Thursday, September 27, 2007


Many religious Jews will spell the English word "God" with a dash in it - "G-d." I believe that this has developed from the use of replacement names (כינויים)for the divine name in Hebrew, for example using the Hebrew for "Lord" (Adonai) instead of YHWH. Even "Adonai" has now become too sacred to say in ordinary (non-prayer) speech, so people will now replace it with "Ha-shem" ("The Name").

This is something I used to do, when I was an undergraduate, but stopped doing - but I still will not write out the divine name in Hebrew (I'll use the English transcription instead), and in classes I generally don't use the modern scholarly reconstruction of the pronunciation, "Yahweh," unless when I'm talking about the Documentary Hypothesis in my Hebrew Scriptures class.

Many of my Jewish students will write "G-d" or even "Ha-shem" in their papers, which doesn't surprise me, but I noticed a few years ago that some of my Christian students also wrote "G-d." I've asked them in the past why they write the name that way and have gotten various answers. I've now just encountered the same usage on the internet, in an article about an entirely different topic - Reihan Salam's column on Facebook etiquette on

A Christian wrote to him objecting to his flippant invocation of Allah:

I find the example you used to show how to reject friend requests just felt wrong. I'm a Christian, not Muslim—but I never would speak so flippantly about one of G-ds commands. I do respect that Christians are told not to be friends with "the world," and Muslim faith I think commands the same, but "sorry, man Allah commands it" seems like you're using G-d as an 'excuse' ... would you really want someone to say something like that if they weren't Muslim? Wouldn't that show enormous disrespect for your G-d? Not to mention should a Muslim say it! Please, can you consider this? Thank you.

Reihan Salam doesn't comment on the writer's use of "G-d" but it really struck me. I am wondering how common this is among Christians, and what rationale people have heard for writing this way? Is it something they picked up from Jewish friends? Is this something that pastors or priests are now teaching their parishioners? And if so, what is their rationale?

Any answers from my readers would be welcome - I'm also curious to know if other professors have noticed the same thing in student papers.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Approaching another September 11

W.H. Auden's words in his poem "September, 1939," still resonate for me as also evoking September 11, 2001.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

And is our decade any less low and dishonest than the one that came before us? On the one hand, the false promises of the Bush administration, which I once believed, that the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism is the same as the war in Iraq against the evil regime of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, those intellectuals and academics who equate the Bush Administration with fascism and see the United States as the root of all evil. The Bush administration has done the more damage in material terms - in lives lost both of countless innocent Iraqis and of American and other coalition soldiers, the social fabric of Iraq destroyed, the physical infrastructure mortally damaged - not to speak of the damage to the reputation of the United States around the world when we countenance torture and murder. But all that does not make the regime of Saddam any less evil - the regime which itself drove a deep wedge in Iraqi society between Sunnis and Shi'ites and which thus is one of the chief contributors to the violence between them today. The response I prefer is one that I find in reading the Euston Manifesto or the blogs of various left-wing British bloggers (some of whom supported the war in Iraq, some of whom opposed it) - people who recognize real fascism when they see it, and who know that you do not extol the Iraqi so-called resistance just because it kills American soldiers.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I think that Auden is correct about German society - but his last two lines here are too facile. Just because the reparations imposed on the Germans after WWI were unjust and a terrible burden for the defeated nation, does not mean that Germany would inevitably have turned to Nazism.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

The strength of Collective Man - perhaps one could condemn the World Trade Center towers for manifesting this, but it seems to me that much else was going on in those buildings, including the lives of many immigrants who found in them the work they needed to survive. Perhaps words like these could be used by people like Ward Churchill to condemn the people who worked in the buildings as part of "world imperialism," but the way he talked about them came too close to the old canards about New York City being the center of "Jewish world finance."

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Indeed, we do cling to the average day - our government has never asked anything of we civilians to assist in this war, excep perhaps to put up with the indignities of modern air travel. Taxes were not raised to pay for the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq - in fact, they were lowered, as if we really could have both guns and butter.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

I don't think that Auden is right when he says there is no such thing as the state - clearly it exists, and provides the political framework of our lives. On the other hand, it shouldn't be worshiped - perhaps that's what he meant. No one does live alone - despite our attempts to deify individualism in this country, we are all part of the same interconnected web.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

And even though our world - this country, the fortunes of Iraq, the situation of Israel in the middle east - seems to becoming ever bleaker, he is right to hope for an "affirming flame" in the midst of darkness. Of course, Auden puts it much better than my prose paraphrase....