(Note that in the following I write out possible names of God for the sake of clarity. Please do not say them out loud.)
Earlier this week, R. Ari Enkin offered his thoughts on why we are allowed to say the word Jehovah (link). I wish here to further analyze the topic, offering reasons to be strict although refraining from reaching a conclusion.
The most important question is how the word Jehovah should be classified. Is it a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, God’s four-letter name, or a translation of it? R. Enkin dismisses it as a transliteration for two reasons: 1) the vowelization of the Tetragrammaton is uncertain, 2) the German “J” is pronounced like the English “Y” and not the English “J”. The first reason seems insufficient to me.
If there is a doubt regarding the pronunciation, whether it should be Yehovah or Yahweh or anything else, we should be strict and refrain from all possibilities. One could argue that this would be so even if the prohibition is rabbinic. The Ran (Pesachim, on the Rif 23a sv. ve-hashta) states that when leniency on a rabbinic rule effectively nullifies it, we must be strict. In this case, uncertainty about the pronunciation (if it is rabbinic) would lead to allowing all possible pronunciations, thereby eliminating the prohibition. Therefore, even if the prohibition is rabbinic we must avoid vocalizing the Tetragrammaton in that way. If it is biblical, then we must certainly refrain in a case of doubt.
In the only responsum I could find on the subject, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi 1:25 – link) forbids a professor to recite the Tetragrammaton in a foreign language. He does not specify which language and how the name was pronounced, but it was certainly either Yahweh or Jehovah.
Regarding the mispronunciation of the letter “J”, it is not clear to me that an unintentional mispronunciation of a letter renders the name into a different word. If we intend to refer to God but mispronounce one letter, does that render a sacred name unholy? I would not correct a Torah reader who mispronounces a word in such a way.
This is particularly important because the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b) forbids reciting the Tetragrammaton in lashon agah. Multiple explanations of this phrase exist but one, advocated by the Yad Ramah (ad loc.), is a mispronunciation of the word’s vowels. Evidently, mispronunciations do not automatically remove the prohibition.
If Jehovah is not considered a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, it is certainly a translation. It would be considered an English name for God. As discussed in an earlier post (link), there is a great debate whether you may say God’s name in a foreign (i.e. non-Hebrew) language. Even R. Akiva Eiger (Responsa, no. 25), who permits erasing God’s name in a foreign language, forbids saying it needlessly. R. Yonasan Eybeschutz (Urim 25:2) harshly denounces the practice. However, others, such as the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 202:3), permit it. It seems there is ample reason to refrain from pronouncing these names for God.
III. Proper Noun
However, despite all of the above, I hesitantly point out a reason to be lenient. I do so hesitantly because I lack the stature to permit a prohibition without an explicit source. I tried to reach a posek to discuss this but was unable in time for publication.
However, we are allowed to say God’s name as part of a proper noun. For example, the city Beit El or a person named Gavriel. Both contain the divine name El but are permitted because the context is part of a mundane (i.e. non-holy) name. I suggest that the name Jehovah’s Witnesses for the religious group is similar to the city named Beit El. Jehovah, in this context, seems like a mundane name.
Sometimes the Bible itself uses names that are generally divine for mundane purposes. For example, Rashi (Gen. 18:3) writes that the word Adonai in that verse refers to an angel and not God. And Elohim (Ex. 22:27) is also accepted as sometimes being mundane. R. Elazar Fleckles devoted a book, Melekhes Ha-Kodesh, to studying every ostensibly divine name in the Pentateuch and determining whether it is holy or mundane.
Or perhaps this permission does not apply to the Tetragrammaton which we never pronounce, even when reading verses. Even when reading from the Torah the mundane name of the altar that Moshe built (Ex. 17:15) which uses the Tetragrammaton in a proper noun, we refrain from pronouncing the Tetragrammaton and instead read Adonai Nisi.
IV. Not A Conclusion
I wish to emphasize again that I am only making a suggestion here that requires review of a qualified halakhic authority. However, if this approach is deemed valid, then I would conclude as did R. Enkin but not for his reason.