CHANTING NAMES OF GOD
The ancient Jewish sages were quite precise and clear in saying that there is only one authentic identification for God, composed of four Hebrew letters: y-h-v-h. No attempt should be made to enunciate these letters as a name of God. Why are these sages so concerned about a word that would embrace the Divine? It is because they knew that words are by nature self-limiting. Even the word “infinity” suggests something that is bound by letters and it leads to absurdities in the language, such as the idea, “beyond infinity.”
If we put a name to God, we are suggesting that our language and our thoughts can somehow grasp an idea of God. We can see today that the word God means many things to many people. Moreover, many actions are taken in the name of God that cause incredible pain and destruction. This is precisely what the sages of the past were attempting to avoid. Their understanding of the boundless source of existence was that it is inconceivable. Giving “It” a name will only lead to serious consequences according to the sages. They were correct. Recent examples of this tragic misunderstanding are terrorists who kill people in the name of God and victims of violence who themselves react violently, also in the name of God. This manipulation of God’s name is clearly confused and a sad consequence of a belief that the human mind can grasp the essential nature of the Divine.
Many traditions attempt to assign specific attributes that are considered God-like in character. This also has a limited application. Most of the time we connect attributes that are “good” in nature: loving, kind, compassionate, gentle, peaceful, caring, and so forth. These, of course, are the characteristics of the way we would want God to be. However, there are many attributes that could also be associated with God, like: jealous, revengeful, angry, stern, strict, ignoring, punitive, deceptive, ambivalent, etc. If we attempt to disassociate these negative attributes from God, then we are caught in the dilemma that there are parts of the universe where God does not exist—the “bad” parts—and this leads to new levels of confusion, such as, “we are good and on God’s side, while they are bad and hated by God.” What a terrible idea; it continues to breed ignorance, pain and suffering in our world.
Boundlessness is beyond definition; it is beyond the sum of all of its “parts.” That is to say, if we put together all of the possible attributes and characteristics that could possibly exist in this universe, Boundlessness would embrace all of them and still be “larger,” beyond all limits—thus ultimately unimaginable, ungraspable, unknowable.
When a God-name is used, we must always keep in mind that it represents only a small fragment of divine Boundlessness. There are many God-names in Hebrew that describe attributes. Still, time and time again the sages caution us to be careful not to confuse the name of an attribute with the source itself.
The Talmud goes to great length in its discussion of the use of divine names. The highest and most sacred name is the tetragrammaton described above. As the letters do not make a word that can be pronounced, substitute names like adonoy or elohim are used in its place. Even those substitute names must be handled with care, to be used with considerable discretion and respect. For example, Orthodox Jewish practitioners today, when using those names outside of prayers and liturgical situations, are likely to re-substitute the words ado-shem for adonoy, and elo-kim for elohim. Also a common replacement is the word hashem, which means “the Name.” Thus, in response to a basic question, such as, “How are you?” a typical response would be, “Baruch Hashem,” (blessed is the Name), which is like saying in English, “Thank God.”
Each of the many God-names found in Hebrew literature is connected with an attribute. For example, the name El is associated with loving-kindness. It is often used to demonstrate a contrast between the concept of God and that of humankind, and thereby it emphasizes the idea of relationship. Interestingly, some of the most famous characters in the Bible have this God-name included in their own: Elijah, Elisha, and Elimelech, and Israel, Ishmael, and Samuel.
Consider the many modified names that connect El with different attributes. El ha-Ne-eman, means the faithful God; El ha-Gedol, the great God; El ha-Kedosh, the holy God; El Ra-ee, the God who is seen; El Da-ot, the all-knowing God; El Mis-tah-ter, the God who hides; El Kanah, the jealous God. El Elyon, is the God on high (transcendent); El Olam is the worldly God (immanent). El Berit is connected with covenants and is the God-face with whom we bargain and make commitments.
Elohim, the plural form of Eloha, is traditionally connected with justice and causality; its polar opposite is El, which—as mentioned—represents loving kindness and compassion. Thus, although these names sound alike, one (Elohim) actually signifies a strict, unrelenting force that always repays deeds in kind, and assuredly punishes perpetrators when its laws are broken. It never wavers in the context of justice. The other (El) has great “patience,” its compassionate nature can be swayed with argument or good deeds, and it always gives the benefit of doubt. The Kabbalist knows immediately the opposite nature of these two faces of God, for El is associated in the Tree of Life to Chesed (loving kindness) while Elohim is related to Gevorah (justice). (See illustration of the Tree of Life.)
When the name Adonoy is substituted for y-h-v-h, it implies a forgiving God; so too the word Shekhina, which means the indwelling sense often referred to as the divine presence; Shaddai is connected with strength and protection, which is why the mezuzah on the door posts of Jewish homes have the letter shin on it. (Shaddai is spelled shin, dalet, yod). Shaddai also is connected with nurturing for it is associated with the Hebrew word shad, which means breast—so Shaddai is at times called “the breasted God,” which could also be interpreted as the “protector of the hearth.” Yah is the sound that replicates the first two letters of the tetragrammaton (y-h), and it is that sense of the Divine we experience in our breath—Yaaaaaaah. We know explicitly how the source of life is centered in the core of our breath; our experience is immediate when the breath is cut off for more than a minute. Just quietly sighing, we can hear a “yaaah” within the breath.
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (I am what I am; I will be what I will be) is the attribute of inclusiveness, total interconnectivity: Oneness. Ha Makom represents the sense of omnipresence; ha Shalom represents the nature of complete peace; Ribonno shel Olam represents omnipotence. There are dozens of other names.
The reader can imagine the confusion that often arises when trying to understand the nature of the Divine. English speaking readers, who do not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, must continuously keep in mind when working with any translation of the Hebrew Bible that all the names for God are lumped together into two basic English words: either God or Lord. Of course, these two words lack the critical nuances described above, and thus whole bodies of text are misunderstood and misrepresented. Even more problematic, when the word God is substituted for the tetragrammaton, it is not surprising that it invariably leads to fundamental misconstructions that have perplexed non-Hebrew literate theologians and philosophers for many centuries.
The beauty of the practices that we are working with is that they eliminate the difficulties encountered in the meanings of the many different names. In essence, by chanting the sounds, we are able to transcend the limitations of our own intellects—we bypass the universe of the thinking mind and dwell mainly in the physical-emotional realms.
In using fundamental chanting methods, we automatically begin to purify and harmonize our bodies and emotions; in this way, chanting can make our minds calm and more receptive. Reading about or studying meditation does not make us meditators. But sitting quietly, occasionally chanting special sounds, we connect with a deeper truth, and in this way we touch our souls beyond all intellectual processes. The fact that we are working with sacred sounds does not require that we intellectually understand esoteric meanings of the sounds, especially in the beginning of practice. This level of practice is strictly experiential; it works primarily beyond the intellect—the actual results defy words and definitions.
By treating the nameless source with continuous respect, one develops and sustains a kind of sacred relationship, a special friendship. As we will see time and again, the main gate to wisdom is to find a way to release one’s sense of being a separate self; in so doing, this allows a natural merging into the recognition of being One with the source of life. The beginning of this wisdom, it is taught, is to realize an enormous sense of awe of the unfolding of creation in each moment. Chanting assists in this process as it focuses and channels the mind.
Some practitioners use a selection of the God-names mentioned above, and repeat them over and over, often developing a rhythm with the breath. While chanting like this, the student visualizes the quality the name represents. One immerses oneself in the feelings that are evoked and thereby connects on a deep level with the name. This is a fundamental practice done in many traditions, a letting go of one’s self image and one’s posturing, allowing the new attribute to penetrate and pervade one’s deepest consciousness.