What’s in a name?

January 13, 2011

Can a person call himself whatever he wants to?

If you live in America, you can legally change your name to just about anything. As reported in USA Today, a woman legally changed her name to “Cutoutdissection.com.” “Call her “Cutout” for short. Just don’t call her Jennifer.”

There are countries in the world that put limits on what a person can call him or herself, and won’t allow parents to give children names that might subject them to ridicule. In New Zealand, a judge was so disturbed that parents named their kid “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii” that he took the kid away from the parents. I kid you not, read it here.

But what about in the Jewish world? Converts are normally named “so and so son/daughter of Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father). What if a convert wanted to pick a different name? What if they wanted to go by “son of David,” either because their father (non-Jewish) was named David, or because they thought King David was cooler than Abraham our father? Can they do that? Is it kosher?

That’s the question that a congregant came to me with nine years ago. My response was “that’s an interesting question. I’ll have to do some research.” So I did some research. I came to the conclusion that converts do NOT necessarily have to take on the name of Abraham (and Sarah). Now, nine years after I came to that conclusion, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) has agreed. The “wheels of justice” may turn slowly, but the wheels of law-making in the Conservative Movement sometimes turn even slower!

My answer can be found on the Rabbinical Assembly’s (RA) web site here. The discussion itself is somewhat technical, running to six pages with 18 footnotes. On the RA website you can also read two concurring opinions from other rabbis (one which argued for my paper even more strongly than I did!), and one dissent. It was a surprisingly controversial teshuvah (Jewish legal opinion), passing by a vote of 11 to 6.

It’s an interesting study of the tension between minhag (custom) and halacha (law).

It’s a very long-standing custom that converts are named as the children of Abraham (and now that we also use mother’s names, Sarah). Over 800 years ago, Rambam (Maimonides) wrote a whole letter to a convert explaining how it’s OK during prayers for him to recite the line “God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, etc.” because all converts are the children of Abraham, who is the father of us all. And what Rambam wrote was codified as “law” – R. Joseph Caro, in his definitive law code, the Shulhan Arukh, affirms that converts are named after Abraham.

Yet if you go back to the Talmud, there are a number of converts that use names other than “son of Abraham,” for example, “bar Hehe.” So sometime between the closing of the Talmud, in the 6th century, and the time of Rambam in the 12th century, it became the custom for converts to use the name “ben (or bat) Avraham Avinu.”

My teshuvah made, I think, a pretty convincing case that the use of the name son or daughter of Abraham is a long-standing custom, but it’s not “law” in the sense that it’s not mandated by the Torah, and it’s not even mandated by the rabbis of the Talmud. It may be a long-standing custom, but its roots are exactly that, custom, not law. Yet even in the “liberal” Conservative movement, a substantial minority of the rabbis on the Law Committee disapproved of the idea of making a change in custom, and voted against the teshuvah.

I think some of the rabbis who voted against the teshuvah are “traditionalists,” who feel that regardless of the technicalities of “the law” we are also guardians of the tradition, and should stick with tradition unless the case to change is really compelling. Some are “looking over their right shoulder” and worrying about what the Orthodox will think, and whether this would further distance us from them. Personally, I think what keeps Judaism alive as a dynamic, vibrant religion is the ability to adapt to the times while remaining faithful to tradition. We have the ability to change the law if needed – see the movement’s controversial decision about ordaining gays and lesbians for an example of that – and we should certainly be willing to adapt our customs to fit the times.

Halacha is sort of a “hobby” of mine; this is the third teshuvah I’ve authored that has been approved by the CJLS (the others were on issues of business ethics), and I have a fourth coming up in the spring. If you look to the left, there is a sidebar on my blog with links to my teshuvot. I find halacha fascinating because it’s the intersection of what we believe and what we do. How do we translate our theology into practice? How do we figure out what God wants us to do?

Watch for an upcoming blog post on the subject of how the CJLS works – the process of “lawmaking” in the Conservative Movement is fascinating, and often misunderstood, sometimes even by rabbis.

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