CCAR RESPONSA

5765.8

Including the Name of a Stepfather in One.s Jewish Name

She'elah

May a person who has two fathers, a stepfather who raised her and a biological father who was a regular part of her life, be called to the Torah with the names of both fathers? If so, which of the fathers should be listed first? My daughter's Bat Mitzvah is approaching, and when I am called to the Torah I would like my name to include the names of both of my fathers and my mother.

Teshuvah

In our tradition, one’s name follows the formula “Peloni ben/bat Almoni,” where “Peloni” is one’s given name and “Almoni” is the name of one’s father. (In Reform Judaism, we customarily add the name of the mother.) This custom, which the Bible dates to patriarchal times,[1] made it possible to identify individuals for legal purposes[2] and to establish one’s lineage (yichus) in the community, particularly in matters related to priestly status.[3] You ask whether it is appropriate to depart from this custom in order to include the name of your stepfather, along with those of your biological parents, in your Jewish name.

We certainly applaud your desire to show appreciation to one who has loved and raised you since you were a child. It is a mitzvah to honor and to revere one’s parents,[4] and as we have argued, that obligation extends to one’s adoptive parents as well.[5] Our parents, in Jewish terms, are those who raise us, care for us, provide for our needs and educate us, and adoptive parents perform these functions as surely do biological parents. Stepparents also fill the role of parent in our lives, even though the law does not accord them that precise status; we therefore owe a similar duty of honor to them. As the Rabbis teach, “One who raises an orphan in his home is regarded by the Torah as though he has given birth to that child” (B. Sanhedrin 19b), and “the one who raises a child is called the ‘parent,’ not the one who begets the child” (Exodus Rabah 46:6).

Yet the duty to honor one’s stepparent does not imply that one should alter his or her Jewish name. Our Jewish names do more than record a simple genealogical fact. They register the avenue through which we have become members of the community of Israel. If we are born into the Jewish people, we receive our Jewish status from our parents, and our name testifies to that fact. If we have chosen as adults to embrace Judaism, our name indicates that we are the “son/daughter of our father Abraham and our mother Sarah,” whom our tradition recognizes as the spiritual parents of all proselytes.[6]  An adopted child born of Gentile parents may be named “the son/daughter of” the adoptive Jewish parents, rather than “ben/bat Avraham avinu veSarah imenu,” precisely because it is the adoptive parents who bring that child into the covenant of Israel.[7] To put this in terms of Jewish theology, we were all present at Sinai, even those of us alive today, either because we were born to Jewish parents or have converted to Judaism.[8] Your stepfather loved and cared for you, and he surely participated in your Jewish education and upbringing. But he did not bequeath to you your membership in the Jewish people; that is a status you have inherited from your biological parents.[9] Your Jewish name, which we understand as a covenantal name,[10] should attest to that reality.

To be sure, 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.[11] 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.

Conclusion. Your stepfather deserves all the respect and honor that a child owes to a parent. There are numerous ways that you can express that respect throughout your life and, in particular, during your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah observance. Our Jewish names, however, are not the appropriate means for bestowing honor upon a stepparent or, for that matter, upon other persons who may have cared for, taught, and guided us through our lives. Our Jewish names are rather the symbolic expression of our identity as Jews, the record of how each of us has become part of the covenant of Israel.

NOTES

 

 

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.