An Identity Crisis

And Moshe said to Chovav, the son of Reu’el, the Midyanite, the father-in-law of Moshe: We travel to the place the Hashem said, “I will give it to you.” Go with us and we will reward you for Hashem has said that He will bring good upon Yisrael. (Sefer BeMidbar 10:29)

I. Yitro adopts a new name

In our parasha, Yitro Moshe’s father-in-law announces his intention to return to Midyan. Moshe responds asking Yitro to remain with the Jewish people. The passages do not reveal whether Yitro remained or returned to Midyan. However, various other passages in TaNaCh indicate that Yitro’s family ultimately joined the Jewish nation. 

In this narrative, Yitro is referred to as Chovav. According to Rashi, this name describes his love for the Torah.[1] Ramban – Nachmanides – explains that when Yitro converted to Judaism, he adopted this name. He explains that it is appropriate for a ger – a convert – to adopt a new name.[2] Why is this appropriate?

Rambam – Maimonides – mentions the practice of changing one’s name in his discussion of repentance. He explains that it is appropriate for a repentant individual to adopt a new name. By taking a new name, the person declares, “I am a new and different person. I am not the person who previously sinned.”[3] Does this reasoning apply to a ger? Could this be the reason Ramban suggests it is appropriate for a convert to assume a new name? To answer this question, we need to understand conversion. A proper understanding of conversion begins with an appreciation of the Torah’s outlook on personal identity. 

II. Conversion and embracing a new identity

Individual identity has many components. These may include but are not limited to gender, profession, race, and religion. Some components are more fundamental to an individual than others. Also, a component that is essential to one person, may be of secondary significance to another individual. We all know people whose profession is central to their identity. Others may be equally proficient in their field, but their profession is not as central to their identity. Religion is also an element of one’s identity. The Torah expects our commitment to observance to be the most central element of our identities. In other words, every decision in our lives should be guided by our commitment to the observance of the Torah’s mitzvot

Geyrut – conversion – is a process through which someone elects to join the Jewish people. The candidate for conversion must be prepared to meet the Torah’s expectations. Paramount among these is the desire to reformulate one’s identity. The candidate must be prepared to give absolute priority to observance. Observance of the mitzvot must become central to the ger’s identity. This ger reinvents him/herself. He of she emerges from the mikveh – the ritual immersion – as a new person. This explains Ramban’s position. The ger’s new name reflects the fundamental change in his or her identity. 

III. The convert’s rebirth

This understanding of geyrut is expressed in an odd halachic principle: One who undergoes geyrut is akin to a newborn. What does this mean? Geyrut annuls all familial relationships. A person who converts is no longer a son, daughter, mother, father, aunt, uncle, nephew, or niece. The ger’s life begins anew and only the relationships created after the conversion are recognized by halachah

How does this impact the prohibitions against incest? Does the ger’s status as a newborn nullify the prohibitions against intimacy with those who were previously his or her relatives? These prohibitions remain in place and the ger may not be intimate with his or her former relatives. However, this prohibition was instituted by the Sages. On a Torah level, the ger may be intimate with the former relatives. They are no longer the ger’s relatives and the relationships are not incest!

And Moshe heard the nation cry [gathered] as families – each person at the opening of his tent. Hashem was angered. In Moshe’s eyes, it was bad. (Sefer BeMidbar 11:10) 

IV. The Sinai conversion

This seems to contradict a comment of our Sages. The parasha describes the struggle of Bnai Yisrael to accept the privations of life in the wilderness. Frustration with these perceived hardships led to intense disillusionment. Rashi cites a comment of the Sages. They explain that the complaints of the people initially focused upon their simple diet of manna. However, soon their frustrations extended to the Torah’s prohibitions against incest. [4] The people accepted these prohibitions at Sinai. They are part of the Torah. Now, they were regretting their submission to these restrictions.

This comment is very difficult to understand. At Sinai, the entire nation underwent conversion. Our ancestors became the Jewish people. The Sinai conversion is the model for all subsequent conversions. The geyrut process that the ger undergoes is modeled after the Sinai conversion.[5] As explained above, the ger emerges from conversion as a newborn. All familial relationships are dissolved by the geyrut. When our ancestors underwent the Sinai conversions, did they not emerge as newborns? Were not their familial relationships dissolved? How did the Torah’s prohibitions against incest restrict them? Would not these prohibitions apply only to the new families that they would create?

And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying: Bnai Yisrael should camp [in this manner] – each person at his standard [featuring] the signs [representing] their family. They should camp at a distance [from and] surrounding the Ohel Moed. (Sefer BeMidbar 2:1-2)

V. Collective and individual conversion

This question indicates that for some reason the Sinai conversion was unique. It did not dissolve familial relationships. There is further evidence of this from the opening of Sefer BeMidbar. The Torah describes Moshe organizing the camp of the Jewish nation. The people were organized according to their tribes. The tribes camped around the Mishchan – the Tabernacle – and each person camped within the area assigned to his or her tribe. The system of tribes survived the Sinai conversion. Familial relationships remained unaltered and the system of tribes was preserved. Why was the Sinai geryut different from subsequent conversions? Why did it not impact familial relationships?

The answer is that at Sinai our ancestors did not undergo conversion as individuals. Millions of conversions did not take place. Instead, a single geyrut occurred. All our ancestors jointly underwent geyrut. How was this accomplished? If a family wishes to convert, each member must individually undergo conversion. How did our ancestors convert as a single entity? 

The Sinai conversion was unique. It was not the conversions of the individual members of Bnai Yisrael – the Children of Yaakov and the Patriarchs. It was the conversion of the entire single body of Bnai Yisrael. It was the conversion of the family of the Patriarchs into Am Yisrael – the Jewish nation. Never again was a collective geyrut valid. 

The geyrut of an individual invalidates previous familial relationships. The conversion of Bnai Yisrael was performed upon the family and not its individual members. The conversion of the family preserved the relationships within the family. Parents and children remained bound to one another. The converted entity was not the individual. It was the family – with all its relationships.[6]

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 10:29.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 10:29-32.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 11:10.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Esurai Biyah 13:1-4.

[6] See Dr. Allan Weissman, Rav Schachter on the Parasha, pp.81-3. It seems to me that the above is suggested by Rav Schachter in the name of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.