Voices of Faith: What name do you think of in referring to God?

Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: What name do you think of in referring to God?

Various connotations

Rabbi Emeritus Herbert Mandl, Kehilath Israel Synagogue, Overland Park, Kan.: There are numerous names for God in the Hebrew Bible. Among them are YHWH, Elokeem and A-donai. Each one has a unique meaning in the verses in which they are used. Every name for God has its own connotation and meaning.

For example, in the Jewish tradition, in the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis I, God is referred to as Elokeem. That means God of justice. God tried to create the world as a king of justice, ruling strongly and fairly.

Man, being frail and human, could not withstand the scrutiny of that kind of God. So by the second chapter of Genesis, already God is calling himself by two names, Elokeem and A-donai. A-donai means God of mercy. So here God is trying to tell us that he is God of justice, but is tempering his justice with mercy so human beings can survive.

There are other terms for God, such as MAKOM, which is used more in the rabbinic world and literature. That word means “place.” That term was selected because God is in “every place.”

For me personally, I love to use the double term for God I refer to above, meaning justice and mercy. His justice keeps me “in line,” but he tempers it with mercy so I can function in his world as a human being.

Justice and mercy

Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Overland Park: In Genesis, God tells Moses that Abraham had an incomplete understanding of God, and only the Names E-l Sha-dai were revealed to him. These Names embodied the blessing and compassion that was heaped on Abraham and characterized the way he lived.

But earlier in Genesis, the Torah begins by saying the world was created by Elokim, a name that is connected to judgment, while the second chapter concludes by saying the world was created by the ineffable Name and Elokim.

The ineffable Name has the attribute of mercy embedded in it. The Sages of the Talmud, and Midrash, explain the change as follows: God first attempted to create the world with only the attribute of justice but saw that the world could not measure up to the challenge, so he added mercy mixed with justice so the world could be sustained.

It is the mixture of justice and mercy that is embodied in these two Names that appeals to my sense of balance.

I often want the harsh truth of justice for a candid perspective on how I need to improve. But too much judgment is self-defeating, so the palliative element of mercy is there to soften the blows of brutal honesty.

We can only sustain so much truth, but without any we are in a world of delusion. One Name without the other is too brutal or too soft, but together, one can not only manage, but thrive.