Sunday, August 10, 2008

"[God], I know you are near."

On Friday, a friend of mine sent me a copy of a letter sent out by Cardinal Arinze at the CDW to the Presidents of Bishops' conferences around the world.  Pope Benedict recently approved a directive which says that the literal Hebrew pronunciation of the name of God not be used in songs or prayers.

What is Rome talking about?  The "Tetragrammaton".  Confused?  We're talking about the four Hebrew letters yod, heh, vav, and heh (יהוה) transliterated in English as "YHWH", and found in some translations of the Old Testament as well as the occasional hymn as "Yahweh".  "Tetragrammaton" is a Greek word meaning "four letters", as in the 4 letters used to name God.

In books of Scripture written in Hebrew, the name is certainly written, but never pronounced phonetically.  Instead, the word "Adonai" ("God") is substituted, or even the words "Ha Shem" (literally, "The Name") are used.  For Jews, even to say the proper name of God would be a violation of the third commandment (or second commandment to Christians), taking God's name in vain.  The only time it was used in Judaism was once per year by the High Priest during Yom Kippur, when he alone had the privilege of pronouncing God's authentic name while offering prayers of atonement on behalf of the people.

What a great chance this gives us to reflect on our use of the word, "God", in our culture and in our own vocabulary.  Yes, lots of people come to confession and tell us that they've "used God's name in vain" (which is a sterilized way of saying they have a foul mouth), but in reality, most obscenities do not use the word, God, except for the one that most resembles, "Goshdarnit!" (use your imagination).  How many times do we begin a sentence with, "O my God, that was the best (food) I've ever eaten!", or, "I swear to God, I saw (proper name) at the mall with (another proper name)."  This is starting to look like Mad Libs, no?  You get the idea.

So what does this mean?  First of all, directive one says that the word "YHWH" is not to be used in liturgical celebrations.  This would affect hymns like "You are Near", and, "Sing a New Song" (which has the line in the first verse about Yahweh's people dancing for joy).  Honestly, I'm not shedding any tears in putting those songs out to pasture.  The second directive says that in future translations of Scripture into vernacular languages, the word YHWH be translated as "God".  It's hard to say what this will affect in the future, but looking to the past, I believe it is the New Jerusalem Bible that used "Yahweh" in translations of the Psalms.   In short, words like "God" or "Lord" should be used, rather than God's proper name.

12 comments:

Wendy said...

I just finished singing this in church. :)

Victoria said...

Father, could you provide a link to the CDW letter please.

pdt said...

Father - Can you post a copy of or link to the letter? I'd like to make sure that the several music programs I am associated with adhere to the directive and have the documentation to show the affected pastors! Thanks.

Fr. Jay Toborowsky said...

I'm trying to figure out how to do this on the blog, upload something in a .pdf format. As soon as I do, I'll put it up.

Mary Moroz said...

If you could get that out there - that'd be great -
Thanks, Padre. I'll keep checking back.

Jay3GSM said...

I detest, with a passion, whenever I hear people say things like those examples you gave, mis-usung the name of God. It happens all the time, on TV and films, and with people I talk to. It is such a thorny issue for me I am prone to point out when it is done. Very often it is said from habit rather than any malice, but it is a habit that needs to be broken. Even worse is when God, or Jesus, is used as a curse word rather than just being misused. That really upsets me.

Jordanes said...

The second directive says that in future translations of Scripture into vernacular languages, the word YHWH be translated as "God".

Well, this directive from the Vatican is most welcome indeed.

Still, I believe the most common tradition has been to translated YHVH as "Lord." Sometimes I've seen it translated as "God," but not as often.

Neuropoet said...

This is very welcome news. We just sang this song in church, and every time we do it makes me cringe. It feels very disrespectful to the culture our Christ grew up in (you can bet he never said YHWH) and neither did Mother Mary. I'm so thankful we have Benedict XVI as our Holy Father!

~Jenny

Ingrida said...

The letter is here:
http://www.execulink.com/~dtribe/blog/Name%20of%20God.pdf

canon1753 said...

Actually it is "LORD" or "God" depending on context. Actually for "You are Near" you could as an interim step sing Lord God, which would fit musically (2 beats) and contextually. It may actually increase the respect for the Divine in the song....

I've never liked using the Name in singing, I've always thought it was disrespectful to the Jewish people who do not ever say the Name.

Rabbi Heschel uses the name Yahve instead of the Name. (It isn't the Name per se but it gets the point across..

Lee Strong said...

I read the news - I forgot about Sing a New Song. Oh well.

Most of the songs that use Yahweh were kind of outdated anyway. (Weston Priory's "Yahweh" for example). Some had already been changed out of sensitivity to Jewish sensibilities.

Moonshadow said...

But, we'll still pronounce Jesus' name at Mass, which is a personal name of God. And Jesus means "Jehovah saves," so in a way, the Name is still being uttered.

I'm not understanding the distinction: why is it OK to utter the name of Jesus Christ but not the name of His (and our) Father's?

Thank you in advance for your thoughts ... I'm in the Trenton diocese.