Jehovah's Witnesses...That's the trademark of the religion, the use of the name "Jehovah." If there is anything JWs and non-JWs can agree on is that this one thing sets them apart from everybody else.
I have only had Witnesses come to my door less than five times since I left in the 1990s. I guess they don't work the territory I live in often, or perhaps after that first time (which was still after the year 2000) they have marked the words "JEW WHO KNOWS A LOT" or something in their notes on my address. I've never told any of them I have been a Witness nor has any one of them guessed. But none of them leave quite the same, mainly because of asking about the name "Jehovah."
Since I've joined this forum, I have received several private messages requesting I answer some questions about the Divine Name. These questions have been similar to the ones I got asked by Witnesses who came to me door. So with the permission of those who have sent me PMs, I have limited the most frequently questions I get asked about God's Name down to four. They might inspire some new ones, so feel free to ask, but keep in mind I am only presenting the general ideas of Judaism here and how they relate to claims made about Jehovah's Witnesses. For more in-depth information about Judaism in general, I recommend My Jewish Learning, a website that will give you a good overview of the various views of Jewish practice.
The four questions are:
- How do Jews regard the Tetragrammaton? Do they see it as a personal name of God?
- Is the Watchtower explanation correct, namely that Jews avoid pronouncing the name due to a superstition? What is this superstition?
- Has Christendom tried to suppress the pronunciation of God’s name as Jehovah’s Witnesses claim?
- Are the Hebrew names for God indicative of theories that the Jews worshipped other deities and then merely applied their names to their current monotheistic concept?
How do Jews regard the Tetragrammaton? Do they see it as a personal name of God?
Unlike what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, Jews see all the words that they use in their language (such as "God," "Lord," etc.) as “names” for the God of Abraham. As for the Tetragrammaton, what Jews call the Shem Ha-M’forash, it is seen as a self-designation. It’s also a name, but in some respects an “anti-name.”
In the ancient Mesopotamian world, bestowing a name upon something implied you had power over it. The Hebrew word shem actually means “handle” or even “reigns” or “leash,” items used to control or maneuver other things. While the other names for God seem to have been borrowed language from the world the ancient Hebrews lived in, the Shem Ha-M’forash is understood as a revelation. Instead of it being a name the Jews gave God, it explains the way Jews experienced God. God is “Self-designating,” not the other way around.
The “I am what I am” definition so familiar to most Christians is really another way of saying, “I am defined by myself, by what I am. I am not defined by you. Instead, you are defined by me.”
As such it isn't so much of a “handle” as it is the opposite of such. It is God’s “name,” for lack of a better word in English, but it’s not really a name since such implies control over the one so “named.”
Is the Watchtower explanation correct, namely that Jews avoid pronouncing the name due to a superstition? What is this superstition?
No, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not correct when they say Jews have a superstition that keeps them from pronouncing the Shem Ha-M’forash. We don’t pronounce it for two very good reasons.
Jews treat holy things different from mundane things. Just as the Ark of the Covenant was not to be touched and its contents not to be viewed, the Shem Ha-M’forash is not to be pronounced. Mundane names can be used often, just like mundane objects can be used and approached by all. But holy things in the Jewish world are treated in a fashion that separates them from the regular, everyday mundane world. The Self-designation of God is far holier than other names, thus Jews don’t speak it. We often use other names of God, such as Adonai as substitutes.
No one knows for sure how it was pronounced or if it was ever pronounced to begin with. While there are possible ways of attempting to reconstruct the way the Shem Ha-M’forash sounded, there is also evidence to suggest it was meant to remain ineffable. The words “Yahweh” and “Jehovah” were constructed by Christians, not Jews, and therefore these terms have no meaning for us.
Has Christendom tried to suppress the pronunciation of God’s name as Jehovah’s Witnesses claim?
The opposite is true. “Jehovah” comes from Catholicism’s attempt to reconstruct the name. “Yahweh” is a more ecumenical Christian attempt at reconstruction, but it was again the Roman Catholic Church that has made it popular after Vatican II. It was once, in either or both forms, the mainstay of many Baptist and Catholic prayers and hymns.However, due to the official, ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue (wherein the Catholic Church is the major player on the Christian side), the use of the name had been dropped from Catholic and most Protestant liturgies by the dawn of the 21st century. The reason is that the idea that “a Jewish superstition” kept the Jews from pronouncing it was discovered to have no basis (with some evidence suggesting this claim came from anti-Semitic propaganda). Theologians of Christianity today side with the Jewish understanding of the Ineffable Name of God as proper, so much so that many churches, including those of the Catholic Church have removed the words “Jehovah” and “Yahweh” from all hymnals and prayer books. The upcoming third revision of the Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic Bible well-known for using “Yahweh” throughout, will have “Lord” or “God” in capital letters as a substitute for the Shem Ha-M’forash in its upcoming version.
Are the Hebrew names for God indicative of theories that the Jews worshipped other deities and then merely applied their names to their current monotheistic concept?
There are hypothetical paradigms created by some which data suggests might support such a view, but they are not at the stage of theory yet.
While it is true that the Jews also worshipped the gods of the nations around them (even the Bible admits this repeatedly), and it is understood even by Jews that we borrowed words from other deities to describe ours (such as the word El), critical analysis reveals a competition of God-concepts and not a single line of evolution from one god to another.
This doesn't mean that the various hypothetical paradigms have no weight, but they do seem to be reconstructions of what current critical theories teach. Currently it appears that the Jewish claim that monotheism was unique and won-out in co-existence with these other Mesopotamian deities matches what disinterested academia can decipher.
Still the other hypothetical models wouldn't change much of anything for Judaism. The monotheistic concept of the Jews itself has greatly evolved over millennia, so much so that it no longer completely matches with the written Biblical views. Christianity cherishes the static view of God found in Scripture, but Jews use it as a sounding and diving board by which they move forward. And unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe the Bible is the basis for Judeo-Christian religion, Jews see their religion and culture as the basis for the Bible. Therefore what it offers can only be a static view of God from the ancient past, frozen in the time it was composed and limited by the views the ancient theologians had so many thousands of years ago.