The Holy One, Blessed be S/He?: Cracking the Tetragrammaton

Here’s some food for thought as you ponder your relationship with God over the next week and a half of High Holiday atonement: what if God is neither a He nor a She nor an It, but a S/He?

Rabbi Mark Sameth, a pulpit rabbi in Pleasantville, NY and Biblical-linguistic sleuth on the side, believes he has cracked the code to the pronunciation — and meaning — of the inscrutable name of God known as the Tetragrammaton. And what it means, he contends, is “He-She.” As an article about Sameth’s findings in the Lower Hudson Journal puts it:

God thus becomes a dual-gendered deity, bringing together all the male and female energy in the universe, the yin and the yang that have divided the sexes from Adam and Eve to Homer and Marge.
“This is the kind of God I believe in, the kind of God that makes sense to me, in a language that speaks very, very deeply to human aspirations and striving,” Sameth said. “How could God be male and not female?”

Now lest you think that Sameth is some Bible-Code-nut, take heed that his findings were recently published in the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) Journal, the Reform movement’s foremost theological publication, in a paper called “Who Is He? He Is She: The Secret Four-Letter Name of God.”

Sameth cracked the secret by, get this, reading backwards. If you look at the four letters of the tetragrammaton, in Hebrew, “yud – hey – vav – hey,” and read them backwards, you get the sounds “hu,” meaning “he” in English, and “he,” meaning “she” in English. Sameth explains it thusly in his CCAR piece:

…this unpronounceable Name Yud Hay Vov Hay has, in fact, always been unpronounceable for the simple reason that it is written in reverse.
The explicit Name of God is not Yud Hay Vov Hay but rather it is Hay Vov Hay Yud vocalized with a shuruk and a chirik; its two syllables become the sound equivalents of the Hebrew words hu and hi, which would be rendered in English as He-She.
Counter to everything all of us, except our Jewish mystics, have grown up believing, the God of the Torah is not a “he.” HaShem, the Tetragrammaton, Shem Ha-Meforash, the explicit, ineffable, four letter Name of God is the conflation of the Hebrew pronouns for “he” and “she.”

Sameth’s reading, then, gives us a conception of a God that is not only hermaphroditic but also dyslexic. How inclusive! (OK, cheap shot.)

The obvious technical problem with Sameth’s reading is that there’s a missing letter “aleph” at the end of each of those words. Still, one could easily explain that away by saying that the “aleph” is merely a placeholder and is not necessary when the word is attached to its counterpart. To back up his reading, Sameth presents evidence from the Torah and the mystical/Kabbalistic tradition for conceiving of God as male and female. Perhaps the most basic and compelling support he presents is the story of Creation of Adam:

Zachar un’keiva bara otam. Male and female God created them.
The text seems to be saying (and the rabbis understood it this way) that the earth-creature—the Adam—was created by God as an inter-sexed being; it, we are told, is male and female. … What the rabbis were less willing to discuss openly was the extent to which this dual-sexed earth creature—created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God—is, in its balanced, conflated gendering, the image of God.

To support the backwards reading of God’s name, Sameth presents a litany of what amounts to circumstantial yet compelling evidence, clues in Biblical literature that encourage such a reading — clues that become clear only after the backwards reading has been discovered:

And we realize now that the secret was almost revealed by the author of the Sefer Raziel, where, as one of twelve permutations of the four letters, the Tetragrammaton appears in reverse. We realize now that the secret was almost revealed by the thirteenth-century Torah commentator Rabbeinu Bachya, who makes note of every four-word cluster in the Torah whose rashei teivot, or initial letters, spell out the Tetragrammaton in reverse. … That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written enables us to make sense of our abbreviation of the four-letter Name as Hay chipchick, rather than Yud chipchick. That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written enables us to make sense of the Talmud’s statement in Masechet Shabbat that “Hay Vov is the Name of the Holy One Blessed be He.” That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written allows us to make sense of the Talmud’s statement in Masechet Kiddushin: “Not the way I am written am I pronounced.” That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written enables us to make sense of the Psalmist’s kavannah, spiritual intention: shiviti YHVH l’negdi, “I have equalized the four-letter Name of God [not l’fanai, before me, but l’negdi] opposite me.” Indeed, this was the very verse about which the thirteenth- century Castilian kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla wrote that the “whole secret is hinted at” therein.

None of it proves anything in particular, but he certainly makes an interesting case.

I’m both surprised and not surprised that this particular news story hasn’t gotten much press in the Jewish media. On the one hand, the claim of figuring out the Tetragrammaton is a huge theological story (Sameth is adamant, by the way, that he is not advocating anyone actually pronounce the name or read Torah differently based on his findings). The key to God’s name? That’s HUGE! But on the other hand, we don’t tend to go in much for the nuances of theology. Whether I conceive of God as male or female, neither or both, will it make me any less hungry when I’m fasting on Yom Kippur? Probably not.

But who knows? I actually find Sameth’s argument confusing. Insomuch as we conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms, it makes sense that S/He is both male and female. Yet I’ve always tried, in my adult life, to think of God as outside of the realm of sex and gender (superhuman, if you will).

However, the crux of what Sameth is trying to get across with his theory of the He-She God is a challenge to the archetype of male-centered religion, which is what much of organized religion has been over the last thousands of years or so, and, Sameth tells me, is still how many people think of religion today. The He-She God concept — as rooted in the most sacred name of God, His/Her essence if you will, allows people who have always been turned off by what they might have conceived of as a male-dominated religious tradition and a male-centered view of God, to connect with God in a different way. And it allows us, also, to conceive of ourselves, as created in the image of God, as neither wholly male nor wholly female but a bit of each. It creates a view of gender and sexuality that is much more open and fluid. Sameth puts it thusly:

What the mystics called “the secret of one” is the inner unification of the sometimes competing, sometimes complementing masculine and feminine energies that reside within each of us, regardless whether we are male or female. The Torah presents us with earthly role models in that regard: androgynous “he” matriarchs, and nursing kings. And yet, an act that draws those energies together with proper spiritual intention has consequences, according to our mystics, beyond the earthly realm. Such an act is called an act l’shem yichud, an act for the sake of God’s unification. For God, according to our tradition, is and at the same time is not Her/Himself yet One.

Rabbi Mark Sameth’s article appears in the Summer 2008 issue of the CCAR Journal, which can be purchased through the CCAR. The article about Sameth’s theory is no longer available for free online viewing, but it is posted in its entirety, along with some interesting commentary, on the Failed Messiah blog.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

6 comments on “The Holy One, Blessed be S/He?: Cracking the Tetragrammaton

  1. Rowan Berkeley on

    I think the ending of the above argument displays a rather characteristic Jewish belief that the Jews have a special responsibility to help God re-attain hir supposedly lost completion. However, I see nothing in this argument as a whole that distinguishes this sort of kabbala from Indian or Tibetan tantrism, both of which proceed in just the same way without benefit of any Jewish claim to priority.

  2. Rev. Stanley Miller on

    I have corresponded with Rabbi Sameth. He gave me a reply to the article which basically stated what you have stated in this article; saying that reading the tetragrammaton backwards hay , vov, hay, yod produces the sounds “Hu, “HE in english. But is that the entire pronounciation or is there certain letters or sounds left out which are not collaberated on in his article ?

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