For ritual purposes, legal proceedings within Jewish law, and certificates, proselytes usually drop the use of their biological parents’ names, and adopt the names ben / bat avraham v’sarah (son / daughter of Abraham and Sarah). This appears to be almost universal minhag , expectation and assumption across all denominations. However, there is nothing in Torah or Tanakh that states a requirement for a (first or last) name change at all, or for a proselyte to renounce their biological parents’ names, and there is no post-Biblical, halachic or rabbinic ruling either.
Names have symbolic power – they mark identity, and identification with and allegiance to a family/people. Name changes have symbolic power – emotionally and psychologically – both for the individual and those around them and this is recognised in Judaism across all denominations. So it makes sense to undergo a name change or addition, and the acquisition of a Hebrew first name is a positive expression of this principle.
But the practice – largely unexamined and unchallenged it seems – of taking the last names of ben avraham v’sarah undermines three important Jewish principles. First, it goes against the commandment to honour one’s parents (Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16; Lev 19:3). Second, it fails to ‘love one’s neighbour as oneself’ (Lev 19:18), in other words to treat others on an equal footing (and to be compassionate and just when doing so – Micah 6:8). Third, halakhah (Jewish law) forbids Jews to mistreat a proselyte, including reminding them that they were once not a Jew.
If a Jewish ‘authority’ such as a bet din (court), or a Jewish community, imposed a requirement on the proselyte to take either a) avraham v’sarah or b) other Jewish names, effectively erasing the proselyte’s biological parent names, this could be construed as dishonouring those parents. It could be helpful here to reframe our understanding of the fifth commandment (‘Honour your father and your mother’) to ‘Do not dishonour your father and your mother’ (echoing Hillel’s reframing of the Golden rule to ‘do not do to others etc…’).
Jews have biological parents only, and no ‘spiritual’ parents, so it is a weak argument to say that a proselyte needs to have ‘spiritual’ parents as represented by avraham v’sarah. It is not equitable to require a proselyte’s Jewishness to be marked by identifying ‘spiritual parents’ when other Jews are not so required.
3. Naming and accidentally shaming
The principle of not drawing attention to the proselyte’s status as a proselyte (eg at aliyah for the Torah, weddings, bnei mitzvah, gravetsones, kaddish / yahrzeit etc) – both for the proselyte’s feelings and also to discourage other Jews from seeing the proselyte as ‘not really one of us’ – requires sensitivity and creativity in settling on Jewish parent names. The use of ben avraham v’sarah clearly and publicly identifies the person as originally not Jewish and therefore in some way not like other Jews. Some communities announce the proselyte as ben avraham avinu v’sarah imanu (son of Abraham our father and Sarah our mother), to make it clear that these were not the biological parents, which places even greater attention on the person’s non-Jewish past.
While some proselytes experience this particular naming practice with a sense of pride in their accomplishment, others find it acutely embarrassing, painful and disempowering within Jewish company. There is a deep-seated value in Judaism that one should strive to maintain other people’s dignity, and not embarrass them, deriving from the rabbinic teaching “He who publicly shames his fellow is as though he shed blood” (Baba Metzia 58b), which is derived from the passage “you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed” (Lev 19:16). A practice that implicitly labels the proselyte as ‘other’ than the rest of the Jewish community must therefore be challenged.
The notable name changes in the Bible for those who go through significant transitions and new commitments to God and the people with whom they live are Avraham, Sarah, Yitro and Ruth. The first three kept their first names but added something new (a ‘God’ letter), while the latter did not change her name at all.
My reading of this is that the original name – and the person’s past – should be honoured and retained in some way, not erased. Avram and Sarai both added the letter heh. I like the idea that Yeter added a vav and became Yitro. First, the vav can mean ‘and’ so the proselyte is both their pre-Jewish self and their new Jewish self. Second, vav meaning ‘or’ has a similar connotation; it is interesting that Ya’akov, who became Yisrael (but not a proselyte of course), was referred to by both names at different times even after the name change. Third, in Hebrew grammar, the vav can change a past tense to future, and a future tense to past. What wonderful symbolism in Yitro’s name! The proselyte looks forward and back at all times, knowing the past where they come from, and in a very Jewish way looking always to a transformative future.
The proposals that I have for ways forward with the naming process draw upon five C’s:
- Choice (not obligation) – based on weighing up a number of considerations
- Conscience – balancing honouring biological parents with honouring the historical practices of the Jewish people, and with honouring the ethical principles of Judaism that may run counter to those practices
- Continuity – honouring the proselyte’s personal history and ‘dowry’ that they bring with them, enriching the Jewish people; I love the suggestion of my friend Rabbi Shefa Gold, who suggests it is not so much a ‘conversion’ (which to some might suggest turning one’s back one’s past), but a ‘convergence’ (of all the paths / threads of one’s life)
- Covenant – using the naming process to mark the transition and new commitments that the proselyte makes
- Community – finding Hebrew names that help the proselyte and the Jewish community think of and feel the proselyte as ‘one of us’
In choosing their full Jewish name, a proselyte could choose between three options. First, the original parent names could be retained. This could work if the proselyte were prepared for themselves and others to be regularly reminded publicly of their status because the non-Jewish names would draw attention to this.
Second, where biological parents consented, Hebrew equivalents of their names (matching the meaning) could be used. This could be the choice of the proselyte and their biological parents together, and not governed by the Jewish community or any Jewish ‘representative’ authority. For example, a mother’s name Desirée (beloved), could become Ahuvah; a father’s name Sean (from John, meaning a man), could become Adam. If a parent objected (perhaps felt ‘dishonoured’), the original name could be kept, if the proselyte was prepared for their proselyte status to become visible thereby (ie reverting to the first option). Otherwise, the proselyte could choose the third option.
The third option would be for the proselyte to choose Jewish ‘spiritual’ parent names for their symbolic importance to themselves. Leaving out the biological parent names, both in their original form, and in a Hebrew equivalent, could be construed as dishonouring the biological parents. If the parents themselves feel this, this may well indicate a deeper objection to the proselyte’s new life commitment, and conflict that may be irresolvable. The proselyte would have to find their own path through this, supported by family, friends, Jewish community, supporting Rabbi, and their own conscience. If the proselyte’s new life commitment itself were considered by the biological parents to be dishonouring them, then my personal suggestion would be that the proselyte chose symbolic parent names not intentionally associated with biological parents. This solution would honour the proselyte’s personal autonomy in making the transition and new commitment whilst recognising the parent’s objections and not ‘adding insult to injury’ in the parents’ eyes. The proselyte already chooses their new first (Hebrew) name for its personal and spiritual significance, often from Biblical names, so why not do the same for parent names – adding to the potency and symbolism of their new name?
The proselyte triangle
In the proselyte transition to Jewish identity, there are three key parties to take into account: the proselyte, the family and community of the proselyte’s pre-Jewish life, and the Jewish community. Within this proselyte triangle as I call it, the decision must be made about the proselyte’s name. While I believe it should ultimately be the proselyte’s personal choice, the proselyte should recognise that the views of the other parties may be at variance with their own, and should take all possible steps to find ways to honour those other perspectives, testing the decision against the principles of justice, dignity and compassion for all those in the triangle.
Alexander Massey, Oxford, 15 Sept 2011