A Convert’s Hebrew Name
A Jew-by-choice in my community does not wish to accept the customary Hebrew name bat Avraham avinu ve-Sarah imeinu. She objects to this name for two reasons. First, since the name advertises her status as a convert, she finds it to be embarrassing and thus a possible violation of the rule that one is not to remind a ger/giyoret of his/her past. Second, this name ignores the identity of her actual parents, who though they do not join her in conversion nonetheless have raised her and loved her from birth. She wants her Hebrew name to include the names of her parents. Is this permissible? If so, should we find Hebrew equivalents for her parents’ names? (Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, Burlingame, CA)
The Convert’s Name in Jewish Tradition. By long-standing practice, we refer to the Jew-by-choice as “the son/daughter of Abraham our father” (ben/bat Avraham avinu). R. Yosef Karo, who mentions this practice in his Shulchan Arukh, identifies as its source a responsum of R. Asher b. Yechiel (13th/14th-century Germany and Spain). R. Asher tells us that the ger (convert) is called “the son of Abraham” because Abraham is called “the father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4-5). This suggests a Talmudic debate concerning the mitzvah of bikurim, or “first fruits.” The Torah instructs that an offering of the “first fruits” of the harvest be brought to Jerusalem, to the priest in authority in those days, and that the person who brings the offering recite a “confession” (vidu’i), a litany expressing our gratitude for having been brought forth from Egypt and for having inherited a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:1-11). The question: does a convert recite this confession when he brings his bikurim to the Temple? The Mishnah answers “no”: the ger may not recite the vidu’i because, as his ancestors were not Jewish and did not inherit the land of Israel, he cannot truthfully give thanks for “the land that God swore to our ancestors to give to us (Deut. 26:3).” The Talmud Yerushalmi, however, cites the conflicting view of Rabbi Yehudah: the ger does recite the confession, because Abraham, “the father of many nations,” is the spiritual ancestor of converts as well as of born Jews.
How does the halakhic tradition decide between these conflicting interpretations? Some authorities follow the Mishnah and even extend its rule, declaring that a convert cannot lead either the birkat hamazon (grace after meals) or the synagogue service (i.e., he cannot serve as sheliach tzibur) because those liturgies, too, contain words that seem to exclude the ger. Yet over time, the Yerushalmi’s more inclusive view came to predominate. A proselyte may therefore lead the worship service and recite any portion of the liturgy that speaks of “our ancestors,” because those are his or her ancestors as well.
This insight has never been communicated so clearly and forcefully as by Maimonides, in a teshuvah to a Jew-by-choice named Ovadyah:
You ask whether you may recite privately and publicly the words “our God and the God of our ancestors,” “who has sanctified us by the mitzvot and commanded us,” “who has chosen us,” “who performed miracles for our ancestors” and similar statements in the liturgy. You may recite them all; you are not to change any of the wording; you are to recite the blessings and prayers according to the same formulae used by born Jews… The essential point is that our father Abraham taught Judaism, the faith in the one God, and the rejection of idolatry to all the people, bringing many under the wings of the Divine Presence… Therefore, whosoever converts to Judaism, from now until the end of time…is a disciple of our father Abraham…the father of every proselyte… There is no difference between us and you in any of these matters.
The ger, in other words, is called ben Avraham avinu in order to proclaim that he is one of us and part of our family, to affirm that the Jew-by-choice and the Jew-by-birth enjoy the same religious status in the eyes of God and of the Jewish people.
The Convert’s Name: A Source of Embarrassment? According to our tradition, therefore, the name ben/bat Avraham ve-Sarah is a powerful symbol of inclusion, of the proselyte’s full and equal membership in the covenant of Israel. How disappointing, then, that for the person mentioned in our she’elah the name has become a cause of discomfort. Does the embarrassment she feels warrant the changing of her name? It is true that the Torah warns us not to oppress the ger (Lev. 19:33) and that the tradition understands this oppression as ona’at devarim, verbal embarrassment: that is, we must not scorn the proselyte by mentioning his or her Gentile origins. Yet this prohibition has always referred to the gratuitous insult, the conscious, intentional attempt to shame. It has never been understood as an argument for changing the proselyte’s traditional name, nor could it be, since to ascribe a person’s spiritual lineage to Abraham and Sarah is among the highest compliments we can pay him or her. We are indeed forbidden to embarrass the Jew-by-choice, but to call him or her “the child of Abraham and Sarah,” however, is most definitely not a matter of embarrassment or shame.
One could respond, of course, that shame is in the eye of the beholder, that this Jew-by-choice would feel a sense of embarrassment when her Jewish name is read in synagogue, and that she is therefore entitled to alter that name. Yet such a course, we think, is precisely the wrong solution for her problem. While we do not question the sincerity of her feelings, we suspect that her embarrassment has less to do with her Jewish name than with some unresolved doubts she may still harbor over her decision to convert and its effect upon the members of her family. If so, then our response should be a pastoral one. Her rabbi should work with her to help resolve the tensions associated with that choice. Alternately, her embarrassment may be rooted in external factors; perhaps the community has not been as welcoming and as accepting of her as it could and should be. If so, the proper response is again a pastoral one. The rabbi should work with the community to explore why this is happening and to remind them of our duty to love the Jew-by-choice as one of our own. Altering the name, by contrast, does nothing to help her confront these issues. It merely allows her to hide the fact of her conversion, an act that contributes in no way to her healthy adjustment to her Jewish status. It is an act, moreover, that has the most negative connotations for us as Jews and particularly as Reform Jews, members of a movement that is committed to outreach and to the full inclusion of the Jew-by-choice in our community. We do not believe that conversion is something to hide, a source of embarrassment. We believe, rather, as tradition teaches us, that the name ben/bat Avraham avinu ve-Sarah imeinu is a badge of honor and respect, bestowed with love and admiration, that ought to be worn with satisfaction and pride.
The Jew-By-Choice and Her Parents. May the Jew-by-choice replace Avraham and Sarah with the names of his or her actual parents, even though they remain non-Jews? It is true that the proselyte is obligated to render honor to his or her parents as an expression of love and of gratitude for all they have done to raise, care for, and educate their child. Yet this duty does not touch upon the question of name. The “Hebrew name” by which one is called in synagogue is more appropriately called a Jewish name. It 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. The parents of this Jew-by-choice surely gave her love and care and taught her many of the values by which she lives. But they did not teach her Torah; they did not bring her into the covenant. As an adult, this is a decision she made on her own, and for that reason her covenantal parents, the ones from whom she legitimately claims her Jewish descent, are Abraham and Sarah, who we are told brought many seekers like her under the wings of God’s presence.
Conclusion. When a person chooses to become a Jew, he or she receives the name ben/bat Avraham avinu ve-Sarah imeinu, signifying the he or she is one of us and at one with us, a full partner in the community of Israel and its covenant with God. It is an important statement of our religious belief, of our understanding of the meaning of conversion and of the Jewish experience. It is a mark of respect and honor. It is not a cause for embarrassment, nor is it a sign that the proselyte has broken ties with his or her Gentile family. Any and all difficulties that the Jew-by-choice encounters upon joining our people should be faced squarely and seriously, but it would be a serious mistake to try to address those problems through altering his or her Jewish name.
- The addition of “and Sarah our mother”-ve-Sarah imeinu-is an innovation of recent decades. Nonetheless, support for this innovation may be found in Tosafot, Chagigah 9b, s.v. bar: Bar He He was, according to some opinions, a convert, “that is, the son of Abraham and Sarah, for whom the Hebrew letter heh was appended to his name.”
- Shulchan Arukh EHE 129:20. The issue there is the correct name for a ger in his bill of divorce (get).
- Resp. Harosh 15:4. Karo provides this identification in his longer work, the Beit Yosef to Tur EHE 129 (in the section Hilkhot Gitin, fol. 29b, near the end of the first column).
- M. Bikurim 1:4 and Bartenura ad loc. See also Sifrei to Deuteronomy, ch. 299.
- PT Bikurim 1:4 (64a), and see Bartenura to M. Bikurim 1:4. Compare as well Maimonides, Commentary to M. Bikurim 1:4: Abraham taught faith in God to the world and is thus the father of all.
- The second blessing of birkat hamazon contains the words “You have bequeathed to our ancestors a good land…”, and the first benediction of the tefilah, the central prayer of the worship service, reads “our God and God of our ancestors.” The authorities include Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot Bava Batra 81a, s.v. lema`utei), the Or Zaru`a, Hilkhot Tefilah, ch. 107, and the rabbis of medieval Würzburg, Germany, who prevented converts from serving as worship leaders (Mordekhai, Megilah, ch. 786).
- Yad, Bikurim 4:3. The Yerushalmi itself goes out of its way to reject the position enunciated in the Mishnah, citing a teaching by R. Yehoshua b. Levi that the halakhah follows Rabbi Yehudah and a ruling to that effect by R. Abahu in an actual case (involving prayer, it would seem, since bikurim were no longer offered at that time).
- See Shulchan Arukh OC 53:19: the view that the ger may not serve as sheliach tzibur has been “rejected.” Among those who take this position are R. Yitzchak of Dampierre (Tosafot, Bava Batra 81a, s.v. lema`utei); Nachmanides (Chidushei Haramban to Bava Batra 81a); R. Shelomo b. Adret (Chidushei Harashba to Bava Batra 81a); R. YomTov ibn Ishbili, (Chidushei Haritva, Makot 19a); R. Nissim Gerondi (Chidushei Haran, Bava Batra 81a).
- Resp. Harambam, ed. Blau, no. 293 (no. 42 in the Friedman edition). In this responsum, Rambam repeats the decision reported in his Commentary to M. Bikurim 1:4: the halakhah does not follow the Mishnah but rather the ruling of the Talmud Yerushalmi.
- See R. Benzion Meir Hai Ouziel, Resp. Mishpetei Ouziel II, Yore De`ah, no. 59: the name ben Avraham avinu functions to establish the halakhic ruling (lehorot) that the proselyte is entitled “to lead the prayer service and the birkat hamazon, to say ‘our God and God of our ancestors’ and ‘we thank you O God for having bequeathed a good land to our ancestors.'”
- BT Bava Metzi`a 58b-59a; Yad, Mekhirahh 14:12-13; Shulchan Arukh CM 228:1-4.
- Examples (see the sources cited in the preceding note): “see how one who once ate impure things seeks to fill his mouth with words of Torah!”; “remember the deeds (i.e., the idolatry) of your ancestors.
- Deut. 10:19; Yad, De`ot 6:4.
- See BT Yevamot 22a: although considered in principle a “newborn child,” a ger must not ignore those moral duties which he or she observed as a non-Jew, “lest it be said that (the ger) has descended from a higher degree of holiness to a lower one”; Yad, Mamrim 5:11; Shulchan Arukh YD 241:9. On the nature of the mitzvah to honor one’s parents as an expression of gratitude for their having raised and cared for the child, see Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5753.12 (pp. 201-207), “Kaddish for Adoptive and Biological Parents.”
- 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…”. See as well at p. 208, the service for conversion: “and from this time forth you shall be known in the Jewish community as ____ Ben/Bat Avraham veSara.”
- This is an important distinction: if a minor child converts along with the parent(s), the child may be called the son or daughter of the parent(s), since it is the latter who actually teach Torah to the child. See the responsum of R. Ouziel cited in note 10, and R. Gedalyah Felder, Sefer Nachalat Tzvi (Toronto, 1978), I, 124-125. This is not the case in our she’elah, which deals with an adult proselyte who did not learn Judaism from her parents.
- See Bereshit Rabah 39:14 and Rashi to Gen. 12:5), on “all the souls they had gotten in Haran”: to bring people to Judaism is equivalent to creating them, to giving them life.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.