It has become a practice among some, a presumed expression of piety, to write G-d instead of God. Does this enhance a sense of the sacredness of the divine name?
The practice is commonly connected with the second of the Ten Commandments which prohibits the taking of God’s name in vain. But that prohibition refers to the “unutterable” name of God, YHWH. It pertains to vows or statements made using the divine name in disrespectful, frivolous, or false ways. Some Jews have extended refraining from using even the word “God” in secular English conversation substituting the term “Hashem,” (the Name) anytime a reference to God is made. By extension, when writing in English, they spell “G-d”.
Is this necessary or even in compliance with Jewish tradition? The simple answer is “No”.
The actual source of this practice is not the Ten Commandments, but, according to rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Walter Jacob, is associated with the verses in Deuteronomy 12:3-4. There, the Israelites are instructed to “erase the name of idols,” but not to do so to “the Eternal (YHWH) your God.” Early rabbinic commentary applied this to the prohibition of erasing the name of God in Torah scrolls.
The dominant opinion is that the sanctity of the written name applies only when it is written in the Hebrew language, and not in another language. The philosopher and legal commentator, Moses Maimonides (Hilkhot Yesodeh Torah VI: 2) and the Talmud (B. Shevuot 35a-b) determine that there are only seven names of God which have inherent sanctity in Hebrew and should be preserved against abuse or neglect: YHWH, Adonai, El, Eloha, Elohim, Shaddai, and Tzevaot.
The popular practice of writing “G-d” is of rather recent vintage. Hence, some Orthodox authorities even warn against it as an unnecessary additional restriction that should be “looked upon with suspicion.” The weight of traditional opinion is against the practice of writing of “G-d” as a substitute for God.
Beyond the traditional reasons, there is an important theological argument against the writing of “G-d.” Using a dash suggests that the word itself is holy, rather than the reality to which it points. Significantly, the unpronounceable biblical name, YHWH, is a verbal, rather than a nominal concept. It implies becoming, rather than being.
Writing “G-d” accords to a secular term a sanctity that does not inhere in it. It limits and subsumes the idea of the divine into a static entity rather than a dynamic reality. At the incident of the Burning Bush, when Moses asks God to reveal the divine name, God responds, “I will be what I will be” or “I will become what I will become.” Just as we cannot see God’s face, we cannot capture the divine image in any single word.
When we tell children to put a “dash” between ‘G” and “d”, we contribute to narrowing their understanding of God into an icon, rather than inviting them to see God through the many metaphors reflecting their imagination and spiritual encounters. The ways in which we name God say more about us and our experience than about God. Focusing on the “dash” is a senseless distraction, balderdash.
Instead of thinking that writing “G-d” is an expression of reverence, let us rather show reverence in how we translate godliness into our relationships with the world and all created in the image of God.
Co-authored by Dennis C. Sasso, Senior Rabbi and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Rabbi Emerita at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, IN