A God by any other name

I’m wondering if I need a new name for God. I’ve changed my relationship with God as my spiritual understanding matured. Torah teaches that the name by which we call God is indicative of our relationship with God.

A change of name occurs in the Torah on the eve of the plagues.  God “updates” God’s name in a revelation to Moses (at Exodus 6:4).

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל

־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יהוה.  (We use the word “adonai” to represent the Hebrew letters of God’s name.)”

From an etymological point of view, the old name, El Shaddai, may be translated as the almighty God. An almighty God is sufficient in every way. It is a noun. The new name, Adonai is a variation of the verb “to be” in the third person.  We can understand this updated version of God’s name as “he will be” or even “is was will be.”  Just as Moses at the burning bush asking God’s name and God replies, “I will be what I will be,” Adonai connotes a God of willfulness and potentiality.

God’s change of name in Torah reflects a change of relationship. The name Adonai is a God of great potential whose engagement is unpredictable. After a long silence, God reasserts God’s self when the enslaved Israelites are nearly lost souls in their miserable condition. God was not known and God reemerges. A new name is offered reflecting a new relationship.

As a child I believed in an El Shaddai God; all-powerful wizard of Oz, behind a curtain, man on a throne. Now I understand God as creator and source, energy and light. Why the shift? My relationship with El Shaddai was screwing up my theology with doubt and fear. I had a difficult time relating to the Almighty. I read the newspapers and asked how could an almighty God fail to rescue, protect, and bring to safety all of humankind, just as God did for the Israelites in Egypt? As an adult with knowledge of real world disasters, I was left wondering why an almighty God did not show up to prevent modern catastrophes, earthquakes and the Holocaust. My relationship with the almighty El Shaddai crumbled. 

I am now in relationship with Adonai, and my Adonai is a work in progress. I can’t conjure a definitive understanding of God just as there is not just one name for God. God is present but God’s presence is not entirely known to me. God is source but not sufficient; perhaps God as architect but not construction crew captain. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson describes God as process. For now, God is my hope.

Perhaps in future generations God will be known by yet another name representing a new relationship and a better understanding. Maybe that is “the messianic age,” which Maimonides said would be a time much like our own yet a time of peace, harmony and freedom. Until then, we take it upon our selves to be God’s agents in this world to rescue the enslaved, offer safety to the refugee, and feed the hungry. I pray for a better world and do the work of perfecting the world we have. And I look forward to a new name that reflects an evolved relationship with God as the source of peace in the world for everyone. 

R' Evan J. Krame