Words are powerful. How we use words, how we name things, and what we call people matters. This is especially true for transgender people who change their names. Torah and Talmud have much to teach us about our obligation to respect a transgender person’s name change.
Words created the world and still have the ability to change it. The formation of the world began when G-d said “let there be light.” But even before G-d could say “let there be light,” G-d needed letters to form those words. All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are therefore the building blocks of creation, בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ. In the beginning G-d created א ת.
The mystics explain that the life of a person comes from the letters of their name. They reframe the end of Genesis 2:19 נפש חיה הוא שמו (literally, “whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name”) as the life of a living thing is its name.
Names also represent the essence of something. Rashi affirms that the world was created with the “Holy Tongue” because the Hebrew word for “woman,” “אשה” isha, is related to the word for “man,” “איש” ish. (Genesis 2:23) Man and woman started as one and then were separated. Their new names, man and woman, reflect that transition in the way new names mirror who we are or who we are becoming.
Just as what we are called reflects who we are, each one of us is a representation of the divine. Our names–the names we are given and the names we claim–influence our purpose in the world. Angels, for example, in Hebrew, are called מלאכים, because they exist exclusively to perform G-d’s work מלאכה.
But we are not only created in the image of G-d, we are also messengers of G-d, each one of us uniquely suited for specific tasks. Sometimes we find that our mission or circumstances evolve. With those new challenges, so too may our name change. When Jacob wrestles with the angel and overcomes the angel, for example, he is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel…” (Genesis 32:29).
While sometimes name changes follow an event, a new name may be anticipatory or forward looking. The name change might be empowering or assist in the momentum toward the journey. In this week’s Torah portion, for instance, Moses gives Hoshea a new name, Joshua, to help him achieve a better outcome when he is sent with the spies to Israel (“Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hoshea son of Nun to Joshua”) (Numbers 13:16).
How we refer to people, how we respect their names and identities, matters. The Talmud teaches us that it is better to be verbose in order to be sensitive than concise and insensitive. We learn that G-d added extra letters into the Torah just to show us that it is better to be wordy, and even awkward, if it prevents one from uttering something unrefined. (Pesachim 3a).
Recognizing and respecting a name change, one’s capacity to change, and the legitimacy of the changes is essential, an obligation. In Genesis 17:5, G-d renames Abraham, “And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.” It is so important to the rabbis that Abraham’s new name is recognized and respected they went so far as to argue over whether, if one calls Abraham by his former name, they fail to fulfill the positive mitzvah of calling Abraham by his new name; transgresses the underlying prohibition implied in the name change of calling Abraham by his former name; or transgresses both at the same time.
R’ Zakkai attributed his long life to having, among other reasons, never called someone by something other than their name (Megillah 27b). R’Zakkai was rewarded with long life because he contributed to the life of others by calling them by their appropriate name.
When a transgender person chooses a new name and discards their deadname, it is an act of creation. Like Abraham and Sarah, Israel and Joshua, it is marker. A moment, among moments, of transition and transformation. A new chapter. Renaming ourselves, claiming our names, in order to live our lives is a part of our own holy re-creation. Calling us by our new, correct names is an opportunity for others to contribute to our lives and participate in the holiness.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Seth M. Marnin is a civil rights attorney and advocate who advises non-profits on strategy, leadership, and organizational effectiveness.