by: Mark Kirschbaum on January 19th, 2012 | 3 Comments »
In the case of some terms, people might have doubts as to whether they’re names or descriptions; like “God”—does it describe God as the unique divine being or is it a name of God? (Saul A Kripke, Naming and Necessity, p. 27)
Our text seems to be preoccupied with names. Moshe (Moses) went to Pharoah as instructed, and instead of freeing the slave people, Pharoah makes their life even more miserable. Moshe complains to God about the suffering of the people and the failure of his mission, but God wants to talk about names. The text relates (Shemot 2:6):
And God spoke to Moshe, saying: I am ADNY. I have revealed myself to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov as El Shaddai, but with the name ADNY I had not revealed myself to them.
Moshe wants to know how the people will be freed, and God answers with a seemingly irrelevant discourse on names. Why does it matter with which name revelation was conducted in the past? In attempting to find meaning in this emphasis upon ancient names, we will find ourselves confronting very contemporary issues regarding faith and science.
Even as we focus upon the centrality of names in the current verse, we can’t help noticing the preoccupation with names in the early part of the book of Shemot (Exodus). This book begins with an enumeration of the names of the tribes, then Moshe names his children, then Moshe is concerned in his first dialogue with God that the Israelites will ask of him what God’s name is, and here again, in this speech announcing the deliverance from Egypt, God begins by announcing a new previously undisclosed name. It is fitting, I suppose, that this book, called Exodus in Greek, is traditionally known as Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names, in Hebrew. What’s all this business about names?
Let us return to the first presentation of a set of names, those of the tribes given in the opening verses of this Book of Names. Why are they repeated, after being enumerated at the end of Bereishit? The Midrash Rabba 1:5 rereads all these names, with a new set of meanings reflecting the upcoming exodus. Is this reading valid? After all, the text itself gives us a set of meanings for these names based on the experiences of Leah and Rachel. Why does the Midrash endeavor to derive new meaning from names to whom the Torah itself gave explanations?
The Noam Elimelech uses this question to propound an entire theory of names: The name given to a person is in essence a term that is attached in a unique way to consciousness; it is not the same kind of thing as a conventional noun used for an inanimate object. The Noam Elimelech’s evocative example of this hypothesis is that it is more effective, when trying to wake someone, to call their name than to shake their body; a person’s given name elicits a different type of response than does a physical gesture or a neutral noun. Thus the name is, in a sense, a summation of, or a reflection of, a person’s spiritual essence. Every individual’s unique spiritual consciousness, in the classical Lurianic mystical system within which the Noam Elimelech operates, has two aspects, a transcendent aspect and a this-worldly aspect; a linkage to the upper worlds, serving as a route from the soul to the transcendent spiritual universes, and a link tied to this world, through which the individual, with his/her unique perspective and biography, can relate to society, and effect change. These two poles of the human soul, according to the Noam Elimelech, are reflected in these two sets of meanings given to the names of the tribes: On the one hand, the names reflecting the existential spiritual strivings of the individual, which incorporate within them our prayers and yearnings towards transcendence, are reflected in the names their mother Leah gave them (Leah being the archetype of the individual who cries out to God and is answered). The Midrashic readings of the names, on the other hand, are related to redemptive transformative potentiality of said individual, rectification of human society being the critical aspect of this worldly activity, and as such encode a reference to redemption. Names are bipolar, according to the Noam Elimelech, and are bipolar in a vertical orientation—an upper worldly vs. lower worldly binary polarity.
The Noam Elimelech’s disciple, the Maor V’Shemesh, explains this dual presentation of meanings in a similar manner but reflecting a differing axis. To the Maor V’Shemesh, names reflect what we may call an horizontal polarity—the names given by Leah represent the starting point, a story of origin, with which the person is born and begins, but the Midrashic readings, given retrospectively, refer to the ultimate place in the redemptive situation the individual creates as they unfold their own individual narrative. Names reflect a horizontal, linear process—past to present, a bildungsroman, a line from origin to achievement.
Here, then, we have a mystical reading of human names. One’s name, even if it is merely the “rigid designator” of Kripke, reflects the story of an individual who can make choices, evolve, and transform him/herself and the world around him, much like the poem by the modern Hebrew poet Zelda, often now incorporated in many communities’ High Holiday services:
Every man has a name
Given him by God
And given by his father and his mother
Every man has a name
Given him by his stature and his way of smiling,
And given him by his clothes….
Every man has a name
Given him by the sea
And given him
By his death.
We can understand how one can choose to look at an individual’s name as a summation of what that person is and interpret it in terms of that person’s life. But what can we say of names of God, which clearly would not fall into these definitions? Returning to our central text, what does the presentation of the various names of God as used in the book of Genesis and here want to teach us?
The early commentator Rashi reads this revelation as directly related to the current episode, as a response to Moshe’s distress, and explains that this name “ADNY” means “one who can be depended upon to reward those who go in God’s way,” thus signifying a commitment to keep the promise to the patriarchs that their descendants would be eventually liberated. What the other names mean, and why this name is being revealed now, are unclear.
R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin presents a novel approach to the concept of divine names, worthy of review for its relevance not only to theology, but to issues in the contemporary philosophy of science. R. Tzadok suggests that the name revealed in our text is not a question of terminology, of “what God’s proper name might be,” or what his social security number is, for in reality, the name revealed here, ADNY, was in fact already used by the text in connection with the patriarchs. We are not presented here with new information, with a new name. Rather, here the introduction of the concept of name is not about the actual name, but is meant to inform Moshe of a qualitative shift in the route of access. The new name signifies a new mode of relationship.
R. Tzadok explains: God’s relationship with the patriarchs was a very different one than that between God and Moshe (and consequently with the world since the giving of the Torah). God’s relationship with humanity throughout the book of Bereishit (Genesis) is one of discovery, in which an individual through an existential analysis of reality comes to understand that there is a meaning and a sense lurking behind the apparent meaninglessness of existence.
Of Avraham, for example, it is told that he kept all the mitzvot that would later be written in the Torah, as the result of an inner instinct sensitive to actions that would bring him closer to God. As a result of doing what felt right he kept all the commandments instinctively, without command (Midrash Rabba 61). This type of relationship is what is symbolized by the name “El Shaddai”, as the BT Hagiga12 explains that shadai means she-amar l’olamo dai, literally translated as “who said of creation that it is sufficient” . R. Tzadok quotes R. Simha Bunim as reading this as “the state of creation was at that point adequate and sufficient (dai) for mankind to be brought to a recognition of God’s presence,” that is, within the universe there were sufficient traces of God to enable one to find meaning by contemplating the universe (R. Simha Bunim was preceded by this by Luzzato, who in Daat Tevunot chapter 26 uses this same quote in a similar way to explain the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the idea that God “restricted” himself to allow for creation, as meaning that it was God’s choice to limit himself so as to be comprehensible to the human psyche; creation is not as how God would “want” it, but rather was intended in a way that humankind can comprehend it and thus join in the process of creation by contributing spiritual achievement and the eradication of injustice).
However, according to R. Tzadok’s reading, from this point on, an alternate route to God will be possible, that of the revelation of Text. As the BT Berachot 21. teaches, this particular name of God, ADNY, corresponds to the Torah; all of the text of the Torah, as we are taught by the mystics, is really one very long version of God’s name. This name, then, is a textual act, a performative—it is, as it were, God’s signature.
As Derrida asks in “Signature Event Context”, what is the meaning of a signature? It is not meant to be information, to tell us what the signer’s name is; rather, the signature
marks and retains his [the signer's] having-been present in a past now, which will remain a future now, and therefore in a now in general, in the transcendental form of nowness.
Any relationship to this textual act, the signature, ADNY, is in itself a direct route of encounter in the now with the signer, an encounter rather than just the information of a name. This approach, that the provision of the name is meant to be similar to the act performed by a signature, of an eternally present encounter, supports Rashi’s reading that this name is a guarantee that promises are being kept, much the way a signature works, a reassurance that the signator is one who can be trusted and depended upon. In the book of Bereishit, God is an entity to be discovered, whereas from this point on, God is one with whom we are in dialogue, and who has appended a signature of reliability. We can trust God, because God’s name is signed on the paper.
It is standard fare in religious discourse to carry on about the conflict between religion and science. Generally, what is meant by “science” is a kind of popular science, elements of science that seem to challenge or disprove “religion”, and are thus “controversial”. Often, the whole purpose of engaging with certain findings in science in this manner is from the outset to disprove religion, and from the nature of the discourse it is “science” that is privileged and “religion” that is on the defensive. The standard work of Modern Orthodox scholarship on the subject of religion and science is called “Challenge,” implying that in some way “science” is a challenge to “religion”, without a real definition of what either of those terms might mean. In this particular work, the approach is that Torah can be made to fit with “science” (i.e., evolution could fit with certain themes of kabbalistic thought, etc). In recent years, there has been a resurgence of nineteenth-century discourse with the need to “prove” that the Torah is “true” by recourse to games played with computers, the “Bible Codes,” whereby intervals derived by simple arithmetic can show references to historical events in retrospect. I personally find this approach to be unsatisfying and meaningless; a God of math tricks would not be one to turn to for meaning and consolation.
Actually, today, appeals to prove Torah through science, as though science can vindicate transcendence, are particularly distasteful at this point in our history since, if anything, after Mustard Gas, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the World Trade Center—anywhere where science was harnessed for mass destruction—it is ‘science’ that may need to vindicate itself from the point of view of ethics and meaning.
Either way, the truth of the matter is that in terms of the “challenge of science and religion,” both terms need to be better defined. On a personal note, as a cancer researcher with a molecular biology lab, I do not recognize that activity in which I am involved as a challenge to my spiritual life. If anything, contemplating the complexity, the millions of enzymatic pathways that must be coordinated to allow the moment-to-moment survival of each individual cell, of which there are millions in every limb, brings one to a humbling sense of awe and inadequacy. There is now so much information, so many interconnected pathways, that outside of one’s little area of expertise, all the other published data needs to be taken on faith, as there isn’t time enough for any one lab to go back and study every single enzyme, every single process described in all of the scientific literature.
Derrida, in a recent essay entitled “Faith and Reason,” states that “religion” is really a convergence of two issues—the sacred (“the safe, the untainted”) and the fiduciary (“trustworthiness, fidelity, credit, belief or faith”). Derrida argues that at the core, science—technoscience in particular—is equally based on this convergence of belief and trust. Every day, we get into our cars and drive as a matter of faith, faith that the technology of brakes is true and that those brakes will be adequate to safely stop the car when it is necessary. We believe the results of earlier laboratory tests on medications we routinely take without subjugating these pills to repeat testing at home because we have faith in the published work of scientists whose names appear on the published papers. That is the commercial appeal of brand names in marketing—these names allow us to believe in the product’s reliability. Science, technoscience, only works because we believe that the work presented is untainted, and have faith in its trustworthiness. Thus, in reality, Derrida states, our current deepest faith community is the scientific community, who believes in the truth of peer reviewed data. None of us in science could work without believing that the proteins we study have at one time been proven to exist, and that they are processed in the way that we have been taught. We don’t need to go back and test all the basic axioms at every moment, because of an act of faith.
I suggest that this is the significance of the emphasis upon all these names found at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names, and upon the need for an elucidation of God’s name in our text. The presence of the name is a testimony to the possibility of redemption. We have faith in these promises, because we have, as it were, God’s signature on them…