Conversions and Hebrew Names

When I was asked to sign on as regular contributor to this Website, I was honored, pleased and also a little baffled about which topics to address. Most pieces that appear here are current events-driven. But since I am more inclined to read books than newspapers, by the time I hear about an issue it has more often than not long since passed away. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the email correspondences I have conducted with numerous readers over the last two years covering a wide range of topical Jewish issues.

A little while ago, I received the following email from a gentleman whose name I shall not disclose.

“I am currently reading and enjoying your book One People, Two Worlds. It is extremely helpful to my growth in Judaism.

“I am thirty-eight and am going through a non-Orthodox conversion. I have come to this decision after two years of study, contemplation and prayer. Raised in a different religion, I stopped practicing at the age of twenty. Two years ago, I joined a friend at Yom Kippur services and, particularly during the Kol Nidre, had a sense for the first time in years that God was reaching out to me. I’m not sure how else to explain it.

“After that, I began studying Torah and following mitzvot. I have a long way to go and am probably about at the level of a seven-year-old boy, but I am continually welcomed and encouraged by all members of the Jewish community that I meet. That is my story in short.

“Now for my question. I need to pick a Hebrew name. Can you see any serious problem in these turbulent times with a convert to Judaism taking the name Yishmael ben Zion? Yishmael means ‘God will hear.’ I believe that and connect to it strongly. God will hear me when I call. God hears the Jewish people when they call. Anyone who thinks of the survival of the Jewish people after a few thousand years of hardships can conclude, I believe, that God has heard them. And God will hear us as we pray and work for peace in Israel.

“Two rabbis have commented that, given the association of the name Yishmael with Muslims, that people may construe taking this name as some kind of leftist political statement. The wife of a rabbi suggested adding ben Zion to make it clear that, above all, I consider myself a son of Zion and that my lot is with the Jewish people, that ‘wherever you go, I shall go.’

“I am so very grateful that you have taken the time to read my emails. I realize that you may have opinions about non-Orthodox conversions and converts, but I write in the hope that you will look on me as a young Jewish boy that must be taught to follow mitzvot and study Torah.

“Thank you again for your time and I wish you all the best.”

This, except for some minor editing for brevity, is the email I received. Before I post my response, which was written and sent some time ago, I would like to hear from others regarding the points this man has raised. How do I, as an Orthodox rabbi, view this obviously sincere man and his non-Orthodox conversion? And what do I think of the name Yishmael ben Zion?

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6 comments to Conversions and Hebrew Names

  • Paul Ilie

    If it’s not too late, I want to sympathize with this Gentile, speaking as a lapsed Orthodox Jew, in his seventies, struggling to maintain some degree of observance. If I can feel justified, even in my guilt, then why not this man. He’ll probably not reach perfect fulfillment of basic mitzvoth like Shabbos and kashruth, let alone daily tefillin. Nevertheless, if he is sincerely praiying to HaShem and so believes, he should be encouraged. Just let him say at least one prayer in Hebew besides the Shema, which you can recommend, such as the morning berachas or the Poseyach es yadechah.

  • Stories from converts are always very special. I wonder if he’s aware of the name Shmaya, which has the meaning he wants.

  • Hanan

    Its interesting that this writer is asking regarding the name Yishmael. Only a few days ago i was thinking of why Jews don’t name their kids that. After all, Avraham saw it as an appropriate name. I’m guessing certain names get attached certain stigmas about them. The same goes for Esau,Yeshu or Adolf. Regardless of attaching “ben-zion” or whatever to the name, we as the entire Jewish community have designated these names as “bad”. I’m sure in the next 50 years another name will be added to the list.

  • anon

    I assume that you realize that this guy might google yishmael ben zion one day and find this post. Even though the jewish sites may feel more intimate, this is the web.

  • Shimon

    Obviously the name Yishmael was in use as late as Talmudic times. What changed? The rise of Islam, in the 7th century. In Jewish literature the name Yishmael became identified with Islam, as surely as it was idenitified in Jewish literature with the Arabs in particular prior to Muhammad. This individul should bear in mind that the word Yishmael is associated with the religion of Islam.