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Respect and the Hyphenation of God

My father was big on respect. We were taught to say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” and much else that cooked down, for the most part, to respect. He understood the culture as it existed in 1960, and I was warned strongly not to speak slurs against people for what they were, especially Jews and blacks. If he had known how hatefully anti-semitic our universities would become by 2010, he would probably have apprenticed me out to a tool and die maker.

We were taught flag etiquette in Boy Scouts. We genuflected before we got into the pews at church. (I once genuflected before going into a row of seats at the Pickwick theater, so thoroughly soaked into my bones had the gesture become.) I was taught that girls were not casual entertainment, but potential friends and colleagues, and ultimately, spouses. Like I said, respect was a very big deal.

So it puzzles me sometimes when people write “G-d” instead of “God,” especially non-Jews. I understand, perhaps imperfectly, the Jewish traditions regarding the name of God, which, when written down, should not be burned or thrown in the trash, but buried in hallowed ground. God’s name is holy and must be respected. I get that.

But…”God” is not the name of God.

When Moses met God on the mountain and asked Him what his name was, God replied with what we today call the Tetragrammaton, approximated by YHWH in English characters, usually spoken as ‘Yahweh” when spoken at all. Given that this translates (roughly) to “I am that I am,” I think what God was telling Moses was, “I exist in and of myself, and that’s all you really need to know.” In the pre-Mosaic animist traditions, to know the true name of an entity was to have a certain amount of control over it, and that’s how shamans and magicians earned their keep, by commanding spirits/angels/demigods/demons to either deliver favors or keep their distance. The Hebrew God was beyond commanding. A great deal of the early part of the Old Testament can be seen as the transition between primordial animism and genuine monotheism. Given that names are how we tell similar things apart, a truly singular and infinite God would not in fact need a name at all. But to the extent that God has given us His name (and “Yahweh” is pretty much it) we need to respect it.

All that said, we need a way to address God, because God is our Creator and immanent, not off behind the clouds somewhere that He can’t hear us. “God” works well in that capacity, because it isn’t a name but a respectful and singular title, as befits a singular God. I think it’s fair to compare the title “God” to the word “Sir” as my sister and I were taught to use it: as a respectful form of address. The respect is built in. So I’m not sure I see how saying “S-r” is any more respectful than “Sir,” given that “Sir” was established specifically as a respectful form of address.

We could argue about that all night and halfway to lunchtime; why not use the word “Lord” or “Father” instead of “God”? Some do. On the other hand, there are many lords and many fathers, but only one God. As I see it, to blot out part of the word pushes the idea of God away from us in the here and now, away from the immanent toward the abstract. Push it far enough in the cause of respect, and the idea of an immanent and transcendant God vanishes over a sort of epistemological horizon, beyond which God ceases to be graspable by His creation. After that, what’s left but human lords and lesser gods?

I don’t want anybody to misunderstand here: This isn’t me chewing out people who choose to use the term “G-d”. I respect their choices, and if it makes sense to them, so be it. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

I have a plaque immediately above my desk, presenting an epigram from Erasmus in bold Roman letters:

BIDDEN OR NOT BIDDEN, GOD IS PRESENT.

Jung had the same epigram, in Latin, over his front door. (I have that plaque too.) It simply means that we don’t have to whistle God up from somewhere else. He’s always here, no matter what. We mean Him no disrespect to recognize that, with a word custom-made for the purpose, standing intact, graspable, and ready for us when we need Him most.

16 Comments

  1. TRX says:

    Here in Dixie, use of the word “God” was (by older generations) considered uncouth. People might refer to The Almighty, or use “G D” instead of “God.”

    As the mass media has spread it, I get the impression that actually saying “God” has some sort of ick factor stuck to it, at least the way some people use “g-d.”

  2. paul says:

    When I was a kid in Mobile (67-71-ish) saying “gosh darn” got ya a whipping and a snack of bar soap.

  3. Brian Tkatch says:

    Nice writeup. Some details are incorrect though.

    First of all, the name does not mean “I will be”. That is a different name closer to the beginning of Exodus. The name is not a word, but a conglomeration of three words meaning “was, is, and will be,” referring to omnipresence, which tradition teaches us was a name fashioned by Adam. For an exact translation, the letter at the beginning is a masculine future prefix, the root word means “is”, making the meaning “he will is,” which makes no sense in Hebrew, because of the mixing of the tenses.

    Not throwing out the name is really only applicable when written with a certain type of ink on a certain type of parchment, and only applies to seven specific names. Although practice happens to be much more stringent (and go somewhat overboard) it is unlikely to be the reason for the godly hyphen. If this were the reason, it would more likely have to do with erasure, though the same rules apply, meaning it does not apply here anyway.

    Personally, i do it out of deference. I picked it up from family and friends, and feel a certain respect when doing so. In a sense, we respect G-d so much, that we even tremble before writing His name. It’s somewhat personal, and we don’t advertise or advocate this practice, it’s just what we do. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Fair enough, and if it works for you, cool. But…is “God” really God’s name? That’s what always puzzled me.

      1. Brian Tkatch says:

        No, it is not G-d’s name. But it is a direct reference to Him, so there is deference. Or is the hyphen a dereference? ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. Rick Kaumeier says:

          “Him” is also a direct reference to Him, but we don’t spell it H-m. Hmm…

          1. Brian Tkatch says:

            Him is not a name though. G-d is a name. There’s no right or wrong here, just how it feels.

          2. great unknown says:

            First of all, it could be Her. The Shechina aspect is feminine. But genders are meaningless in discussing the Almighty; they are useful only in the sense that it allows us to categorize Divine actions.

            Thus the Kabbalists have, in one system of organization, three categories on the right side = masculine; three on the left = feminine, and four in the center = integration.

            I have to take issue with Brian Tkatch. Even printed versions of the seven “names” of G-d which may not be erased, or even pronounced unnecessarily, must be disposed of with respect. Thus, printed prayerbooks and bibles are generally buried.

            This goes further. There are many levels of holiness in Judaism, each requiring its own level of respect. So even a printed statement of Jewish Law, with no mention of any divine name, is considered an aspect of the Bible, and requires genizah. The latter means, literally, concealment, but in general is applied as burial. The Ark for holding a Torah acquires a secondary level of holiness, and may not be simply disposed of or employed for mundane use.

            Bottom line: an appellation, in any language, that uniquely refers to the ultimately-infinite unknowable, is considered holy.
            “Him”, “Infinite”, “Beneficent”, etc., do not, and require less deference even when in context they are used to refer to the Divine.

          3. Brian Tkatch says:

            @great unknown, you make many claims with no backing.

            It cannot be Her. The Bible uses the masculine gender for G-d. Further, the Talmud explains a words in the song at the end of Deuteronomy that seemingly is a feminine reference.

            Kabala refers to G-d in the masculine. K’neses Yisroel, by contrast, is feminine. You are referring to the Sefiros, which have many categorizations, depending on the topic.

            Whether printed forms are considered written has been debated for over half a millennium (see SA/YD with the commentaries). Regardless, even according to stringent opinions, our laser printing does not qualify.

            The levels of holiness have nothing to do with erasure. One is a matter of deference and respect, the other is specific to names.

            Names, and certainly appellations, in other languages are generally not considered holy. Even Wikipedia seems to have this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_God_in_Judaism

          4. great unknown says:

            @Brian Tkatch 6:39
            The question of whether the sefirot are tools or manifestation of Divinity goes back to Lurianic times, but the manifestation theory was never refuted on the basis that the sefirot include feminine aspects.

            It is understood that the Infinite is not gendered. The issue is how to interpret the Infinite in our minds. In general, given the aspects of might and dominance, the masculine concept fits our conception better. However, I have found it useful for some of my students to conceive of the Infinite as feminine.

            I have never seen the distinction of laser printing before: if that it true, then photocopies would also be exempt, and while there may be halachic authorities who claim that – I am primarily familiar with the literature in the Lithuanian Yeshiva canon – it is certainly not normative practice in the so-called Chareidi world.

            If you are referring to Wikipedia, I refer you to one of their primary sources, shaimos.org, where they discuss these issues.

            The levels of holiness are intrinsically connected to erasure, destruction, and disrespectful use. In the case of erasing the name of the Divine, it is derived from the sequence in the Torah where the Jews are commanded to destroy the temples, altars, and tools of idolatry, followed by the admonition: do not do so to G-d your L-rd. But, from this self-same source are derived the various laws about demolishing any portion of the Holy Temple.

            See Maimonides Fundamentals of the Torah 6, where he then points out that destroying holy writ, even without any Divine name, is a Rabbinic extrapolation of the aformentioned Biblical law.

            And, as I type this, I realize that this is not a website dedicated to this kind of discussion, so I apologize.

  4. Tom Roderick says:

    I have, for a long time, been puzzled and perplexed by how so many people try to wrap God up and put “HIM” in a box of their own making. They try to tell everyone else what God thinks and likes and dislikes. It seems a bit presumptuous for us to be telling God these things.

    Although raised in the Methodist Church my concept of God has grown beyond anything I was taught in Church of Sunday School. As an engineer and life long student of all types of scientific knowledge the more I have learned about our incredible universe the more incredible is my concept of what God must be. My current concept is perhaps something like the way THE FORCE was described in the original Star Wars movie with the addition of one word. LOVE, God is above all else LOVE.

    1. great unknown says:

      Which is why Lucas introduced the concept of the midichlorians. He couldn’t countenance the concept of a purely spiritual, super-rational force.

  5. (Comment nesting limit reached…) Great Unknown, you do not need to apologize. I don’t know enough about the topic in play to discuss it meaningfully myself at the level you and Brian have reached, but you’re welcome to discuss damned near anything here, as long as courtesy prevails. I’ve already learned a few things from this discussion, which I began as a commentary on pushing an immanent God away via excessive respect.

    I appreciate your comments and I’m glad you took the time to make them!

    1. Brian Tkatch says:

      @Jeff Ooh, i wasn’t sure about responding.

      @great unknown

      Even if you consider the sefros to be akin to the sh’china (or whatever, the comparison itself makes little sense), it is one step removed from the deity Himself. G-d is masculine, His presence is feminine. G-d is always a doer, and doers are traditionally masculine. Presence is passive, and that is traditionally feminine.

      Infinite is not gendered? I have no idea what you are talking about. I feel obliged to mention that Jung discusses it at length. (Jung’s work is based on Alchemy, which much to his chagrin, is based on kabbala.)

      I apologize. I do not have a source (offhand) for the responsa on raised printing vs laser printing. Though normative practice is to put everything away, no one will tell you this is required. Indeed, now and then people lament the practice. I would guess that it is accepted both due to deference to all holy material, and this way certainly avoids any errors.

      Demolishing the temple is a negative commandment. Respecting the temple is a positive commandment. Erasure is the former, deference is the latter.

      In any case, please do not overlook what at said earlier: Thereโ€™s no right or wrong here, just how it feels.

  6. Thomas Hanlin says:

    “On the other hand, there are many lords and many fathers, but only one God.”

    Curious. I find that there are many lords and many gods, but I have only one father.

    The names of the Judaic god such as are known are all euphemisms or indirection. As the nickname becomes known, it becomes unspeakable, and a new pseudonym is created. Thus, a God becomes a G-d, presumably slated for a new nickname. “He whose name must not be spoken.”

    1. One way of thinking about it is that “God” is what God is, and “Yahweh” is Who God is. I would think that God would want us to be very clear on what He is, while not minding so much that we didn’t know (or speak) His name. My point is that in my analysis, God must be accessible to us somehow; if we keep knocking the vowels out of the words we use to access Him, He becomes distant and less real to us.

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