One of my Jewish colleagues was describing his recent visit to a jewelry website. He was shopping for a necklace to give his daughter when he came upon one with four Hebrew letters: yod, hey, vav, hey.
These are the letters that spell God’s special name, as given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the rest of the Jewish people. I grew up in an evangelical church where this name was celebrated in song, so the four letters appearing on a necklace did not seem weird to me at all. But it sure did to my friend.
In Judaism, the name for God is never spoken and never casually written. The third commandment in the Torah forbids taking this name in vain, so most Jews avoid using it at all. In fact, any item with the written name cannot be disposed of normally – it is usually buried.
Of course, Christians have their own unique practices regarding the third commandment as well. As a child, I grew up saying “oh my gosh” or “jeez” as alternatives to more common (and sacrilegious) slang, not unlike replacing God’s name with Adonai (“Lord”) or HaShem (“The Name”) in Jewish culture.
Though Christians and Jews have different customs, we share a mutual respect for God’s name. We both confess that “God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and we recognize the need for reverence in approaching God or using His name.
Thus, it should not surprise Christians that Jews see threading the most sacred name into a fashionable trinket as sacrilegious. Sadly, many of us are ignorant to the culture that gave us not only words for God, but the very words of God, as well.
I was fortunate enough to learn about God in a church that read the entire Bible, not just the red letters. In fact, another colleague’s husband remarked that I knew the Hebrew Bible quite well… for a Christian! My knowledge of Jewish culture, however, is still developing.
I once decorated my house for Christmas in blue and white lights simply because I liked the color scheme. Upon learning that these were Hanukkah colors, I felt foolish. I felt foolish that I could recite Psalm 1 – a part of the Bible Christians and Jews share – from memory but knew nothing about such an important Jewish holiday.
Another time, I was setting up a lunch meeting and actually asked a Jewish colleague if she was allowed to drink bottled water. I thought I was being considerate of her kosher diet until she replied jokingly, “Yes, Alex, I’m allowed to drink water.”
Before working at The Fellowship, I knew even less about Judaism and Jewish culture. No one kept this knowledge from me, so I bear some responsibility for my own naiveté. But I also believe the church could have done more to teach me.
Numerous churches teach about God’s people and Christians’ “grafted-in” status, but too few teach about our Jewish roots or showing some respect to our spiritual forebears. Just as children are commanded to honor their parents, I believe we must honor our parents in faith.
But we cannot honor our faith parents if we know nothing about them.
Of course, learning about Jewish culture does not mean we appropriate their practices. As Christians, I do not believe we are prohibited from speaking God’s name. But we can refrain from speaking it around our Jewish friends out of respect for them.
It is not enough to teach the irrevocability of God’s promises if we treat the bearers of those promises as Bible characters, not real people with a real culture. Jewish culture should not be any less common of a sermon topic than salvation or sanctification.
Hopefully, the next generation of Christians will grow up with more respect for and knowledge of Jewish belief and practice than I did. We can make that happen. And it starts with the local church.
- Alex Bersin is a Fellowship staff member