By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that four actions can change a person’s heavenly decree for the good: charity, changing one’s name and one’s deeds (maybe even one’s domicile) and crying out to G-d. Rambam places this directly in the realm of repentance – not just to avert a decree but to better oneself: “Among the ways of repentance is that a person constantly cries out before G-d with supplications, gives charity to the full extent of his ability, keeps far from sin, and changes his name, as if to say ‘I am someone else and not the man who committed these sins,’ and he changes his deeds for the good…” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).
For sure, merely changing one’s name without a concomitant change of behavior is fatuous, worthy of a criminal entering the witness protection program. He hasn’t changes his essence but is seeking to evade justice. But how does changing one’s name in the best of circumstances constitute any real change in the individual? After all, we are defined more by our deeds; our name just is a handy reference point to the person who does those deeds, for good or less-than-good.
We do not find that name-changing is a common practice among penitents today, but the Gemara and the Rambam are evoking a different experience than the literal act. The true penitent has to perceive himself as a different person, as someone else entirely, unencumbered by his past. That past might have been lamentable and might even have defined him in the eyes of the public, but that person has now been replaced by a new person. Same DNA makeup, different moral universe. The sincere penitent has become a different person, so it is prohibited, as Chazal teach (Bava Metzia 58b) to say to a penitent: “Remember your past deeds,” as if he is still who he was before.
But can name-changing erase the past? Should it?
For several years, activists in the black American community have been seeking (in some places, successfully) to erase the names on public places of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and change them to names that are more suitable to their interests. Their offenses are known. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe were all slave owners, and their names adorn cities, school, universities and other institutions. Monroe, in fact, is the only US President to have a foreign capital named for him – Monrovia, Liberia. John C. Calhoun, slave owner, Senator, Vice-President, Secretary of State and ardent segregationist, has a building named for him at Yale University, where several months ago, a black employee, irritated at a stained glass window depicting black slaves in what he perceived to be a pejorative way, smashed it to pieces. (He was fired and threatened with arrest. Our times being what they are, and the activists being who they are, he was never prosecuted for his vandalism and has been re-hired by Yale.)
Assuming that these activists are sincere and not merely engaging in a cultural power play so common in this overheated era, is there any merit to their argument? Should the Founding Fathers of this nation be dishonored because of the sordid aspects of their past, notwithstanding their astonishing achievements that changed the world for the good? Does erasing their names really erase our history, or is the notion of re-writing the past too Orwellian, too much like the old Soviet Union, to be taken seriously?
There are two approaches to these questions.
One can be called “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Jews have a long history, the longest of any nation still intact with a coherent and vibrant relationship with our ancestors, as well as the memory of numerous enemies that tried to destroy us over the millennia. Those enemies are often celebrated, perhaps innocently.
For example, the World Monuments Fund every year presents what it calls the “Hadrian Award” for excellence in architecture. It is named for the 2nd century Roman emperor Hadrian, who was renowned for being a patron of the arts, for his love of architecture and culture (he rebuilt the Pantheon that still stands in Rome, and for his humanitarian endeavors across the globe.
Hadrian was also a psychopathic mass murderer who brutally suppressed the Bar Kochva rebellion, and killed in his time hundreds of thousands of Jews. That rebellion only began after Hadrian banned the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot in the land of Israel. Thousands of Jews went into hiding in order to cling to our faith. Hadrian, apparently, oversaw the torture and execution of some of our Talmudic giants, including Rabbi Akiva.
The Midrash illustrates the cruelty, caprice and vindictiveness of Hadrian with the following story (Eicha Rabba 3, Reish): A Jew passed by the emperor Hadrian and greeted him. Hadrian said: “How dare you, a Jew, deign to greet the emperor of Rome!” The Jew was beheaded. Another Jew then passed and did not greet the emperor. Hadrian stopped him and said: “How dare you, a Jew, not greet the emperor of Rome!” That Jew was also then beheaded. A puzzled officer then asked Hadrian: “You kill those who greet you for greeting you, and kill those who don’t greet you for not greeting you?”
Hadrian responded: “Are you trying to advise your king as to how I should kill my enemies?”
The four winners of the 2016 “Hadrian Award” were announced this past July.
Much better known than the Hadrian Award is the city of St. Louis, the second largest city in Missouri and a name that should stick in the craw of every Jew. That city was named for King Louis IX of 13th century of France, a devout Catholic, and canonized by his church for his piety, and especially for one particularly galling and hateful act perpetrated against French Jewry, a catastrophe memorialized in a kina (elegy) recited on Tish’a B’Av. At the behest of Pope Gregory IX, Louis IX seized all the extant copies of the Talmud in France – more than 1200 manuscripts in all, all painstakingly transcribed in an era two centuries before the invention of the printing press – and on one Friday, in July 1242, they were ceremoniously burned in the public square in Paris, 24 wagon loads in all.
With that, the era of the Tosafists effectively ended, most Jews soon left France, and the remaining French Jews were expelled in 1306.
Saint Louis? Not from this vantage point.
For sure, we Jews have plenty of grievances, and awards and cities named for rogues and villains, murderers and tyrants, are among them, but not very prominent among them. Should Jews boycott the city of St. Louis until it changes its name? (Suggestion: call it “Rabbi Yechiel,” after the great sage who headed the Yeshiva in Paris in the 1200’s and defended the Talmud against its detractors and burners. Of course, that will never happen.) Should an enraged Jew tear down the “Gateway Arch?” Of course not. But why shouldn’t the name “St. Louis” evoke such disgust and revulsion among the citizenry that good people will want to change the city’s name in order to avoid hurting the feelings of … anyone?
The answer is that there is a second approach to all these issues. It is this: We would do well to judge people on the totality of their deeds and not by their single acts that we find offensive. (Granted, there can be single acts that are so heinous that one is left with little choice but fusing that act with that person.) The premise is that no one is perfect, and that every human being is flawed. We should judge others by their essences and not by the lamentable, disreputable and even squalid activities with which they were also sporadically associated.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Calhoun and others were all slave owners, but none are being feted for being slave owners. Some of them, indeed, regretted the very institution even as they benefitted from it. Washington was the indispensable figure who led the American Revolution to victory, Jefferson was the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Madison was the Father of the Constitution, etc. All played historic and positive roles, and should be rightly honored for them, notwithstanding the blots on their record.
No one is perfect and if the goal is to honor only perfect people by naming public entities after them, we will live in an anonymous world. Elihu Yale, who gave his money and name to that university, made part of his fortune as a slave trader. Abraham Lincoln himself made occasional racist comments, and FDR, JFK and even Martin Luther King, Jr., had a deplorable relationship with women and did not always treat their wives with the greatest respect. Not every politician with a bridge named for him was a tzadik.
True, anything named for Adolf Hitler, yemach sh’mo, would rightly cause offense, as his essence was evil. Other tyrants and dictators are the same. Their crimes against mankind were so extreme that there is no redeeming quality. We may not be able to see any good in Hadrian or Louis IX but others did, for whatever appalling reason. They had other dimensions to their existence than their hatred of Jews, as others see it. Accepting that outrage is part of the tolerance requested of those who want to live and interact in a civil society, and do not want to impose their views on the rest of society.
We can’t erase the past, and there is something admirable about the way some nations have examined their past wrongs and righted them. The Founding Fathers will always be the Founding Fathers, judged for the enormous good they did in the context of their times. That should be enough to engender a fair assessment of their lives and to honor their achievements.
And isn’t that how we ourselves want to be judged? By the totality of our personalities and not by our sins alone? The process of repentance involves as much an accounting of our sins as an acknowledgment of what we do right. We want to rectify our flaws but be judged on our essence, which longs for the good. Changing our names as part of the path of teshuva is a recognition that we are not our sins, and we do not want to be defined by our sins. So, too, we are not just our virtues. We are an amalgam of both, and we hope, pray and endeavor that our merits exceed our demerits – as individuals, as a nation and as a world.
Then we can leave our judgment in the hands of the True Judge who sees all and knows our hearts, and whose judgment is perfectly calibrated at all times to effect His plans for all mankind.