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Dr. Lawrence Rosenwald on  January 25th, 2020

On va’era and Name

Va’era was my bar mitzvah portion.  That isn’t to say that I learned it when I was thirteen, since at that time I had no Jewish community or Jewish knowledge.  Rather I learned it when I was on my way to turning sixty-four.  In the intervening years I’d become moderately observant, I’d often been called to the Torah, I’d led services, but I hadn’t leyned.  The late Reena Kling, whose memory has already been and will continue to be a blessing to many, taught me how, and on January 21st, 2012, I leyned the first three aliyot of the portion. (Miriam Bronstein did the the honor of leading shachrit that morning, as she led it this morning, and you won’t be surprised to hear that she lead it beautifully.)

          I put emphasis on the leyning because much of what I’m about to say emerges from some reflections on the very first verse I learned, the one the portion begins with.  I’d learned the basic formulae, the te’amim, and sat down to work out the first verse:  vayedaber elohim el mosheh;  vayomer elav ani . . .and God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I [am] . . . I am what?  What was I going to chant? . . .  I am the name, hashem, the tetragrammaton, the most sacred of all the names of the sacred being, the one that even the high priest of old spoke aloud only once a year. I knew, and was haunted and intimidated by, the relevant passage in An-sky’s The Dybbuk, the great speech of Rabbi Azriel:

The holiest land is the Holy Land, the holiest city is Jerusalem, the holiest site was the temple, the holiest place was the Holy of Holies.  The holiest nation is the people of Israel, the holiest tribe is the tribe of Levi, the holiest of the Levites are the priests, the holiest priest was the high priest.  The holiest days are the sabbaths, the holiest sabbath is Yom Kippur.  The holiest language is Hebrew, the holiest Hebrew is the Hebrew of the Torah, the holiest Torah is the Ten Commandments, the holiest of the Commandments is the name of God. 


And once a year, the four holiest holies in the world would join together, when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and uttered the shem ha-mfoyrosh, the complete and ineffable name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the Four Letters, yud hey vov hey.  And because that moment was immeasurably holy and fearful, it was the most dangerous, both for the high priest and for the entire Jewish people.  For if at that moment, khas v’kholile, a sinful thought had come to the high priest, an impure thought, a makhshove zore, then the world would have been destroyed.  (Neugroschel’s translation, p. 34)


          I’ll come later to what I actually chanted, and more generally to some reflections on how we behave in relation to the Name, and what our behavior reveals about us, and what other behaviors of ours resemble this behavior, and what these similarities mean.  But where I went first, thinking about that initial verse, was where I’d already been, which is to say, to what I’d learned in translating Die Schrift und ihre Verdeutschung, Scripture and Translation, the collection of essays published in1936 by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in explanation and defense of their Bible translation.  Two of the essays, both by Rosenzweig as it happens, focus on how to translate the Name.  I’ll give you the gist of his argument and some comments on it.

          The long essay Rosenzweig devotes to the question is called “The Eternal,” and is a critique of that particular translation of the Name, chosen by John Calvin in the 17th century  and then, more pertinently to Rosenzweig, by Moses Mendelssohn in the 18th. Rosenzweig admires Mendelssohn for seeing that to understand and translate the name, the crucial passage is Exodus 3:14, the exchange between God and Moses that we read last week:

Moshe said to God:

Here, I will come to the Children of Israel

and I will say to them:

The God of your fathers has sent me to you,

and they will say to me:  What is his name? –

what shall I say to them?

God said to Moshe:

EHYEH ASHER EHYEH/ I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.

And he said:

Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel:


the God of your fathers,

the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov,

sends me to you.

That is my name for the ages,

that is my title generation to generation.  (Fox’s earlier translation)


But Rosenzweig thinks that Mendelsohn, though focusing on the right passage, learns the wrong lesson from it, because for Rosenzweig, God’s self-naming has to make sense as a useful answer to Moses’s question. And what Moses is seeking is comfort, reassurance, authority.  None of that, Rosenzweig argues, is provided by an answer or a translation stressing God’s permanence, eternal duration etc. – by, that is, rendering the Name as L’éternel, der Ewige , the Eternal.  Such a reading of the answer is, he argues, Platonic.  Fine for Plato to be concerned with the duration of entities, with duration as an index of perfection.  But Moses is in need of help, not eternity, and for him, the meaning of ehyeh asher ehyeh must have to do not with existence but with what Rosenzweig calls dasein - not being but being-with, being-there, available, useful.  I will be-there as the one I will be-there as, we might say, God allowing godself a grand and uncontrollable variety of manifestation, but what is to be manifested is presence, not existence.  (Look for me under your bootsoles, as Walt Whitman wrote.)

          I found (and find) Rosenzweig’s argument persuasive, and it did me good, as I was preparing to leyn the passage, to keep it in mind, especially in relation to the terror associated with the Name by Azriel in An-sky’s play.  The name that God reveals to Moses but has not revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the name Moses needs for a campaign of liberation from overwhelming state power, the name of an ally.


          So much regarding the meaning of the Name.  But what about our use of it, or rather our ways to avoid using it, the fences we build around this aspect of Torah?

          That first verse I learned to leyn was one that both spoke of the Name and concealed it.  God said to Moses, “I am [the Name].” In the reported conversation, that is, God speaks the Name.  In shul, on the day of my bar mitzvah, I was going to chant ani adonay, “I am ‘my Lords’,” making use of the conventional screen name.  But I felt that to do that would be disorienting, almost absurd.  Whatever God said to Moses, it wasn’t ani adonay.  God at that moment is speaking to Moses precisely in order to speak the name aloud.  So also in the following verse - ushmi adonay lo nodati lahem, “but my name adonay I did not make known them” – where yet again the revelation of the name in the written verse is obscured, even denied, by the concealing of the name in the chanted verse. 

I was reminded – or maybe it’s only now, looking back, that I’m reminded – of Kafka’s great parable “Before the Law.”  A man comes from the country to seek the Law.  A guard bars him from entering.  The man waits all his life to be admitted, but never is.  Through the door, as he nears his death, he sees the law’s inextinguishable radiance.  As he dies, the guard shuts the door:  “this door was made only for you,” he tells the man.  “Now that you are dying, I am going to shut it.”  The door was made for him not to go through it.  The verse I was leyning speaks of the Name but bars it from me even as I chant it and feel its radiance.

          And of course, sitting alone in my study, or practicing on the train or the Red Line, I wasn’t even saying ushmi adonay, I was saying ushmi hashem, “but my name The Name,” keeping adonay for the moment of leyning itself.  (When I prepare leyning these days, I have a superstitious fear that at the moment of  actual leyning, having during all the time of preparation chanted hashem and not adonay, I’ll forget that during leyning adonay is not only possible but obligatory, and sometimes I’ll allow myself, on the Friday before the leyning and the Saturday of the leyning, to chant adonay and not hashem, lest I forget to chant adonay when I leyn.)

          There is maybe something comic about this.  How many fences we have built around the Torah! And how vigilantly we tend them, as vigilantly as Kafka’s doorkeeper. We some of us decline to write the word God, preferring G-d.  Observant singers performing music where the Name appears offer various substitutions in non-liturgical contexts (recordings, rehearsals, concerts):  adomay, adoshem.  The late Ben-Zion Gold liked to joke about observant Jews that to avoid saying even the non-Tetragrammaton name of God el, they would order not ginger ale but ginger kale, though I don’t know that anyone actually does that.

          Comedy aside, and for that matter being an atheist aside, a person constitutionally unable to believe in the intervening God represented in Tanakh, I don’t find our collective unease at all implausible, and wouldn’t claim not to share it.  I wouldn’t say the Name aloud, and feel something like a low-grade electric shock when someone else does so.  I would no more say the Name aloud than . . .


          Than I would what?  Preparing this talk, I realized that my unease about saying the Name was similar to, and perhaps related to, my unease about saying the one word these days that people don’t say in the left-wing academy, in particular at Wellesley College where I teach, the one now euphemized as the n-word.

          A couple of stories about that.  A recent article in the wonderful online Yiddishist journal In geveb, Eli Bromberg’s “We Need to Talk About Shmuel Charney,” considers Charney’s pseudonym, Shmuel Niger, far more widely known than the eminent literary critic’s family name, the name under which I first learned of him and have always cited him.  Bromberg looks closely at the origin stories of the pseudonym, and the history of the word niger in Yiddish, and argues that it’s time to toss the pseudonym out;  whatever its origin or justification, it carries too much baggage, it’s too close to the word itself, we are defiled by it.

          I’ll note in passing several  recent controversies over the word “niggardly,” etymologically unrelated to the n-word but often experienced as offensive because of its acoustic similarity to it, but tell in greater detail a more personal story.  Last spring, in an introductory course in Peace & Justice Studies, I read aloud a passage from Taylor Branch’s wonderful history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  The word “Negro” appears in the passage.  I indicated, before reading this word, that at the time of the boycott it was for many people the preferred term for referring to African Americans, preferred because less prejudicial, African American being not yet in common use.  Afterwards a student raised her hand – a White student, as it happened.  “I appreciate your explanation,” she said, “but I still don’t think you should read the word aloud.”  I asked her whether she thought the word a variant of the n-word.  She said she did.  I asked whether other students had the same sense of the lexical field.  None did, in particular none of the African American students did.  So I let the matter drop, though obviously I’ve kept thinking about it.

          All of these controversies are, I think, means of building fences around a different Torah.  The n-word and the Name – the y-word, one might say -  have things in common.  We do not say them, though we do not purge them from texts written by others.  We do not say them in sentences that we create.  We do not say them even in sentences we are quoting.  We do not write them out in full.  We do not say or write words that are related to them.  We do not say or write words that resemble them, even when they are unrelated to them.  There are of course differences as well – regarding who actually can say the name, for example.  There is no promise of radiance, or of kabbalistic magic, in speaking the n-word.  But with all the differences, the similarities remain significant.

          How are we to understand them?  If we behave in similar ways toward the worst of racial epithets and the most sacred of divine names, what does that suggest?  What is the relation between the sacred and the obscene?

          Questions I don’t know how to answer;  I think you’d need to be a courageous comparative cultural anthropologist to do so, and I’m not that.  I’ll end, then, not by synthesizing but by offering two tentative observations.  1)   One sense of kadosh is that which is set aside, which is removed – Buber writes that it denotes the category of “ritual exclusion.”  And what if not ritual exclusion is a right name for our ways of dealing with the n-word?  2) The African American linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter wrote in an email to me that “antiracism has become indistinguishable from a religious faith.”  He meant the phrase scornfully, I think, but it might be taken descriptively as well – that is, it might in fact be legitimate for a secular movement to draw on religious energies in this way.  And if anti-racism can draw on religious energies, then it makes sense for it to have religious decorums, in this case a powerful desire not to say what is forbidden. 

          That’s about as far as I can go, and I’m sorry not to be able to go further.  What I know is that my experience of the Name illuminates my sense of the controversies over the n-word, and vice-versa.

Fri, February 21 2020 26 Shevat 5780