What’s in a Name? Everything

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Name Calling
23 Nov 2016

“Your name shall no longer be called Abram; rather, your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” – Genesis 17:5

Bar Kapara taught that whoever refers to Abraham as “Abram” violates a positive mitzvah since the Torah says “your name shall be Abraham.” Rabbi Eliezer says that he violates a negative mitzvah since the Torah says “your name shall no longer be called Abram.” – Talmud Brachos 13a

There’s been a lot of name-calling lately, from both sides of the political divide. It’s unproductive, it’s immature and, frankly, it makes the name-caller look bad, not the object of his derision.

Our new president-elect excelled at this during the campaign, coining such nicknames as “Lying Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” for his political opponents. Those who object to Trump’s election return the favor by constantly referring to him as “Drumpf,” his family’s name before his grandfather anglicized it. This is not inherently offensive but calling someone by the name we choose rather than the name they choose is a means of belittling a person.

Don’t we all know someone who prefers to be called Shmuely to Steve, or Yocheved to Jessica? Isn’t it disrespectful to ignore their wishes and to call them what we want rather than what they want? So how can we condone it in the political arena?

Oddly, the justification to call Trump “Drumpf” is that it had been his family name once upon a time. This is a poor justification, as we can see from the following incident:

When then-Senator Obama was running for president, conservative radio host Bill Cunningham repeatedly referred to him as “Barack Hussein Obama.” This is, in fact, President Obama’s actual name but the intention of calling him by his middle name when Obama does not use it himself was to disparage him by suggesting connections to fundamentalist Islamic terror, à la Saddam Hussein. Obama’s political opponent John McCain condemned the practice, calling it “totally inappropriate.” For this, McCain was praised by both the media and the Obama campaign. Time magazine called it “a victory for the high road.”

If calling Obama by his actual name with unflattering intent is considered “totally inappropriate,” calling Trump by a name that was never his is at least as unfitting. The fact that Trump repeatedly called Jon Stewart “Jonathan Leibowitz” (Stewart’s birth name) is immaterial; two wrongs don’t make a right.

The Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) teaches that all who descend to Gehinnom will also ascend from there with three exceptions: an adulterer, one who shames another person in public, and one who calls another person by a derogatory nickname. The Gemara asks the obvious question: isn’t calling someone by a derogatory nickname just a form of shaming him? Isn’t this already covered by the second category? The Gemara answers that the practice of using a derogatory nickname is reprehensible even if the person in question is used to being called by this name and not embarrassed by it. Even though he just rolls with it, one who calls him by such a nickname will not ascend from Gehinnom.

When it comes to lashon hara (gossip), something is prohibited if it is derogatory or harmful, it need not be both. Similarly, a nickname is prohibited if it is derogatory or hurtful. If something is disparaging, it’s prohibited even if the subject doesn’t object. If the person objects, it’s prohibited even if you can justify that it’s not inherently disparaging. (The prohibition against such name-calling is brought down in halacha – see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:14, and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:5, for details.)

The wisest example on this topic may come from that great Jewish philosopher, sportscaster Howard Cosell. When boxer Cassius Clay adopted the name Muhammad Ali, Cosell was one of the first to validate this choice by referring to him as Ali, insisting that a person has the right to be called whatever they prefer.

If Snoop Dogg wants to be known as Snoop Lion, so be it. If Cat Stevens prefers to be called Yusuf Islam, that’s his prerogative. If the athlete born as Bruce Jenner chooses to be called Caitlyn, you don’t have to agree with the gender politics to honor the request. It’s the same as, “Don’t call me Mark, I’m going by Menashe now.” It’s just being a mentsch.

Calling people by names other than the ones they choose for themselves is disrespectful. It deprives a person of their self-selected identity. (Remember the way Master Waller insisted on calling Kunta Kinte “Toby” in Roots? It’s just like that, albeit on a far smaller scale.) When a person does this, it says nothing about Jon Stewart, Donald Trump or Caitlyn Jenner but it speaks volumes about the one who is saying “Leibowitz,” “Drumpf” or “Bruce.” If we hope to engage in meaningful dialogue, the first step is extending basic mutual respect. Even if the other person doesn’t, we still owe it to ourselves to take the moral high road.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.