We can learn a lot about how Judaism speaks of and to God by considering the names God goes by in the Bible and our liturgy.* Here are a few examples just from the Haggadah:
Adonai , (Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Bible) generally translated as “Lord,” the way we pronounce YHWH, the “ineffable” four letter name of God”*
Elohim , usually translated as “God,” but literally, “Gods”
HaMakom , “the Place”
HaRachaman , “the Merciful One”
Ga’al Yisrael , “Redeemer of Israel”
Ha Kadosh Barukh Hu , “The Holy One of Blessing,” a favorite of rabbinic literature
Shekhinah , God’s immanence in the world, literally, “dwelling,” or “resting.”
Why so many names? “A thing cannot be grasped until its name is known.”* Imagine God and humanity calling to one another across a chasm. “Who are You?” we call. God responds with a name. We call again. Another name. God’s different names point to the mutual yearning of God and humanity to be in dialogue, to be in relationship. Alas, we can only come so close. At the burning bush Moses asks to know God’s name: “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14). Ultimately, our ability to know God remains limited. We can only grasp facets. Each of God’s names reflects one of those infinite facets. Adonai evokes God’s merciful qualities, while Elohim leans toward divine judgment. These attributes come together when we pray to Adonai Eloheinu, “Lord, our God,” or Avinu Malkeinu, “our Father, our King.”
The key is that Jews live with God — and so address God — as a partner in an ongoing relationship, not as a distant creator who set the world in motion and then retired from its affairs. Judaism understands this relationship as a “covenant,” an agreement to which both parties owe responsibilities. Thus in prayer, we often appeal to “our God and the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,” the patriarchs with whom God first established that covenantal relationship.* It’s almost as if when mentioning these figures, we are urging God to remember divine side of the covenantal bargain.
And when Jews do feel that God has reneged on the covenant, we are not above calling God to task. We find examples of this in the Bible and Talmud, which advise that boldness, even against Heaven, is effective especially in Hassidic stories.* Following the Day of Atonement, a tailor told a rabbi of his argument with God. “God, You want me to atone, but I’ve only committed only a few minor sins. But You God, have taken babies away from their mothers and mothers away from their babies. Let’s call it even, I’ll forgive you and you forgive me.” Said the rabbi, “You let God off easy. You might have forced him to redeem all of Israel!”*
Prayer is called “service of the heart,” and before beginning the Eighteen Benedictions — recited thrice daily and called Ha T’filah, “The Prayer” — we call on God to help us pray: “Open my lips, Adonai. Let my mouth declare Your praise” (Psalms 51:17). Much has been written about how to approach God through prayer. But a comment of Gerer Rebbe (Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) reminds us not to compartmentalize prayer, but to see it as an outgrowth of our ongoing service to God.
“Really, there is no advice regarding prayer. The more you serve God in all you do, the better you will be able to open your mouth in prayer. That is why it is called the “service of the heart;” it depends on the longing of the heart—all day long, in all one’s deeds.”*
Addressing God does not always involve words. Calling to God may start with words but may end in silence, tears or trembling wonder.
Christians speak about God in two fundamental ways: in images, poetic speech and concepts that at best grope their way to the Infinite; and in mystical terms that remind us that God exists beyond every affirmation and every negation.* In technical terms, the first mode of speaking of God is an affirmative or kataphatic way, which is a recognition that God may be found in all things. The second mode is a negative or apophatic way — an acknowledgment that the Divine is known only through unknowing and negation. In general, Christians in the West have stressed the affirmative mode, while the negative mode is more characteristic of Eastern Christianity, especially the Orthodox traditions.
Trinitarian language is speech reflecting Christians’ interpretation of their experience of God. The language of “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit,” metaphors all found in the New Testament, mirrors the early community’s threefold encounter with the One God who is Holy Mystery. “When people responded to Jesus, they responded to God. When people encountered Jesus, they experienced the direct claim of God upon them.”* God’s presence and power continued to be experienced through the Spirit even when Jesus was no longer physically present among them.
Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century German mystic, speaks of the Trinity in poetic terms, addressing God as “Sophia,” Wisdom:
You of the whirling wings,
energy of God:
You quicken the world in your clasp.
One wing soars in heaven
One wing sweeps the earth
and the third flies all around us.
Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!*
Whatever speech we use about God, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “there is reflected a livingness in God; a beyond, a with and a within to the world and its history; a sense of God as from whom, by whom and in whom all things exist, thrive, struggle toward freedom, and are gathered in.”*
God in the Qur’an is al-Ghaib (hidden, unseen) and the Qur’an calls upon people to accept Him as hidden and then search to find Him. God is everywhere, even closer to people than their jugular vein. God tells people to call upon Him and He will answer their call. The Qur’an says: “When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close [to them]: I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way” (2:186).
It is human desire to see God, but God cannot be seen in this worldly life. God is not like his creation and should not be compared to His creation. The Qur’an describes God’s presence in these words: “No human vision can encompass Him, whereas He encompasses all human vision: for He alone is unfathomable, all-aware” (6:103). The Qur’an tells Muslims that when they are asked about God to describe Him, they would say: “there is nothing whatever like unto Him” (42:11). However, Muslims believe that they will have a glimpse of God in the heaven. The Qur’an refers to it: “Some faces will on that Day be bright with happiness, looking up to their Sustainer” (75:22, 23).
There are two known approaches to experience God in this life: the way of Shari`ah and the Sufi Tariqa. The way of Shari`ah seeks the pleasure of God through emphasis on obeying the commands of the law with regular worship, fasting, charity, pilgrimage and other rituals of Islam. The other is a mystical-ascetic approach to Islam that seeks to find divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. Here the emphasis is more on self-control and self-discipline through Dhikr (chanting) and meditational experiences. Here is what Rabi`a al-Basri, a known Sufia and Muslim mystic female in the early period of Islam, says about her love for God:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.