Last week, under the title “Conversions and Hebrew Names,” I posted an edited selection from my archive of correspondence with my readers, in which I presented the remarks of one correspondent and invited comment. This week I am posting my response. The idea of posting correspondences was well-received by visitors to the site and by fellow contributors, and I will gladly offer more selections in the future. Names of correspondents will, of course, be omitted. I have decided to name the archive One People, Many Voices, so that I will not need to explain what I am doing in the future. I will just begin by saying, “Here is another selection from One People, Many Voices.”
The following is the rest of the exchange from which I quoted last week:
“I agree,” I began, “that Yishmael would be inappropriate, since Yishmael is a traditional enemy of the Jewish people. It is true that there was a great Tanna named Rabbi Yishmael, but that is just the exception that proves the rule. In fact, one cannot help but wonder why indeed he had such a name. There must be a story to it.
“I would recommend instead Elishama, who was the prince of the tribe of Ephraim (see Numbers 7:48). It means essentially the same thing and has no negative overtones. I would also recommend ben Abraham, the traditional patronymic for converts. Why not honor the spiritual father of all converts? Elishama ben Avraham. What do you think?
“About non-Orthodox conversions, let me just say that I cannot look at you as a young Jewish boy, since I do not recognize a conversion that does not conform with Halachah. But I do look at you as a righteous gentile who has a yearning to be Jewish, and who knows where this yearning may lead him one day? Shemayah and Avtalion were converts. Onkelos was a convert. Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva were descended from converts. That is good company.
“I have a friend in Indianapolis who is a convert. As a gentile, he married a Jewish woman. Later, he converted Reform. Later, he converted Conservative. Later, he converted Orthodox. Next year, Daf Yomi will complete its seven-year cycle of learning the complete Talmud. The occasion is usually celebrated in Madison Square Garden with hookups to other sites. My friend will be in attendance at Madison Square Garden as one of the completers. He already has tickets for himself and his whole family. I believe it will be the high point of his life, and rightly so. So you see, I perceive you as taking a step in the direction of Judaism but not quite yet Jewish.
“I think you should give much thought to an Orthodox conversion, even if you are not yet ready to take the step. I think it would be unfair to you and your future children that you should not be considered Jewish by the Orthodox community.
“If you would plot the Jewish people on a piece of paper, you would have a series of concentric circles, like a target. You would logically put the Orthodox at the center, not necessarily for ideological reasons but because we represent the faithful continuation of the ancestral religion and the dependable fountainhead for the future; in other words, the solid connective link between the past and the future. Then you would have the Modern Orthodox, who are really just a variation of the Orthodox. Then you would have the Conservative, then the Reform, then the Reconstructionist, then the secular, then those converted to (to, not from) other religions. The Jewishness fades and intermarriage and assimilation increase as you progress to the outer rings.
“It seems to me that in order for a person to be considered Jewish, he or she would have to be accepted by the group in the center circle, regardless of its demographic percentage. It is inconceivable to me that someone accepted by only an outer ring could be considered an authentic Jew. I think, therefore, that you should explore the option of an Orthodox conversion, if not for now then for some future time.
“I know it is not an easy thing to convert, and I hope I have not caused you unnecessary heartache. Please accept my best wishes for your future.”
My correspondent responded:
“I sincerely thank you for your kind words and do not feel disheartened by them at all. On the contrary, I feel encouraged and welcomed by them because although I may not be considered ‘quite Jewish’ yet, you have taken the time to support me. My conversion will be accepted by the Conservative branch, and I consider it as the beginning of my journey. I agree with you; who knows where it may lead? I may yet some day stand in Madison Square Garden…
“Also, thank you for the suggestion of Elishama ben Avraham. Your attention to these emails and the suggestion of an alternate name are touching, considering you only know me as a reader of your book.
“I also wish you all the best.”
I wrote back before Rosh Hashanah:
“I was wondering about the end of the story. What did you decide to do?
In the meantime, I wanted to wish you and yours a sweet and happy new year. May the Almighty bless you with health, happiness, success in all your endeavors and clarity in the important issues of life.”
My correspondent responded:
“It was a very nice surprise to receive your email and touching to know that you thought of me. I also wish you and yours a sweet and happy new year. I hope that this next year brings more peace in the world.
“I took your suggestion for the name Elishama ben Avraham. Thank you very much for helping me. It is an uncommon name, and I often have to explain how I came by it.
“May peace of mind and heart always be yours.”
I don’t understand how you can just dismiss the Tanna R’ Yishmael without knowing what the story behind his name was (or if there even was one). If you know for a fact that there was some story behind it and that it renders the precedent irrelevant, then you are surely justified in raising the point. But if not I don’t see how you can just make such a definitive statement.
I also don’t think your statement that “Yishmael is a traditional enemy of the Jewish people” is correct. The nation of Yishmaelim, yes. But the person of Yishmael? No. (OK, he gave Yitzchok a bit of a hard time, but to call him the traditional enemy seems to be a stretch.)
Also, FWIW, I see that the Bais Shmuel, in his discussion of proper ways to write names in gittin (EH after siman 129) discusses the name Yishmael, which indicates that it was used by Jews.
So lat night I went and took a look at the Shem Hagedolim (from the Chida) and I see that he has three different rabbis named Yishmael listed. And he does not remark about the name.
In sum, the tanna R’ Yishmael was not an exception at all, and there is likely no story at all behind his name. The name Yishmael is a respectable Jewish name.
Whether it is a good idea to give such a name these days is another story. Possibly some people might associate the name with Arabs. And more significantly, it is not a good idea to take (or give) an uncommon name. Particularly for a convert, it’s a good idea to try to “fit in” to the extent possible, and taking a “weird” name is not going to be helpful. Of course, with regards to this consideration the name Elishama is an even worse choice.