What is God – Part 12: God’s name is Ineffable

What a complicated word this is – “ineffable.”  If something has a quality that is ineffable, it is not possible to express it in words.  Often, this is because the quality is too beautiful, too grand, too exalted.

One set of metaphors we found in our Adult Ed class was those attempts to describe something that was indescribable.  (Put aside the fact that calling something indescribable is, in fact, describing it.)  God is Alone, the Eternal, the Answer to all of the “why” questions.  We know the letters of God’s name, but not how to actually say them out loud.

In Exodus (3:13-14), Moses asks of God, “When the Israelites ask me who sent me to free them, what name shall I use?”  God answers cryptically, “Ehyeh-Asher-Eyeh.”  “I am who I am.”  Or “I will be who I will be.”  So, Moses goes back to the people and tells them that he has been sent by a God with three names: Elohim, YHVH and Ehyeh.  One is plural, one we don’t pronounce and one we don’t fully understand.

This might be because we don’t understand what God is telling us.  Or it may be that God’s ineffable name is a great metaphor, for something far beyond the ordinary, something that we can’t understand in words, something that is inexpressible.  The “mystery” that I have been talking about in these essays.

Steinsaltz tells us that the Kabbalists warned against trying to say anything about God, even to say that God was “nothing.”  Because God is beyond all things: Ayin, nothing, “no thing.”   Yet to God call Nothing is to call God something, which undermines God’s complete otherness.  God forbid!

Such a quandary!  We want to believe that our experiences of transcendent truth are grounded in reality, in a mysterious reality, but in reality none-the-less.  We can’t know this radically unknowable thing, and yet we look to that thing to give meaning to the important moments in our life.

In a draft of the new High Holy Days Machzor, we read:

you shall see with all your heart

a Glimmering Essence,

hear with all your soul

a Voice-of-Thin-Silence

bow with all your might

and utter the Unspeakable Name

Here we end, then.  Grasping for metaphors to express what is fundamentally inexpressible.  Ironically, that may make this last metaphor, God as the Ineffable, the best expression of our desire to understand and communicate with each other the substance of our spiritual experiences.

We end this exploration of the metaphors we use to talk about God with no small amount of uncertainty.  So much easier, it would be, to believe in God as a person, to seek out that reality that Heschel insists is the real goal.  But for many of us, that isn’t going to happen.

And yet we pray.  To whom, to what, to anything?  We can’t be certain.  And yet we pray.  That, I would argue, is one of the central joys and one of the central frustrations of Reform Judaism.  As we learn from the Gates of Prayer:

One who has never been bewildered, who has never looked upon life and his own existence as phenomena which require answers and yet, paradoxically, for which the only answers are new questions, can hardly understand what religious experience is.
Dan Swartzman has been teaching in our Adult Education program for many years.  Dan is a professor at UIC, where he teaches ethics, law and nonprofit management.  He and his family have been members of Temple Sholom for 23 years.

For part 1 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/05/07/what-is-god-part-1/
For part 2 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/05/30/what-is-god-part-2-is-god-a-person/
For part 3 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/06/14/what-is-god-part-3-god-as-a-metaphor/
For part 4 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/06/28/what-is-god-part-4-creator/
For Part 5 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/07/12/what-is-god-part-5-you-are-holy-because-god-is-holy/
For part 6 go to http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/07/19/what-is-god-part-6-god-as-a-metaphorical-helper/
For part 7 go to: http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/07/26/what-is-god-part-7-god-as-rulemaker/
For part 8 go to: http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/08/09/what-is-god-part-8-god-as-light/
For part 9 go to:  http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/08/16/what-is-god-part-9-god-as-voice/
For part 10 go to: http://www.sholomchicago.org/2013/10/18/what-is-god-part-10-god-as-presence/
For part 11 go to: http://www.sholomchicago.org/2014/02/13/what-is-god-part-11-god-as-the-model/