on was Adonai, of which all we can say for certain is that it definitely isn’t how to properly pronounce that word.

But it’s a funny thing about people. If they’ve been raised never to say a particular word, such that the word itself becomes lost, then the euphemism itself becomes the word, and they’ll start avoiding saying that. In current usage, we tend not to say (or in many cases, even write) Adonai except when we’re reading from the Torah and specifically using that word as a stand-in for the four-letter name that we cannot (not even may not at this point, simply cannot) pronounce. In accordance with the age-old principle of building a fence around the Torah, the euphemism itself becomes taboo and we’re forced to use a euphemism for the euphemism. Hence the proliferation of verbal constructions (many of which appear in the previous couple of paragraphs) employed to avoid having to invoke G-d by the euphemism for his name. At some point, even the word G-d itself (which doesn’t even belong to the constellation of actual Jewish terms for divinity, coming as it does from Germanic roots) becomes vaguely taboo, which is why a lot of people will omit the middle vowel, as I just did twice in as many sentences.

The thing is, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that you shouldn’t refer to God by name, because to name something means risking deluding yourself that you know what it is, and if there’s one thing we know about God, it’s that we don’t know what God is. I’m also the kind of person who picks up superstitions and verbal tics like lice. It’s all part of my rather obsessive personality, combined with my compulsion to strive for perfect accuracy in grammar and seek out the appropriate word at all costs. Nevertheless, when I look at a previous blog post and see four or five “G-d”s in a row, I’m forced to ask myself: What’s the point? Why go to the trouble of X-ing a word that amounts to a euphemism for a euphemism for a euphemism, several languages removed? Especially in light of the fact (or rather, my suspicion) that, should we ever actually learn how to say the word that was spoken by the high priest alone in that stone chamber on the holiest day of the year, even that itself wouldn’t actually be the name of God, but simply another euphemism, another marker pointing toward that which is beyond all language, beyond all consciousness, the inconceivable Infinite against which our minds must shatter like waves breaking against a cliff. And so, I’m resolved henceforth to omit the hyphen and leave the “O” where it is, and instead to contemplate each time I use it the emptiness of all our words for God.

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