Name abuse

The vendor had decided to print the holy Hebrew letters on tee shirts, mugs, buttons and other articles, including underwear and dog sweaters.

Much in our world desecrates the name of God - in Hebrew, that is called hilul Hashem. Whether murder and mayhem in the name of religion or misbehavior on the part of religious individuals, actions that push holiness away from a world that so direly needs it are considered by Judaism to constitute a singular sin. Recently, though, a quite literal desecration of God's name unexpectedly came to my attention. A cataloger at a law school library, Mrs. Elisheva Schwartz, called with a disturbing discovery. She had come across an online vendor seeking to make a few dollars off the marketing of clothing and kitsch bearing the holiest Hebrew name of God. The Tetragrammaton, to use its Greek appellation, is a four-character word (tetra means four; grammat, letter) that Judaism considers so holy it is forbidden today to pronounce or ever to treat in anything but a deeply honorable manner. According to Jewish law, a piece of parchment, paper, cloth or pottery bearing the Name must be carefully preserved or solemnly buried. Religious Jews refer to the word simply as "the specified Name" and when it occurs in the Torah reading or prayer service, it is not read as written; a less holy Hebrew word meaning simply "my Lord" is substituted instead. The vendor in question, for reasons unknown, had decided to print the holy Hebrew letters on an assortment of tee shirts, mugs, buttons and other articles, including underwear and dog sweaters. WE LIVE in a free society, of course, and nothing prevents anyone from exercising his or her right to personal expression, even if it may be offensive to others. But nothing prevents anyone, either, from voicing pain born of such offense. And so I contacted Cafe Press - a sort of online flea-market that the vendor was using to sell his or her wares - to register Agudath Israel's chagrin at the commercialization and degradation of God's name. Please consider making a decision, I wrote, that is "respectful of Jews and Judaism." Within hours, what seemed a stock reply arrived. Caf Press, it informed, provides its services to "a rich and vibrant community of individuals across the globe who differ in their views about what is considered offensive." Well, I'm sure it does and they do. All the same, though, I'm also pretty sure that the site isn't being used to peddle dog sweaters bearing, say, the Arabic word for Allah. So I inquired about whether Cafe Press had any code of standards regarding offensiveness. Again, a reply arrived quickly, directing me to where I could find the company's standards. To its credit, the code is a responsible and comprehensive document. And one category of prohibited content was: "Material that is generally offensive or in bad taste, as determined by" And so I wrote again, reiterating that "from the perspective of all religious (and many less-than-religious) Jews, the placement of God's holy Hebrew name on a piece of apparel, not to mention apparel like underwear or pet sweaters, is profoundly offensive. "Which leaves us," I concluded, "with the 'as determined by' clause. "And so I ask: What is your determination?" THAT WAS many days and two more inquiries ago. Thus far, no reply. Perhaps the administrators of the site are in the process of informing the vendor that his or her merchandise doesn't meet their company's standards. Or perhaps they are not. Either way, though, should any readers of these words happen to share Mrs. Schwartz's and my feeling of offense at the commercial debasing of something deeply holy to Judaism, please consider making an e-mail inquiry of your own to Caf Press. The address for such communications is Needless to say, inquiries should be polite and reasoned. And if - as I hope - the company's response is that the merchandise at issue has been removed from the site, then a sincere expression of gratitude to the company is in order. In that case, not only Cafe Press‚ decision but our expressions of thanks will constitute a kiddush Hashem, a "sanctification of God's name." The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.