Working on a naming for God that I can say with my whole heart
Which is not exactly a small project! And many people have come up with ways to pray without any name for God, either because they don’t like the existing names, or because their image of divinity is more about a source or presence that doesn’t need a name.
But in the process of thinking about new blessings, I found a powerful need to name, for a symbol to write and a sound (or intentional silence) to say/withhold saying. I think there is power and mystery in representing and speaking holy names, or names for holiness, and I want something that feels legitimately Jewish, that already carries meaning that matters, and that expresses what I understand as constituting holiness. Judaism’s traditional name for god, the tetragrammaton yud-hey-vav-hey has so many astounding qualities, including that we no longer know how to say it, and that it seems to be a form of the verb “to be”, a declination of that verb that doesn’t exist otherwise in Hebrew. If the tetragrammaton didn’t have all the accumulated baggage of lord, ruler, king, war god, big daddy god, unshakeably male god, I could be totally drawn into the mystery of that word. But all the former are true for me, and I can’t pretend those thousands of years of meaning can be separated from the name simply because I wish it to be so. All the various traditional names are also an implied thou or you, a supernatural, transcendent being/power to whom the prayer is addressed; the theology of this simply doesn’t work for me. I want to name, but that is different from simply creating a “new name” for the same old god. My Jewish community tries this often, substituting “Shekhinah” in place of “Adonai,” but I don’t find the image of a big woman in the sky who is the “other” ruler of all the world to be any of comfort, either. I don’t want a different gender at the top of the hierarchy; I want an end to hierarchy.
So I needed something new, but that derived from Jewish practice, and that was more open-ended and complex than choosing a word or string of words (another Jewish tradition is that the entire Torah is the name of God, but really, I can barely say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. More than that is beyond my spiritual development). Something that was a naming, but not just a new name, something that would invoke as it was spoken a concept for divinity that even begins to represent my own slippery understanding. In this, which keeps re-forming for me as I age, I can’t see divinity as transcendendent, up above us, beyond our ken, as a creator who judges and cares if we eat meat and cheese together. I love the theology of Marcia Falk’s construction “as we bless the source of life, so we are blessed” — divinity is indwelling, in all people and all life in all places, and is something we can actively call to ourselves and create through our actions. So to say the naming I was after would be to to sanctify and so connect directly to the source of of life, to this energy, this life-ness, that is part of everything.
I’ve been playing with this idea internally for months, and only came to find words for it after reading a wide variety of opinions about the role and construction of prayer. When I began to try to build a word symbol, I began by thinking about what names or words for divinity, for holiness, had any meaning for me, and which words I’ve experienced being able to pray whole-heartedly. I kept coming back to one of Marcia Falk’s brilliant opening lines for blessings in her The Book of Blessings:
נְבָרֵך אֶת עֵן הַחַיִים,N’vareykh et eyn hachayim
Let us bless the source of life
But that’s a phrase, not a word symbol, and at a utilitarian level, simply too long to work into a blessing formula. And I wanted something which was NOT a Hebrew word on its own, but a word/sound symbol that means only this particular idea of divinity. So from Marcia’s phrase I derived a word that means the concept of her blessing contracted to a divine naming, using the first letter of each word in her line:
[Note – Marcia Falk has many interesting things to say about rejecting the I/thou structure of prayer, and rejecting all names for divinity and all formulas. I’ve learned so much from her, and I disagree with some of her points, but all of that is too complicated to work in here. I’ll try to write more on this and post it soon.]
All of this was very intuitive, so I don’t have a really clear description or justification of why I chose the first letter of each word. I was buried in thinking about divinity and blessing, and this made sense to my Jewish and poet soul. The resulting word symbol has two silent letters, the aleph and the ayin, neither of which have any sound of their own, and it ends with that wide open hey. This keeps the feeling of the tetragrammaton yud-hey-vav-hey, referring to it while going in a new direction. All four letters are “soft” letters, ones that often change or drop away when word roots are re-shaped into their many different words, such that the entire word itself becomes “soft,” mutable, flowing, open to constant transfiguration. (Of course, the same is true for yud-hey-vav-hey, another reason I’d love it except for its history). This is a name for a god, but a word symbol to serve as a kind of shiviti, a focus point for something that is inherently mutable and shifting.
The letters of the aleph-beyt are understood in Jewish tradition to have mystical powers and resonances. God spoke the world into being; words said aloud become solid reality, and everything that exists does so because it is a combination of the letters and their essences. The most accessible source on this is Lawrence Kushner’s The Book of Letters. Here’s a quick summary of his understanding of the letters of Ne’eyha:
–nun is neshama, soul, nefesh, soul/spirit. You don’t open your eyes to see nun, you close them. Nun is what is holy in a person, ner tamid, the eternal light. It is nitzotz, the sparks in each of us
–aleph is the sound you make before you make any sound. It is the letter of beginning, and at beginning there is silence and mystery. It is echad, one. It is fire, aysh. It is adamah, the earth. It is “I”, ani/anochi. It is in Jewish patriarchal tradition the beginning of the human story, Adam, and of the Jewish story, Abraham.
–ayin does not speak, it only sees, ayin/eyes. It is worship, avodah, emptying yourself to be filled with divinity. It is the name of the ten commandments/utterances, asert ha-dibrote. It is the tree of life, aytz chayim
–hey has almost no sound, the sound of breathing out. Hey is the sound of being present. Hey is the closest you can come to the name God gave to God’s self: ehyeh asher ehyeh “I will be what I will be.” Hey is “heenayni” — Here I am, meaning not just “I am present” but “I am here and ready to be called to something bigger.”
So in this tradition, Ne’eyha as a word symbol is the focus point for an idea about divinity; it is the soul, the spirit, the one soul, pregnant with eternal light and birthing sparks, grown from earth and forged in fire, pausing to lovingly study the world before it speaks. It is the quiet, the listening, and the tree that grows from the seed that waits to be what it will be. Ne’eyha is watching, it is open, and when we breathe out, voicing its power, we call ourselves to being radically present, radically open, radically available to the deepest kinds of connections.
A Note on Pronunciation
Written Hebrew doesn’t need the vowels to be recorded, and we don’t have them for the tetragrammaton. If I want anyone to be able to pronounce this, though, it needs some signals. I’ve used the vowels as they appear their context in Marcia’s blessing, although I’m not yet sure that is reason enough. If this word symbol is vocalized as written, it would be something like “neh’eyha”, or maybe “neh-ay-ha.” Without vowels the middle two letters would be silent, so the word would be something like “nuh-ha.” Maybe. Or maybe it would be completely up for grabs, which might be a reason to write it without vowels and invite each user to create her/his own meaning and sounds.