A “Hebrew Name” For A Non-Jewish Parent
With the influx of so many families in our congregations where there is only one Jewish parent, we have developed many new ways to appropriately welcome and engage them in the Jewish community. As a congregational rabbi, I am often asked to do baby namings or berit ceremonies for such families where there is a commitment to raise the child exclusively as a Jew. Most of the rabbis that I know will give the child a name, but the latter part of the Hebrew name (ben/bat X and Y) will only include the Hebrew name of the Jewish parent. It is my feeling that parents who raise a child Jewish should both be recognized as the parents of a Jewish child. To exclude the non-Jewish parent’s name, I feel, is to dishonor that parent, especially since he or she has agreed to bring this infant into a Jewish covenant. Thus I would name the child with the Hebrew name of the Jewish parent and pronounce the other parent’s name in Hebrew. For example, if a non-Jewish father’s name is “John”, I will not make it “Yonatan” but will pronounce it as John and write it accordingly.
Is it appropriate for clergy who bestow names on children with one Jewish parent to include a Hebraicized version of the name of the non-Jewish parent?
We agree with “most of the rabbis” that you know: we think it is inappropriate to bestow a Jewish name upon the Gentile parent of a Jewish child. You make a good argument for your point of view, but we find theirs more persuasive, for the reasons we elaborate below.
1. The Jewish Name. The Hebrew name we bear is not, properly speaking, a “Hebrew” name but a Jewish name, the name bestowed upon us at birth or upon conversion, the name by which a person “shall be called in Israel.” This name testifies to the manner in which that person acquired his or her identity as a Jew, whether by descent from a Jewish parent or parents or by conversion. A Jewish name, as we have written elsewhere, “is a covenantal name, a declaration that the one who bears it is a member of the community that stood at Sinai to receive the Torah.” It is therefore out of place to bestow a Hebrew name on a Gentile, since that person is not a member of the covenantal community. You suggest that by transliterating rather than translating the name of the Gentile parent–by writing “John” in Hebrew letters rather than “Yonatan”–we would avoid giving a false impression of Jewish identity. The difficulty is that not all Jews bear “Hebrew” names; many Jewish names have been “Hebraicized” from other cultures. The distinction you draw, in other words, would not have the desired effect. The inclusion of the non-Jewish parent’s name would still signify, incorrectly, that he or she is a Jewish parent.
2. Bringing A Child Into the Covenant. You argue that the non-Jewish parent should be given a Hebrew name because, by agreeing that the child shall be raised as a Jew, the parent acts so as “to bring this infant into a Jewish covenant.” Yet this is precisely what the non-Jewish parent cannot do. The covenant (berit) of which we speak is a bond between the Jewish people and its God. It is a way of life, a set of common values and memories handed down from one generation to the next, from Jewish parents who are themselves parties to that covenant to their children. Thus we “teach diligently” unto our children the words of Torah that we live by, the words that lie upon our heart (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Thus we recount to our children the foundational narrative of our history with the words “it is because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8), for we bring our children into the covenant when we incorporate them into our own experience. Thus we learn that when Israel entered the covenant, those who stood there physically were joined by all Jews yet unborn, as a symbol of the passing of the covenant from parent to child, from generation to generation (Deuteronomy 29:9-14). It is for these reasons that, at ritual moments that celebrate the birth of new Jewish lives, we praise God “who hallows us with mitzvot and commands us to bring our son/daughter into the covenant.” We, the Jewish people, are bound to God through a nexus of mitzvot. One of these mitzvot is the obligation to raise our children as Jews. Hence, it is we Jews–and no one else–who transmit the covenant to our children. A non-Jew, who does not partake of the mitzvot, is hardly “commanded” to bring his or her child into the covenant. He or she can agree that the children shall be raised as Jews. He or she can even cooperate actively in that endeavor, bringing the children to their Jewish school, attending synagogue services with them and the like. But that parent, who is not a Jew, cannot perform these actions with Jewish intent. The non-Jewish parent cannot transmit to his or her children the sense of belonging, of mutual obligation, and of common heritage that we mean by the word berit. A non-Jewish parent cannot bring children into the covenant of Israel.
3. A “Dishonor” to the Non-Jewish Parent? You write that to “exclude” the name of the non-Jewish parent would be to “dishonor” that person. This is a powerful argument. We are a liberal religious community, one that prizes the value of tolerance and openness; none of us wishes to insult the non-Jews in our midst. At the same time, we are puzzled at the use of the word “dishonor” to describe this situation. Our determination of a child’s Hebrew name is based upon our conception of the proper standards of religious observance and of the definitions of Jewish identity. When we insist upon these standards and definitions–which we must be able to do if we are to exist as a distinct religious community–we do not thereby make or imply any derogatory statements concerning those who are not members of our community. For example, our understanding of the act of Jewish communal worship leads us to place certain firm restrictions upon the role that a non-Jew may play in our synagogue services, including the services that mark life-cycle events for that person’s Jewish relatives. This is not meant as a slight or insult against the non-Jew. It is rather a standard we must observe in order to preserve our religious integrity as a Jewish community. Similar considerations apply to this she’elah. We think that the non-Jew, who recognizes that he or she is not a member of the Jewish religious community, can appreciate our concerns and not feel dishonored thereby. We would hope that all our congregations make it clear that we do not seek to “exclude” the non-Jewish parent from our community. On the contrary: we welcome their participation in the fellowship of our synagogue family, and we invite them to consider joining us by way of conversion. We in the Reform movement are justly proud of our efforts at outreach to the non-Jews in our midst. We actively encourage them to choose Judaism, and we offer programs and classes to aid their journey along that path. We recognize that not every non-Jewish spouse will decide to become a Jew, and we respect whatever decision he or she makes in this highly sensitive and personal matter. In the same way, we would expect that they will respect our need to make the decisions that preserve the Jewish integrity of our communal religious practice.
4. The Pastoral Response. We realize that, despite our protestations to the contrary, the non-Jewish parent might nonetheless feel excluded if his or her Hebraicized name is not part of the name bestowed upon the newborn child. We do not suggest that rabbis should ignore these emotions or fail to validate them as real. We think, rather, that the situation more properly calls for a caring and sensitive response from the rabbi, acting in his or her capacity as teacher of Torah and pastor to the community. There are many appropriate and meaningful ways in which the officiant at a berit or naming can acknowledge the role of the non-Jewish parent in committing the child to Judaism. The rabbi, for example, might speak at the service about the thoughtful consideration of the parents in choosing a path and about the generosity of spirit they have shown in deciding to raise the child as a Jew, even when one of them was not raised in our tradition. By expressing these beautiful sentiments, we can declare the full parental privilege of the non-Jew without creating a Hebrew name for someone who is not ben/bat berit. In addition, the naming certificate published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations provides spaces in which to insert the name of the child and the names of the parents in English, as well as a space for the child’s Jewish name in Hebrew. The non-Jewish parent is thus recognized in fact as the mother or father of the child, even though we do not include him or her in the child’s Jewish name. The rabbi, in other words, has ample opportunity to stress that we value highly the role he or she will play in the life of the child. What the rabbi should not do, however, is to abandon a ritual practice that makes an essential statement: namely, that Jewish identity and the covenant of Israel are precious gifts to be handed down from generation to generation, from Jewish parents to their Jewish children.
- Conversion, in Jewish tradition, is regarded as a spiritual rebirth; “the convert is like a newborn child” (BT Yevamot 22a and parallels).
- See, for example, the service for berit milah and the covenant service for a daughter in the CCAR Rabbi’s Manual (1988), pp. 12 and 21 respectively: the child’s name is bestowed by the formula veyikarei shemo/a beyisrael, “his/her name in Israel shall be…”. This formula is adapted from the traditional siddur. See as well at p. 208, the service for conversion: “and from this time forth you shall be known in the Jewish community [italics added] as ____ Ben/Bat Avraham veSara.”
- See our responsum no. 5760.6, “A Convert’s Hebrew Name.”
- See Shulchan Arukh Even Ha`ezer 129 for a lengthy treatise on the proper Hebrew spelling of the non-Hebrew names of Jewish men and women (precision on this point being a necessary feature of the laws of gitin). And see R. Jacob Z. Lauterbach in American Reform Responsa, no. 59, at 185-186.
- On the custom for the proselyte to take the name ben/bat Avraham veSarah, see our responsum 5760.6.
- “In every generation, one must view himself as having personally come forth out of Egypt, as it is said, ‘Because of what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt” (M. Pesachim 10:5).
- The phrase “and the one who is not here with us today” ostensibly refers to the yet-unborn generations of Israel; see Rashi to Deut. 29:14. An alternative rabbinic tradition applies those words to all those who will one day convert to Judaism (BT Shabbat 146a).
- Rabbi’s Manual (1988), 11 and 20-21. The latter adapts the traditional circumcision benediction to the covenant ceremony of an infant girl.
- Reform Jews differ as to the precise theological meaning of the term mitzvah. Still, we do not shy from using that word to describe an act or a pattern of behavior that we perceive to be an obligation stemming from our identity as Jews and our membership in the covenant. Thus, “it is a mitzvah to teach one’s child the traditions and beliefs of Judaism”; Simeon J. Maslin, ed., Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR, 1979), 19.
- Relevant here is the rabbinic dictum “the one who acts because he is commanded (mi she-metzuveh ve’oseh) is greater than the one who acts even though he is not commanded” (BT Bava Kama 38a and 87a; BT Avodah Zarah 3a). The statement is part of a Talmudic discussion over the merit due to a non-Jew who “occupies himself with Torah.” The conclusion is that while such behavior is indeed a good thing, it is purely voluntary. The non-Jew does not thereby uphold a responsibility that characterizes the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.
- There is a famous dispute in the halakhic literature over the question: do mitzvot require intention (kavanah)? That is, can one fulfill the obligation imposed upon him or her by simply performing an action, without at that moment formulating a specific intention that “I am about to perform a mitzvah?” See BT Pesachim 114b and BT Rosh Hashanah 28a-b. This macloket is generally decided in favor of the position that requires kavanah (Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 60:4): that is, in order to fulfill a mitzvah one must perform that act with the conscious intent to fulfill it as a Jewish religious obligation. A non-Jew simply cannot do this. One who is not Jewish cannot perform any action with the intent to fulfill thereby a Jewish religious obligation, because the non-Jew does not partake of the covenant between God and Israel that is defined by mitzvot.
- See our responsum “Gentile Participation in Synagogue Ritual,” no. 5754.5, Teshuvot for the Nineties, 55-75.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.