Ask the Expert: Conversion Lineage

Why are all converts called the children of Abraham and Sarah?

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Question: I know that when a convert is called up to the Torah, he or she is referred to as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah [ben/bat Avraham v'Sarah]. Is there any reason why converts cannot be called bar/bat and then the name of their choice, instead?
--Rosemarie, London

Answer:
For many people, one of the most exciting parts of converting is choosing a Hebrew name. When you convert, you get to choose a name that you think best suits you--a fascinating and usually fun process. But the same process does not carry over to choosing your parents' names.

Converts are generally referred to as the children of Abraham and Sarah because Abraham and Sarah are considered the forbearers of Judaism. As the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah were promised that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and as the grains of sand on the seashore. Indeed, there are millions of Jews in the world today, and at least in theory, every Jew traces his or her lineage back to the couple that moved from Haran to Canaan, as detailed in the Book of Genesis.

According to the Shulhan Arukh, when a person converts to Judaism, it is as if she has been born anew, this time as a member of the Jewish people. Her lineage, whether it was Irish Catholic, Southern American, or Sudanese, is effectively nullified by the conversion. (Yoreh Deah 269:1)

This might seem like a scary or upsetting prospect, but in practice it simply means that the convert is agreeing to see herself as a full member of the Jewish people, irrespective of her past. Because this transformation is metaphysical and spiritual, rather than literal, her lineage takes a metaphysical turn, as well. Instead of being referred to as the daughter of her non-Jewish parents, she is referred to as the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the parents of Judaism.

The only exception to this rule is when an infant is converted as part of an adoption process. According to the Conservative Movement, if a Jewish couple chooses to adopt a non-Jewish baby, and have the baby converted, when the child grows up, he will be known as the child of his adopted parents, rather than the child of Abraham and Sarah. Among Orthodox authorities there are a variety of views, but recently the trend has also been for an adopted child to be known as the child of his adopted parents. This is because he was raised in a Jewish home by Jewish parents. Though he is considered to have been reborn when he converted, if that conversion happened when he was a baby, then the mother and father that he knows are Jewish, and the heritage that was nullified with his conversion was never a major factor in his life.

I can see how it might be frustrating when you’re converting to be told that parents have been chosen for you, and you don’t have any say in the matter, but in the immortal words of my mother, “You don’t get to choose your parents.” Turns out this is true even if you get another set of parents half way through your life.


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