Excerpt from "Why YAH/YHWH" by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings

What follows is a brief summary of my approach on the question of pronouncing the "Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei" Name of God that in transliteration comes out "YHWH":

1) It is unpronounceable in my view not because we are forbidden to pronounce it — that understanding is in my view a way of avoiding the deeper truth — but because if one tries to do so, pronouncing these four strange letters (semi-vowels, semi-consonants; linguists call them aspirate consonants) WITHOUT any vowels, one simply breathes.

You might pause to try this yourself: try to say "YHWH" with no vowels. Not "Yahweh" or "Yahovah," but with no vowels at all.

Over the years I have invited thousands of people at synagogues, retreat centers, Hillels, and conferences to explore what happens if they try to do this, and almost everyone who does this experiences either a breath or the wind.

The real Name is BEYOND pronunciation, unless you consider breathing pronunciation.

As the Siddur (prayer-book) says, "Nishmat kol chai tivarech et SHIMCHA." ("The breathing of all life praises your Name.") For the Breathing of all life IS Your Name.

2) The notion of YHWH as "the Breath of Life" accords with a deep sense of God as intimate and transcendent at once. If we have no breath in us, we die. If there is no breath beyond us, we die.

3) Moreover, it makes profound sense for at least one of the real Names of the real God to be not a Hebrew word, nor a word in Egyptian, or Latin, or Greek, or Arabic, or Sanskrit, or English - not in any single language but in all of them, or in some form of expression that both underlies and transcends language: just breathing, which all humans of all peoples do.

4) Still more, Breathing encompasses not only all humans but all life-forms. What the trees breathe out is what we breathe in; what we breathe out is what the trees breathe in. So YHWH as a breathing sound evokes "kol ha'neshama," all breathing beings, and "nefesh chaya," all those in which is the life-breath.

It includes not only specific life-forms but the interwoven life-process, in which all earth - even aspects that we often think of as not alive, like rocks and the ozone layer - take part in a planetary breathing.

And one metaphor for the universe itself, since the Big Bang, is that it is experiencing a great out-breath, in which all the galaxies are continuing to expand into and shape the space-time that is the Universal Breath.

5) So we could just pause at "YHWH" and breathe. Or we could, as has been the Jewish convention, substitute some word. That word has traditionally been "Adonai," meaning Lord, which in Christian tradition became Kyrie, Dominus, Lord.

But this substitute takes us away from the experience of God as Breath of Life, and — in the thoughts and feelings of many people in our generation —names God in an untruthful way. For powers that once were beyond all human ken, such as destroying all life on earth or creating new and literally "inconceivable" species like the spider-goat created by mixing DNA, are now in human hands.

For many, therefore, God no longer seems a totally transcendent Lord, King, Judge — but the interwovenness of all, for which the Breath is a somewhat more accurate metaphor.

6. For all these reasons, it is attractive to many people to use "YAH" as a different substitute for this unpronounceable Name, instead of using "Adonai," "Lord," the conventional substitute. "Yah," if pronounced with a strong out-breath, gives the feel of the Breath of Life.

This practice simply uses the same Divine Name as is used in many of the Psalms, as in "HalleluYAH," "Let us praise YAH, the Breath of Life." It is itself one of the traditional Names.

7) In brachot. blessings, this then comes out: "Baruch attah Yah, elohenu . . . " or, using the feminine pronoun and verb, "Brucha aht Yah, eloheynu. . . " and in translation, either "Blessed are You, Yah," or "Blessed are You, Breath of Life."

In accord with this change, many of us also change "melech," "king," in the conventional bracha to "ruach," "breath/wind/ spirit." "Ruach" also has the extremely unusual characteristic of being a Hebrew word that can take either a masculine or feminine verb. Again, appropriate for God.

Thus the bracha becomes, "Baruch attah [or, "brucha aht"] Yah, eloheynu ruach ha'olam. . ." - "Blessed are You, Breath of Life, Spirit of the Universe. . . "

8. Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of Jewish renewal is that what — at least in public — only the High Priest did during Temple days — address the deep meanings of "YHWH" directly, at noon on Yom Kippur — and what no one at all did in Rabbinic Judaism — we are now calling forth as a process for the whole Jewish people to explore.

The mind-set that says only the High Priest — therefore no one — can do this is the same mind-set that says only married men over forty who have studied all of Talmud are permitted to study Kabbalah. Most people in Jewish renewal have gone beyond this view.

9. In my own practice when leading prayer, I invite people to experience "YHWH" in this way and then make clear that "for God's sake," they should choose a way of addressing God that brings them close to God. If they continue to feel closer by using the more familiar "Adonai," that is what they should do.

Shalom, Arthur


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