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At Passover period Rabbi asks what’s in a name?

By Staff | Apr 9, 2009

What’s in a name? Whether a name is a label, or whether a name unlocks an identity, our perception of friends and strangers often hinges on their name.

In the Jewish Ashkenazi tradition, children are called by the names of a deceased relative. The hope of some parents is that in this way their child will be linked to the values and the personality of a departed loved one. Does a bestowed name have such power? Can we impose on a new born child values and personality by simply naming the child after a dead loved one?

The ancient rabbis were apprehensive about the name bestowed on children. They advised parents to name their child after a good person. A good name, they argued, does shape the character of the new born.

Recently we read about a child who was named Hitler. How provocative can you get? Won’t a child named Hitler tend to brand the child with the character of this evil monster?

Names can lead to preconceived biases. To those who have powerfully tragic memories of the Holocaust, a Germanic sounding name will inevitably foster thoughts of that person as an anti Semite.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known for his ethical imperative: We should judge others not by their race or nationality, (That is, by their label) but by the content of their character. Names should not seduce us, prompting us to stereotype others, without verifying evidence. Common sense and experience inform us of uniqueness in the creative process. If every snowflake is distinctive, can the human personality be less unique?

Our time is plagued with the potential for violence based on ancient animosities and egregious generalizations often invested in names or labels. The names Arab, Jew – often stir passions that are negative and divisive. Some Jews, and as well, Christians, have a rigid and unrelenting hostility to members of the Arab community. They view all Arabs as murderers, terrorists, unworthy, and not to be trusted.

In contrast, Jehan Sadat, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner and assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, was quoted during an interview reported in the New York Times magazine. Mrs. Sadat claimed that Palestinians and Jews were two similar peoples. They are similar, she writes, because both peoples are intellectual, well-educated, minorities.

Her generalizations may seem complimentary, and somewhat correct, but as with all generalization, Mrs. Sadat’s remarks are misleadingly clichd. Not all Jews and Palestinians are intellectuals, rich, and graduates of college. Such stereotypes are dehumanizing. They lead to foolish conclusions by an over simplification of reality. Generalizations and stereotyping reduces an entire people to cardboard personalities.

It may be true that centuries of isolation and separation, imposed on some communities, will produce similar tendencies in its members. Nevertheless, even under these circumstances, individuality will persist. More than ever, this is true in our contemporary world with its complex demographics. Every community today is dispersed. Jews are not the sole community with a Diaspora. In major cities of almost every nation there are communities of emigrants.

Chinatowns exist in New York, San Francisco, and London. The fact is thee are significant numbers of Russian, Polish, Italian communities around the globe, to name a few based on national origin. And having visited these various enclaves in cities in Europe as well as in America, I insist that culturally the immigrant families in the second generation are as American or European as any one else.

In short, we must conclude that we are not fashioned by one cookie cutter to fit us all. If anything is true of Creation it is the over whelming presence of diversity.

Bigotry, xenophobia, suspicion of people or individuals based on stereotyping, and egregious generalizations, are dangerous, misleading, patently false perversions of civilized behavior.

We sometimes fall prey to stereotyping and generalizations without consciously meaning to fall into the trap of intolerance and narrow-mindedness. But the threat to the cause of peace and understanding in a world that falls so far short of promoting respect and decency in our behavior to the stranger requires a profound sensitivity to the dangers in negative labeling. Our tradition requires us to: Love the stranger as ourselves for we know the heart of the stranger since we were strangers in Egypt. The Jewish ethical ideal suggests that infinite diversity in creation reveals an Infinite Creator

We are at the initiation of the Passover. We will eat the bitter herbs to remind us of our harsh experience with oppression and bigotry. The commanding lesson of the Seder: Jews must live by Dr. King’s plea let us judge one another exclusively by the content of our individual character.