From the Rabbi’s Desk April 2021
Rabbi Carla Freedman
FROM THE RABBI’S HOUSE
Our centenarian, Marianne Finke, always tells me that “being a rabbi must be the hardest job in the world”; I disagree with the statement, and always remind her that I love what I do. But being a rabbi has given me some very interesting, and often unexpected, experiences. Ask me, sometime, about some strange phone calls I have received over the years, and about the questions people have asked me at the grocery store and at other places not related to my work.
One unexpected result of my career (vocation? profession? occupation?) has been how people often feel they need to
“clean up” their language when speaking with me. People will use “four letter words” and then immediately say,
“Pardon my French”…as though these words must be foreign to me. I try to indicate that I have heard these words
before…and even use them…but neither comment has any effect.
In recent weeks, I have become aware of how frequently people will say to me, or in my presence, “Oh my gosh!” You and I both know that most of the time, the person intended to say, “Oh my God!” But somehow, as the first two words of that phrase escape the lips of the speaker, s/he will quickly turn the third word from “God” to “gosh”. Outside of this expression, I don’t hear people using “gosh” very much. And I am guessing that, outside of conversations with me, people don’t use it in that specific phrase either.
I suspect that this practice derives from the commandment which says “Do not take the name of Adonai your God in
vain” (Exodus 20:7). Though most commentators understand that commandment to mean that we should not take an oath, calling upon God as our witness, for no purpose, or to attest to something that is obvious (like, “the sky
is not green”), many people think that we should not even use the word “God” casually.
Accordingly, many of us were taught as children never to write the word “ Hebrew name of God, spelled in Hebrew
as Yud Hey Vav Hey. That is a name, not a category of being. The English word “god” refers to a category of being, just
as “person” does. When the word is capitalized, it refers to the deity, and Judaism teaches us that there is only one
such being. Our ancestors thought that even saying God’s (Hebrew) name aloud could release unexpected powers into the world, so they created various circumlocutions to avoid doing that; these include using the word “Adonai” instead
of the four-letter name of God, Yud Hey Vav Hey, except in prayer or rituals.
But this prohibition does not apply to the English word “God”. So you will see that word spelled out fully in English works of even Orthodox writers. Those same people will carefully use those circumlocutions to avoid using the Hebrew name of God, Yud Hey Vav Hey, in ordinary conversation.
I grew up with the same understanding, that Jews do not write the word “God” but rather, we write G-d. As I came to
fully understand the commandment in question, I quit doing so.
But when people change the word “God” to “gosh”, I think there’s more to it that the above. Perhaps they think that, as a rabbi, I will be offended by the casual use of the word “God”…but I assure you that I am not. Maybe some people think that rabbis (another category of being!) are “holy”…but I assure you that I am not. Perhaps people think that I will judge them for their use of that word…but I assure you that I do not.
The problem inherent in the previous paragraph is that we Jews have absorbed from our gentile neighbors some of their
attitude to clergy. Christian clergy, by virtue of their ordination, have powers and privileges that non-clergy do not
have. Therefore, Christians will ask their clergy to “say a prayer for me”, because they believe that the clergyperson’s
prayer is more efficacious than their own.
But rabbis are not actually clergy. Technically, rabbis are supposed to be scholars and judges of Jewish law. And praying and participating in rituals are both incumbent equally upon all Jews.The Hebrew term which best conveys the role of the rabbi nowadays is shali-akh tzibur, agent of the people. Clearly, one has to be “of the people” to be its agent.
So rabbinical ordination does not impact special powers or privileges. Nor does it make a person “holy”.
Why, golly-gosh, we rabbis are just ordinary humans! We use colorful (and off-color!) language, like everyone else.
So, I invite you to pay attention to the “gosh” phenomenon. And by all means,share your thoughts about this with me!