The unmentionable three-letter word

We gave the world monotheism, but we're skittish about mentioning God in public.

moses god 88 298 (photo credit: )
moses god 88 298
(photo credit: )
In America, a certain four-letter word is off limits in fine society. Only in vulgar company do you hear it. In Israel, a certain three-letter word seems to be off limits in fine society. Only in religious company or on the street do you hear it. That three-letter word is G-O-D. Consider the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He took the oath on a Bible carefully chosen by him, and besides citing Scripture, his speech mentioned God several times. Prayers by ministers abounded, with further references to God. The major song referred to "God, author of liberty." On the very next morning, the new president arose early to attend a church service. Throughout the inauguration ceremonies, there was a palpable sense that the new president and most Americans felt their destiny was not in human hands alone. Most significantly, there was no shyness about the presence of God. On the contrary, He was displayed openly, proudly, unself-consciously. He was a most honored guest, seated front and center. As a Jew, I was a bit embarrassed by all this - because in this country's public governmental functions, the only times we hear such full-throated references to God are at national memorial services, and that voice is that of the rabbi or cantor reciting the obligatory memorial prayer. Government leaders apparently feel that to utter this three-letter word in public would be political suicide - unless some grave crisis envelops the nation. In our counterparts of inauguration ceremonies, God - though He is allowed to enter - is hidden somewhere in a shadowy corner, to be summoned only in times of national emergency. Certainly our top secular political leaders rarely call Him forward or invoke His name It is not that we lack believers among our leadership. I am certain that many of them do believe in a creator and in a divine master of the universe. Some of them might even pray on occasion. But there seems to be a certain self-consciousness about God on the part of our politicians, our intellectual elite, our media personalities, our cultural spokesmen - a certain anxiety and unease about the public use of His name. They are going well beyond the letter of the law in the second commandment, Thou shalt not utter the name of God in vain. Not only are they not uttering God's name in vain; they are not uttering God's name, period. I recall listening as the late Yitzhak Rabin - he was then only general Rabin, not yet prime minister - spoke at a memorial service for fallen soldiers. He loudly declared that anyone who thinks the hand of God was involved in the lightning Six Day War is mistaken; it was a result of superior planning and strategy. Rabin that day was the very embodiment of Moses' admonition against ever boasting that "my power and my strength have created this victory" (Deuteronomy 8:17). And one recalls with some mortification the radio reporter who, after the death of Ilan Ramon and the other astronauts, was attempting informally to do a simultaneous translation into Hebrew of President George W. Bush's eulogy. The reporter was doing fine, but suddenly began to stumble badly over one section of the president's speech, unable to translate a group of unfamiliar words - evidently not realizing that Bush was quoting Psalms. THE EARLY secular Zionists strove mightily to cast off the yoke of what they called the "Diaspora mentality," but they threw out the baby with the bathwater. Religion, Torah, Jewish classical study - all were Diaspora phenomena. Israelis were the "new Jews" - muscular, tough, with sleeves rolled up. Not for them the pale yeshiva student of the Diaspora. The Zionists succeeded only too well, and raised generations that are religiously illiterate, ignorant of Jewish practice and who even view Zionism itself as pie-in-the-sky idealism. They are unfamiliar with Jewish history and our Bible (much less Mishna and Talmud), and dare not speak the name of God lest they be branded as religious - and to be religious, they have been taught, is somehow to be medieval, unenlightened. Even the Declaration of Independence avoids mentioning the unmentionable three- letter word. Instead of "God," we have "the Rock of Israel" - a euphemism designed to mollify the ultrasecularists who helped draw it up. So eager are we to be au courant that we even sanitized our national anthem. Does anyone recall its original concluding lines? After "od lo avda tikvateinu" (we have not lost our hope), there used to be "hatikva hanoshana" (the ancient hope)/"lashuv l'eretz avoteinu" (to return to the land of our fathers)/"l'ir ba David chana" (to the city in which King David dwelled). The modern version is subtlely different: hatikva bat shnot alpayim "the 2000-year-old hope" (no "ancient" for us moderns) lihyot am chafshi "to be a free nation" (freedom is a good p.c. word) b'arztenu "in our land" - our land is far less traditional and much more contemporary than "to return to the land of our fathers." IT IS somehow difficult to fathom how we - who gave monotheism to the world, and in modern times miraculously returned to our homeland after a hiatus of 2,000 years, defeating the millions of enemies all around us in one war after another while building up a lovely and prosperous land despite the animosity of much of the world, one that leads the world in scientific, intellectual and technological advances - how after all this, we should have become so skittish about invoking the name of God. No one expects our national leadership to don tzitzit, but an important first step in rectifying our moral and spiritual drift would be to begin gradually restoring God to His rightful place in our national conversation. We have lost our anchor, and without an anchor the ship of state flounders aimlessly in the angry waters. Israel, thank God, is comprised of more than its elites. We should be grateful to the religious and the man-in-the-street: at least they help us maintain our own self-respect as well as the respect of the outside world. Without them this Godless phenomenon would be more than mortifying. We imitate so much of America that is vulgar, from entertainment to advertising to clothing styles. Perhaps we could also learn to imitate its positive attributes. One good way to begin would be to give serious consideration to the more frequent use of a certain three-letter word - just like they do in America. The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, is the former editor in chief of Tradition magazine, and served as rabbi in Atlanta for 40 years. The author of nine books, he is presently on the editorial staff of the newly published Encyclopedia of Mitzvot.