I’d like to compare here the use of various « grammatical » names of God, in the Veda and in the Zohar.
The idea of a « One » God is extremely old. More than four thousand years ago, long before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, the One God was already celebrated by nomadic peoples transhumant in Transoxiana to settle in the Indus basin, as attested by the Veda, and then, a few centuries later, by the peoples of ancient Iran, as reported by the sacred texts of the Avesta.
But the strangest thing is that these very diverse peoples, belonging to cultures thousands of years and thousands of miles apart, have called God by the interrogative pronoun. They named God by the name « Who ?» and other grammatical variations.
Even more surprisingly, some three thousand five hundred years after this innovation appeared, the Jewish Kabbalah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, took up this same idea of using the interrogative pronoun as a Name of God, developed it and commented on it in detail in the Zohar.
It seems that there is rich material for a comparative anthropological approach to various religions celebrating the God named « Who? »
The Vedic priests prayed to the one and supreme God, creator of the worlds, Prajāpati, – the « Lord (pati) of creatures (prajā) ». In the Rig Veda, Prajāpati is referred to as क (Ka, « who »), in hymn 121 of the 10th Mandala.
« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.
Only He was the born sovereign of the world.
He fills the earth and the sky.
– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?
He who gives life and strength,
He whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,
immortality and death are only His shadow!
– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?
He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,
that bear strength and engender salvation,
He who, above the gods, was the only God!
– To ‘Who?’-God will we offer the sacrifice? » i
Max Müller asserts the pre-eminence of the Veda in the invention of the pronoun « Who » as a name of God: « The Brâhmans did indeed invent the name Ka of God. The authors of Brahmaṇas have broken so completely with the past that, forgetting the poetic character of the hymns and the poets’ desire for the unknown God, they have promoted an interrogative pronoun to the rank of deityii.
In the Taittirîya-samhitâiii , the Kaushîtaki-brâhmaṇaiv , the Tâṇdya-brâhmaṇav and the Satapatha-brâhmaṇavi , whenever a verse is presented in interrogative form, the authors say that the pronoun Ka which carries the interrogation designates Prajāpati. All hymns in which the interrogative pronoun Ka was found were called Kadvat, i.e., ‘possessing the kad‘, – or ‘possessing the who?
The Brahmans even formed a new adjective for everything associated with the word Ka. Not only the hymns but also the sacrifices offered to the God Ka were referred to as « Kâya »’vii.
The use of the interrogative pronoun Ka to designate God, far from being a kind of limited rhetorical artifice, had become the equivalent of a theological tradition.
Another question arises. If we know that Ka actually refers to Prajāpati, why use (with its burden of uncertainty) an interrogative pronoun, which seems to indicate that one cannot be satisfied with the expected and known answer?
Further west to the highlands of Iran, and half a millennium before the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the Yashts, among the oldest hymns of the Avesta, also proclaim this affirmation of the One God about himself: « Ahmi yat ahmi » (« I am who I am »)viii.
God is named this way in Avestic language through the relative pronoun yat, « who », which is another way of grammatically dealing with the uncertainty of God’s real name.
A millennium before Moses, Zarathushtra asked the one God: « Reveal to me Your Name, O Ahura Mazda, Your highest, best, most just, most powerful Name ».
Then Ahura Mazda answered: « My Name is the One, – and it is in ‘question’, O holy Zarathushtra! « »ix .
The Avestic text literally says: « Frakhshtya nâma ahmi« , which can be translated word for word: « He who is in question (Frakhshtya), as for the name (nâma), I am (ahmi)« . x
Curiously enough, long after the Veda and the Avesta, the Hebrew Bible also gives the One God these same « grammatical » names, « Who » or « He Who ».
We find this use of the interrogative pronoun who (מִי , mi ) in the verse from Isaiahxi: מִי-בָרָא אֵלֶּה (mi bara éleh), « Who created that? ».
As for the relative pronoun « who, whom » (אֲשֶׁר , asher), it is staged in a famous passage from Exodusxii: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), « I am who I am », or more acurately, « I will be who I will be », taking into account the imperfect tense of ‘ehyeh’.
The latter option leaves open the possibility of a future revelation, of another Name yet, or of a divine essence whose essence would have no grammatically formulable essence, but could be rendered only approximately, for example by means of a relative pronoun and a verbal form in the future .
Two millennia after Isaiah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, the famous book of the Jewish Kabbalah, the Zohar, attributed to Moses de Leon, focused on a detailed study of the name Mi (« Who? ») of God.
One of the tracks that emerges from this interrogation is the intrinsically divine relationship of Mi (Who) to Mâ (What) and to Eleh (That).
« It is written: « In the beginning ». Rabbi Eleazar opened one of his lectures with the following exordium: « Lift up your eyes (Is 40:28) and consider who created this ». « Lift up your eyes up, » to what place? To the place where all eyes are turned. And what is that place? It is the « opening of the eyes ». There you will learn that the mysterious Elder, the eternal object of research, created this. And who is He? – Mi » (= Who). He is the one who is called the « Extremity of Heaven », above, for everything is in his power. And it is because he is the eternal object of research, because he is in a mysterious way and because he does not reveal himself that he is called « Mi » (= Who); and beyond that we must not go deeper. This upper end of the Heaven is called « Mi » (= Who). But there is another end at the bottom, called « Mâ » (= What). What is the difference between the two? The first, mysterious one, called « Mi », is the eternal object of search; and, after man has searched, after he has tried to meditate and to go up from step to step until he reaches the last one, he finally arrives at « Mâ » (= What). What did you learn? What did you understand? What did you look for? Because everything is as mysterious as before. This mystery is alluded to in the words of Scripture: ‘Mâ (= What), I will take you as a witness, Mâ (= What), I will be like you' ». xiii
What are we learning, indeed? What have we understood?
Mi is a Name of God. It is an eternal object of research.
Can it be reached? No.
One can only reach this other noun, which is still only a pronoun, Mâ (= What).
You look for « Who » and you reach « What ».
This Mâis not the sought-after Mi, but of Mâ we can say, as Scripture testifies: « Mâ, I will take you as a witness, Mâ, I will be like you. » xiv
The Zohar indicates indeed:
« When the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, a heavenly voice came and said, « Mâ (= What) will give you a testimony, » for I have testified every day from the first days of creation, as it is written, « I take heaven and earth as my witness this day. « And I said, « Mâ will be like you, » that is, He will give you sacred crowns, very much like His own, and make you ruler over the world. » xv
The God whose Name is Mi is not the God whose Name is Mâ, and yet they are one.
And above all, under the Name of Mâ, He will one day be the ‘equal’ of anyone who seeks Him in all things, at least according to the Zohar:
« Just as the sacred people no longer enter the holy walls today, so I promise you that I will not enter my dwelling place above until all the troops have entered your walls below. May this be your consolation, for in this form of « What » (Mâ) I will be your equal in all things. » xvi
The man who ‘seeks’ God is placed between Mi and Mâ, in an intermediate position, just as Jacob was once.
« For Mi, the one who is the upper echelon of the mystery and on whom all depends, will heal you and restore you; Mi, the end of heaven from above, and Mâ, the end of heaven from below. And this is Jacob’s inheritance that forms the link between the upper end Mi and the lower end Mâ, for he stands in the midst of them. This is the meaning of the verse: « Mi (= Who) created that » (Is 40:26). » xvii
But that’s not all. Isaiah’s verse has not yet delivered its full weight of meaning. What does « that » mean?
« Rabbi Simeon says, « Eleazar, what does the word ‘Eleh‘ (= That) mean? It cannot refer to the stars and other heavenly bodies, since they are always seen and since the heavenly bodies are created by « Mâ« , as it is written (Ps 33:6): « By the Word of God the heavens were created. » Neither can it refer to secret objects, since the word « Eleh » can only refer to visible things. This mystery had not yet been revealed to me until the day when, as I stood by the sea, the prophet Elijah appeared to me. He said to me, « Rabbi, do you know the meaning of the words, ‘Who (Mi) created that (Eleh)? «
I answered him, « The word ‘Eleh‘ means the Heavens and the heavenly bodies, and Scripture commands man to contemplate the works of the Holy One, blessed be he, as it is written (Ps 8:4): « When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, etc ». and a little further on (Ibid., 10): « God, our master, how wonderful is your name on all the earth. «
Elijah replied: Rabbi, this word containing a secret was spoken before the Holy One, blessed be He, and its meaning was revealed in the Heavenly School, here it is: When the Mystery of all Mysteries wished to manifest itself, He first created a point, which became the Divine Thought; then He drew all kinds of images on it, engraved all kinds of figures on it, and finally engraved on it the sacred and mysterious lamp, an image representing the most sacred mystery, a profound work coming out of the Divine Thought. But this was only the beginning of the edifice, existing but not yet existing, hidden in the Name, and at that time called itself only « Mi« . Then, wanting to manifest Himself and be called by His Name, God put on a precious and shining garment and created « Eleh » (That), which was added to His Name.
« Eleh« , added to inverted « mi » [i.e. ‘im’], formed « Elohim« . Thus the word « Elohim » did not exist before « Eleh » was created. It is to this mystery that the culprits who worshipped the golden calf alluded when they cried out (Ex 32:4): « Eleh » is your God, O Israel. » xviii
We learn in this passage from the Zohar that the true essence of the golden calf was neither to be a calf nor to be made of gold. The golden calf was only a pretext to designate « that ».
It was only there to designate the essence of « Eleh » (That), the third instanciation of the divine essence, after that of « Mi » and that of « Mâ » …
As the Zohar indicates, this can be deduced by associating the Name « Mi » (Who?) with the Name « Eleh » (That), which allows us to obtain the Name « Elohim » (God), after inverting mi into im, ...
The Name Mi, the Name Mâ and the Name Eleh were not primarily divine nouns, but only pronouns (interrogative, relative, demonstrative).
These divine pronouns, in which lies a powerful part of mystery because of their grammatical nature, also interact between themselves. They refer to each other a part of their deeper meaning. The « Who » calls the « What », and they both also refer to a grammatically immanent « That ».
The grammatical plane of interpretation is rich. But can a more theological reading be attempted? I think so.
These three Divine Names, « Who », « What » and « That », form a kind of proto-trinity, I’d like to suggest.
This proto-trinity evokes three attributes of God:
He is a personal God, since we can ask the question « Who? » about Him.
He is a God who may enter in relation, since relative pronouns (« Whom », « What ») can designate Him.
Finally He is an immanent God, since a demonstrative pronoun (« That ») can evoke Him.
Even if Judaism claims an absolute « unity » of the divine, it cannot help but hatch within itself Trinitarian formulations – here, in grammatical form.
This Trinitarian phenomenology of the divine in Judaism, in the grammatical form it borrows, does not make it any less profound or any less eternally perennial. For if there is indeed an ever-present symbol, always at work, of the original wiring of the human mind, it is grammar…
In a million years, or even in seven hundred million years from now, and whatever idea of the divine will reign then, I guess that there will still be a transhuman or posthuman grammar to evoke the categories of the Who, the What, and the That, and to make them look as aspects or ‘faces’ of the Divine.
iRig Veda. 121st Hymn. Book X.
iiMax Müller. History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature. 1860, p. 433
iii I, 7, 6, 6
iv XXIV, 4
v XV, 10
vii The word Kâya is used in Taittirîya-samhitâ (I, 8, 3, 1) and Vâgasaneyi-samhitâ (XXIV, 15).
viii Max Müller, Theosophy or Psychological Religion. Ed. Longmans, Green. London, 1895, p.52
ix » My name is the One of whom questions are asked, O Holy Zarathushtra ! ». Quoted by Max Müller, Theosophy or Psychological Religion. Ed. Longmans, Green & Co. London, 1895, p. 55
x Cf. this other translation proposed by Max Müller: « One to be asked by name am I », in Max Müller. Theosophy or Psychological Religion. Longmans, Green & Co. London, 1895, p. 55.