The Lord’s Name In Vain

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 21, 2010, issue of July 30, 2010.
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Although some of you have let me know that you enjoyed my recent column on the Orthodox spelling of “G-d,” others have chided me for it.

‘O’ My Goodness: The world is the Lord’s, and looks a lot like the middle letter of His name.  Hieronymus Bosch, Exterior Panels Of ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights,’ 1480-1490.  [click for larger view]
WIKI COMMONS
‘O’ My Goodness: The world is the Lord’s, and looks a lot like the middle letter of His name. Hieronymus Bosch, Exterior Panels Of ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights,’ 1480-1490. [click for larger view]

Josh Sider, for instance, writes that my column was “in very poor taste” and that I owe my readers an apology. “You could have avoided the insulting tone of it,” he writes, “by doing some research on why a dash is used by some in referring to the Deity. In particular you might have consulted p. 206 in J. David Bleich’s book ‘Contemporary Halakhic Problems.’”

Stu Lewis believes that my column “missed the mark.” He continues:

“The custom of writing ‘G-d’ relates not to the spoken word but to the written word. ‘G-d’ is pronounced the same as ‘God.’ Spelling the word with a hyphen is a carryover from the Hebrew practice of not writing the deity’s real name in a text which could be casually destroyed. The prohibition against the written use of God’s name has become a real issue in the past 40-some years with the prevalence of photocopying.”

And this from Miles E. Kutler:

“I am not aware of any Jewish prohibition on uttering the word ‘God’ in English. Rather, I was always taught to type or write the word as ‘G-d.’ It is well known that typed, written, and printed pages with the name of G-d written with the ‘o’ intact are considered holy documents in Judaism and thus require proper religious burial. The dashed version can be crumpled and tossed in the trash, while the godly ‘o’ version cannot be.”

Essentially, all three of these communications make the same point. The Orthodox usage of “G-d” is strictly a written one, meant to keep the name of God from being physically destroyed. (This, I would assume from Mr. Sider’s letter, is also J. David Bleich’s position.) Since it has nothing to do with speech and is not meant to be spoken, my raillery at the un-pronounceability of “G-d” was unjustified. It is no different, as Forward reader Sam Weiss observes in another letter, from writing “Mrs.” and saying “missis,” or writing “FBI” and saying “Ef-Bee-Eye.”

Although I have no pretensions to be a halachist, I find this unconvincing. If the English word “God” is not too holy to be spoken by an Orthodox Jew, as are several of God’s Hebrew appellations, why is it too holy to be destroyed in its written form? In Hebrew, no such distinction is ever made. The words for “God” that are forbidden to Orthodox Jews in ordinary writing — the Tetragrammaton, adonai, elohim — are forbidden in speech, as well; the circumlocutions used in speech, such as Hashem, are also permissible in writing. No one would claim that it is acceptable to say “Hashem” but not to write it because the paper it is written on might be thrown in the trash. After all, are not the words we speak thrown, so to speak, into the air, from which they quickly disappear, too?

And conversely, if “God” is too holy to be spoken, so that one says “Hashem” instead, why not write “Hashem”? What is the point of writing “G-d” if this is meant to be pronounced as “Hashem”? Is one not causing those like Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cutler, who see “G-d” in writing but read it aloud as “God,” to sin?

And what about all the places where gentiles have written the word “God”? Are Jews also commanded to rescue, to the best of their abilities, these millions and billions of pages from destruction? Should an observant Jew buy every book on a used-book stand that might have the word “God” in it to prevent these books from being junked? And if not, is he not an accomplice in the desecration of God’s name, no matter how many times he says or writes “Hashem”? By what logic can the English word “God” be considered holy when written by a Jew but not when written by a non-Jew?

Indeed, it would seem that some gentiles are out-Orthodoxing the Orthodox in this regard. Here is an e-mail from Forward contributor Jerome Chanes:

“I recently chanced upon a church bulletin from our neighborhood Methodist church, and in the text of the Lord’s prayer, the word ‘kingdom,’ which occurs there twice (as in “thy kingdom come”), is spelled ‘kin-dom.’ I asked the pastor about this, and was told that ‘kingdom’ has a special, divine meaning for Christians — the word is a metaphorical locution for God — and some spell it ‘kin-dom’ to reflect the divine nature of the word.”

Is there a Jewish influence here? It’s hard to believe that there isn’t, since — as I observed in my previous column — the use of a dash to indicate holiness rather than obscenity has no precedent, as far as I know, in Christian literature. In Jewish eyes, “kin-dom” looks silly. But is “G-d” any less so? I stick to my opinion that it’s not. As much as I’d like to please Mr. Sider, I have nothing to apologize for.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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