On Changing One’s Jewish Name
In our congregation, each child receives at the time of consecration a certificate with his or her Hebrew name. It is our practice to include only the names of Jewish parents as part of the child’s Hebrew name. We have a situation in which the mother of a child was Jewish at the time of the child’s birth but has since converted out of Judaism. Do we include her name on the certificate? The father and the mother’s parents, who are Jewish, are dedicated to raising the child as a Jew and, in fact, travel a significant distance each week so that the child can receive a religious education. The parents are divorced, and the father has primary custody of the child. (Rabbi Bryna Milkow, Indianapolis, IN)
Your question raises two issues that are closely related but that deserve separate treatment: the religious nature and significance of one’s Jewish name, and the reasons for which it might be proper to change that name once it has been bestowed upon a person.
1. The Jewish Name. We use this designation rather than “Hebrew name” because the issue is not simply one of language. One’s Jewish name, as we have written previously, “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. In this covenantal name, the names of one’s parents do not testify simply to one’s biological lineage. Rather, they register the fact that it was through these parents that this person was brought into the berit (covenant) between God and Israel.” It is therefore inappropriate to include the name of a Gentile parent as part of a child’s “Hebrew” name, since that parent is not a member of the covenantal community. The child in this case presumably received his or her Jewish name at the ceremony of berit milah or of naming, and that name included the names of both parents – e.g., “ben/bat Ya`akov veRachel” – reflecting the fact that this child is a member of the Jewish people by virtue of the lineage of the father and the mother. Now, however, “Rachel” has begun to practice another religion; she has, that is, become an apostate. May we remove her name from that of her child, even though the child received his or her Jewishness at least in part through the mother?
2. When May One Change A Jewish Name? In a previous teshuvah, this Committee considered a request to include the name of a step-parent, along with those of the two biological parents, in a person’s Jewish name. On the basis of the reasoning set forth in the previous paragraph, we recommended that the request, which involved changing the name that the child received at birth, not be granted. In the course of our discussion, we noted that “our tradition permits one to change his or her Jewish name under certain conditions. For example, the halakhah provides that while an individual is called to the Torah by his Jewish name, he may omit his father’s name (perhaps substituting the name of his paternal grandfather in its place) should the father be an apostate, that is, a convert to another religion. Your biological father, however, has not done anything so grievous. He has not abandoned you or forsaken his duty as a father; indeed, you acknowledge that he has been ‘a regular part of (your) life.’ Even were we to agree, therefore, that at times one’s Jewish name might be altered, this is not one of those times.” We listed some sources for this halakhah in a footnote. We want to discuss them here in some detail, since they suggest a possible response for this and similar cases.
The mother in this instance is an apostate (mumeret/ mumar or meshumedet/meshumad), a Jew who has adopted another religion. The dominant view in the halakhah is that an apostate never ceases (at least technically) to be a Jew, a member of the covenant community. On the other hand, precisely because he or she has chosen to abandon Judaism, the tradition prescribes a number of penalties for the apostate. For example, “(apostates) are not permitted to lead communal worship, to address the congregation, to be counted in the minyan, or to receive synagogue honors such as an aliyah to the Torah.” The omission of the name of an apostate parent from one’s own Jewish name follows closely along these lines. In the Shulchan Arukh, R. Moshe Isserles writes: “One whose father is an apostate is called to the Torah by the name of his father’s father. He is not called by his own name alone, in order to spare him public humiliation.” For example, if Yitzchak has become an apostate, his son Ya`akov is called to the Torah by the name “Ya`akov ben Avraham,” Avraham being Yitzchak’s father. He is not called by the name “Ya`akov” alone, “in order to spare him embarrassment.” Isserles follows the decision of his Ashkenazic predecessor, R. Yisrael Isserlein, the author of the responsa collection Terumat Hadeshen. We find similar reasoning in a responsum of R. David ibn Zimra (16th-century Egypt/Eretz Yisrael), who accepts as valid a get (bill of divorce) in which the husband’s name does not include the name of his father. The omission does not disqualify the get, he declares, because (among other reasons) the father was an apostate, and it is “inappropriate” (ein ra’ui) to mention that fact in an official document. On the other hand, R. Meir Katznellenbogen, a contemporary of Isserles, appears to dissent from this thinking, arguing that the son of an apostate ought to be called to the Torah by the name of his father rather than the name of his grandfather. Yet his ruling, as he notes, deals with adults, individuals who have customarily been called to the Torah by their father’s name. To change their name now would call attention to their family scandal and cause them public shame. He explicitly distinguishes his case from that of a minor who has never been publicly called to the Torah by the name of his (apostate) father and would not be ashamed were the grandfather’s name substituted in its place. To summarize: one is permitted and even encouraged to omit an apostate parent’s name from one’s own Jewish name, unless the very act of changing the name would be the occasion of shame and embarrassment.
Your congregation’s policy strikes us as a reasonable expression of the values that emerge from the halakhic discussion. It is quite arguably “inappropriate” (ein ra’ui) to include in a child’s Jewish – covenantal – name the name of a parent who has decided to abandon the covenant. Changing the child’s name at this early age, moreover, is unlikely to cause the sort of humiliation from which our tradition seeks to spare the individual.
There is, of course, one person who may feel humiliation as a result of this change of name, and that is the child’s mother. For this reason, the rabbi should explain to her that this is not meant as a punitive act and certainly not as an effort to remove her from her child’s life but as a simple acknowledgment that, by her own decision, she no longer considers herself part of the covenant community that has committed itself to “teach these words diligently unto your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Although we regret the choice she has made and although we stand ready to welcome her back into the community of Israel should she wish to return, we accept her decision as rational. By that same token, she should accept the consequences her decision rationally entails for her child’s religious upbringing.
Our discussion is relevant as well to the cases which we mention in our earlier teshuvah. Should a parent abandon or abuse a child, the child may be entitled to omit that parent’s name from his or her own Jewish name. Many would consider it inappropriate to include the name of such a parent in the name of the child being called to the Torah. In addition, as we have seen from our examination of the sources, the issue of shame and embarrassment is of central importance in this subject. If the mention of a parent’s name will lead unavoidably to great personal humiliation for the child, then we think our tradition would support the decision to omit that parent’s name from his or her own..
Conclusion. We say all this with a caveat that should be obvious, namely that decisions such as these carry enormous psychological ramifications. The rabbis who deal with these cases will certainly want to counsel with all those involved, both the children and (if possible) the parent(s), to make sure that they understand the potential consequences of those decisions as best they can. The rabbis should remind them that, although one may be entitled to change one’s Jewish name for reasons such as these, that course of action is not obligatory. It is no little or inconsequential step to omit the name of a parent from one’s own Jewish name. The decision to do so should be carefully thought through before it is carried out.
1. CCAR Responsa Committee, no. 5760.6, “A Convert’s Hebrew Name,” http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=6&year=5760 .
2. CCAR Responsa Committee, no. 5762.2, “A ‘Hebrew Name’ for a Non-Jewish Parent,” http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=2&year=5762 .
3. This is not the place for an extended discussion of the CCAR’s position on “patrilineal descent,” enunciated in a resolution of the Conference in 1983 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=mm&year=1983). The term is something of a misnomer, since the point of the resolution is that a child can enjoy a presumption of Jewish status when either biological parent is a Jew, provided that the parent expresses the intention to raise that child as a Jew through the performance of “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.” For commentary, see Rabbi’s Manual (New York: CCAR, 1988), pp. 225-227, and Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5755.17, pp. 251-258, “The Dual Religion Family and Patrilineal Descent” ( http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=17&year=5755 ). Our point is simply that, even with this resolution, biology or lineage continues to determine Jewish status in the North American Reform Jewish community. The biological child of two Jewish parents is considered a Jew even in the absence of “appropriate and timely… acts of identification,” and the biological child of one Jewish parent may claim Jewish status, according to the terms set forth by the resolution, without the necessity for conversion. By contrast, the biological child of two non-Jews must undergo the process of giyur (conversion) in order to enter the Jewish community, even if the parents “raised” him or her as a Jew.
4. CCAR Responsa Committee, no. 5765.8, “Including the Name of a Stepfather in One’s Jewish Name,” http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=8&year=5765.
5. Ibid., note 11.
6. See R. Solomon B. Freehof, Modern Reform Responsa, no. 30, pp. 169-175; “Status of a ‘Completed Jew’ in the Jewish Community,” Contemporary American Reform Responsa, no. 68, (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=68&year=carr); and “Apostate in the Synagogue,” Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5753.13, pp. 81-85 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=13&year=5753).
7. Responsa Committee, “Donations to Synagogue by Messianic Jews,” no. 5761.2 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=2&year=5761).
8. Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 139:3.
9. Resp. Terumat Hadeshen, no. 21. Isserles (the “Rema”) lived in 16th-century Poland, where the teachings of the 15th-century German scholars were given great precedential weight.
10. Resp. Radbaz 1:376.
11. Resp. Maharam Padua, no. 87. He asserts that the author of the Terumat Hadeshen (see note 9) would have accepted this distinction as well. And see Mishnah Berurah to Orach Chayim 139, no. 9: when the adult in question moves to another city, he should omit his apostate father’s name from his own. The change would not attract attention, and no embarrassment would result.
12. See note 4.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.