On True Names
Some Words On Why the Words We Use Matter
TW: discussions of transphobia.
Naming and name changes are a big theme in the Bible. We see them all over the place, from Adam first naming Eve badly and then doing a better job, to Jacob getting renamed Israel later on in Genesis and a number of other places in-between and beyond, but here, in Genesis 17:5, God adds an extra letter to our guy A’s name--changing it from אברם to אברהם.
“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:5)
In English, it looks like two letters are added, but in the Hebrew, it’s just the one, the hey/ה, because of the way vowels work in Hebrew. Not coincidentally, hey is one of the letters of the Tetragrammaton, the great holy name of God--and the only letter of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton that is repeated.
Interestingly, God changes Abraham’s wife Sarai’s name to Sarah--from שרי to שרה in the Hebrew--swapping out the yud, another one of the letters of the Tetragrammaton, for another, a hey. In Hebrew, letters correspond to numbers—the first letter of the alphabet has the value of one, the second is two, and so forth. (Like if A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, etc.) Yud--the tenth letter of the alphabet—is ten and hey, the fifth letter, is five. As such, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 2:6) interprets these name changes as being about the yud (10) of Sarai getting split into two heys (5 and 5), one for Sarah and one for Abraham.
In any case, the Rabbis and latter rabbinic commentators* are clear that when a person’s name is changed, it is VERY VERY NOT OK to call them by their old name. Like, violating divine commandments not OK.
(“Negative commandment” in the text below means, like, one of the “do not”s of the Torah, and a positive commandment is one of the “do’s”. So “Keep Shabbat” is a positive commandment, and “Don’t murder” is a negative commandment--got it?)
So you see the Talmud (Brachot 13a) saying,
Bar Kappara taught: Anyone who calls Abraham “Abram” transgresses a positive commandment, as it is stated: “And your name will be Abraham” (Genesis 17:5). Rabbi Eliezer says: [the act of doing this] transgresses a negative commandment, as it is stated: “And your name shall no longer be called Abram.”
Got that? Calling Abraham by his old name is a violation of not just one, but two different categories of commandments. The sanctity of this name change is real, and the harm it causes by not honoring it is not just interpersonal, but theological.
Referring to Abraham by his former name is, indeed, a sin.
And, yes, in case I’m being too subtle, I believe we can and should extend this understanding to our engagement with people today, whether their name has been changed because they are trans or for some other reason--but most especially if they are trans, given the fact that the refusal to affirm trans folks’ names and gender (including pronouns) is inextricable from anti-trans violence.
It’s connected to over 100 bills in 33 states attacking everything from trans kids who want to play sports to transphobic bathroom bills and bills trying to make it illegal for trans teens to seek gender-affirming care—all deeply unconstitutional.
The practice of referring to a trans person as their former name--of transgressing these two categories of commandments named in the Talmud passage above, of sinning in these two different ways--is called deadnaming. And, indeed, the prevalence of police and other law enforcement agencies misgendering and deadnaming murder victims (as they routinely do) has the effect, among other things, of actively hampering investigations—obstructing the process of finding justice for trans victims of the ultimate harm.
Deadnaming is violence. Deadnaming is a sin.
In fact, according to one midrash, Abraham and Sarah themselves underwent something of a gender transition; the Talmud posits that they may have both been originally intersex in some way.
(Rabbinic Judaism discusses a number of sex categories--cisgender male; cisgender female; an androginos is someone with “both” male and female sex characteristics, a tumtum’s sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured; an aylonit is assigned “female” at birth but develops “male” sex characteristics at puberty (or does not develop all “female” sex characteristics) and is infertile; a saris hama is assigned “male” at birth but develops “female” sex characteristics at puberty (or does not develop all “male” sex characteristics) and is infertile; and a saris adam is identified as “male” at birth and is rendered infertile through human intervention.)
(Talmud Yevamot 64a-b)
Rabbi Ami said: Abraham and Sarah were originally both tumtums, as it is stated: “Look to the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you were dug” (Isaiah 51:1), and it is written in the next verse: “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:2), (implying that their sexual characteristics were hewn or dug over time). Rav Naḥman said that Rabba bar Avuh said: Our mother Sarah was initially an aylonit ( as it is stated: “And Sarah was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30) (The verse adds the superfluous language of “she had no child” to indicate that) she did not have a womb.
The Talmud here does not tell us when Abraham and Sarah would have transitioned from tumum and/or aylonit to, presumably, dyadic (that is to say, not-intersex, and fertile, leading to the birth of Ishmael and then Isaac) which presumably happened by divine fiat—but I can’t help wonder if it wasn’t connected their name change. It only makes sense, doesn’t it?
I’d like to pause for a moment to honor the great trans teachers of Torah who have offered and continue to offer so much extraordinary wisdom to Judaism and the Jewish people, including but extremely not limited to Rabbi Becky Silverstein and Laynie Soloman at the Trans Halakha Project; in the queer Talmud spaces of Svara; in myriad parts of the work at Keshet; with Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Reuben Zellman’s TransTorah; with Dr. Joy Ladin’s The Soul of a Stranger and Abby Stein’s Becoming Eve, as starting places. Buy their books, read their articles, take their classes. Learn from them.
And hold that first Talmud teaching—the Brachot one—close by, close by.
People’s true names hold a power; as Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, the late 18th-early 19th c. Hasidic teacher, wrote (Likutei Moharan 56:3:8):
The Torah is the Name of God, and the name of a thing is its vessel; within this name is contained the life force of that thing. As it is written, “living soul that is its name” (Genesis 2:19)—contained in the name of each thing is its soul and life force. This is why when we call a person by their name, we gain their attention immediately, because their total soul and life force are contained within their name.
Their total soul and life force are contained within their name.
Call people by their true names.
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Well, Substack still hasn’t enforced its Terms of Service against Graham Linehan. Feel free to tell them what you think about them platforming someone who goes beyond “the free exchange of ideas” to regularly actively harass trans women.
*when we-the-Jews capitalize Rabbis, we usually mean the folks from the Rabbinic era, which we could say is mayyyybe 1st or 2nd-6th c. CE, something like that, scholars and other Jews In The Know are going to quibble here, fine, roughly that, anyway.