Back from a fabulous retreat for Conservative rabbis officially called the Rabbinic Training Institute, and affectionately called ‘rabbi camp.’ One evening class our teacher asked us to think of a name for God that was currently important to us. We went around, one by one telling the class our ‘Godname.’ There were 15 of us in the class, all rabbis. Some in pulpits, some in day school work, some in chaplaincy. Not one of us used the same name. One rabbi said he was recently calling God ‘ribon ha’olamim,’ Master of Worlds, because he had been reading about the nature of the universe. Another rabbi called God ‘haRahamim,’ the Merciful One, explaining that he could not believe in a God Who was not merciful. Yet another rabbi called God ‘haRofeih,’ the Healer, saying that she had been making a lot of hospital visits of late. The name I chose was ‘haMakom,’ literally translated as the Place. As we continued to go around, each person chose a name that was different, that was specific to something in their lives, some emotion or thought or sense that spoke to them at that time of God’s presence.
In Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, the young mage Ged learns the importance of names in his magical training. Each thing in Leguin’s magical world has a true name, and once you know that true name, you enter into a level of intimacy with the thing that would not be possible otherwise. You can use that knowledge to control the thing with a magical spell. But the message seems to be that a name holds the essence of a thing’s identity, and knowing it enables the knower to relate to the thing in the most powerful and true way possible.
This is true in our world, in a different way. We have all had the experience at some point of realizing an important person knew our name when we thought they didn’t. Perhaps a teacher, or someone we wanted to become friendly with, or simply someone we held in high regard. When we realized they knew our name it changed how we felt about them, and in fact changed the very nature of the relationship. Perhaps it works the same way with God. We might believe God knows our name. The question I would like to ask is this: do we know God’s name?
On the surface that might seem like a strange question. But our teacher put it like this: calling God ‘God’ all the time is akin to receiving an envelope that is addressed to ‘occupant.’ God is really a generic term, a catch all, that can be used to cover any entity living at the ‘above’ address (pun intended). But if we want a closer relationship with God, a deeper connection, we should work to find God’s true name, or names. The tradition has dozens upon dozens of names for God. Each connotes a different quality of God’s, a different way that we might experience God manifest in our lives and our world. Many names for God are found in the Bible. Many more in rabbinic literature. But sometimes we don’t have to look farther than our own hearts and souls to find a meaningful name for God. The name might (in fact probably should) change over time, depending on circumstances, on our lives, on the world around us. It reminds us that we probably know more about God than we think. Names may not be magical, but they do have power.
So – how many rabbis does it take to name God. Well, only one. Or fifteen. Or both. You get the idea. Now look for the name you would use for God.