Updated: Jan 2, 2022
VA-ERA (EXODUS 6:2 – 9:35)
Reading the Women’s Torah Commentary this week reminded me EXACTLY why I am doing this. One of my favorite things about reading the commentaries is when they mention really specific details about the Hebrew, or about how it is translated, or about the context of the writing itself, that slightly (or massively) change the meaning from what I had previously understood, and make me think about the text in a whole new way. Parshah Va-era starts with the powerful
“G-d spoke to Moses saying, I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but did not make myself known to them as YHVH.” (Ex. 6:2-3)
I was raised Catholic. We said G-d’s name aloud. In all sorts of ways. We said “The Lord”, we said “God”, we even pronounced out the spelling “Yahweh”. So it’s a hard practice that I am still working on, when I read the Torah, not to read YHVH in my head as Yahweh. It’s ONE of the reasons I started, years and years ago, writing G-d instead of writing it out completely. It's sort of like a backwards version of what Rabbi Karyn Kedar says in the commentary from WTC this week- “if we could only say it, then perhaps we could understand it.” We are trying to pin down something that we can’t possibly understand, so how could we possibly name it? It makes sense that the true pronunciation would only have been uttered once a year in the holiest of holies on Yom Kippur (if I am remembering that right). How can we even comprehend it to pronounce it? It would be like ( I read this in A Brief History of Time and it was regarding time travel but…) trying to imagine the globe flat- it just doesn’t work, because your thinking isn’t in the right plane.
What I found so compelling this week in the WTC commentary was what the Rabbi mentioned about the gender of the word YHVH in Hebrew...
“As a proper noun, grammatically it ends in the feminine form, but we read it as masculine “Adonai”, a masculine name that is translated as “Lord”. Is the feminine rendition of G-d’s name the reason we lost the pronunciation?... Is there conceptual room in a monotheistic system for conflicting, even competing, images of G-d, sometimes male, other times female?”
To which I would go one step further and say – Not only is there room, but it is NECESSARY.
In her commentary the author notes her own struggles with the masculine expressions used for G-d, like Lord and King. I had the same problem as a child (and as an adult); I think many people do. I think (?) it’s a huge turn off for lots of people in my generation specifically. I say “turn off”, which makes it sound like it’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal. Going into synagogue, or church, and having that patriarchal language used over and over with no discussion or explanation of it FELT oppressive and was one of the reasons I walked away from religion for so many years, even if I didn’t have the words to say that.
How would things be different if someone had told me, as a young person, that that language was symbolic, a convention, a mere attempt with feeble human words to convey an inconceivable concept. Maybe I wouldn't have listened. Maybe I wouldn't have understood. But maybe I would have...
In a conversation once with my husband and sister-in-law about why they weren’t more active in their Judaism, for both of them it was about things like this. When I noted that every Rabbi I knew was very open to talking about this and ‘didn’t feel that way’ and were in fact very open to discussing things like sexism, gender roles, and archaic language (I've been reminded over and over- and its HELPFUL- that even Maimonides struggled with the language of the Torah), both of them said – well why don’t they talk about it? Why don’t they teach THAT in Sunday school?
And I don’t know how to answer that.
But, I know that there is information out there because I have found some of it. Like here, this week, in this commentary.
In reading all of this I was reminded of other books I've read that touched on this. Specifically I went to my bookshelf and found “Seek My Face”, by Arthur Green. He points out that mystics determined that within YHVH “two of the letters, yod and vav, were “masculine”, while the two letters heh were “feminine”. This refers both to the shape of the letters themselves and to various kabbalistic associations that were added to them. In this case, the union of the name, or the proclamation of G-d’s ultimate Oneness, is also the reunion of primal male and primal female.” (p.42) Also I got out, “God is a Verb”, by David Cooper and yup- wham! (I thought I remembered that!) the LITERAL first sentence is about not using masculine terminology for g-d.
But back with the WTC
“... it’s not that G-d is the king; rather, G-d is merely called king. What G-d is is beyond description. What we mean is that God is like the King of the Universe…” (her italics)… “…we use words to describe truth, not to ultimately define truth. G-d defies definition.” (my bold)
As Rabbi Kedar reminds us, Maimonides said “the Torah is written in the language of human beings.”