Symbolic Names

The name Gershom, and the word for Hebrew, Ivri, carry a message about what it means to be Jewish.

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A midrash deepens the significance of the name. To be sure, it derives from the word eiver, meaning beyond or other side as in Joshua's swan song: "In olden times, your forefathers...lived beyond the Euphrates...(be-eiver ha-nahar) and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates " (Joshua 24:2-3). The midrash, however, turns geography into history. The role of Israel is to be the eternal dissenter, the uncompromising critic of cultures addicted to the senses. The name ivri destines us to stand apart, "when all the world [stands] on one side (me-eiver ehad,), he [must stand] on the other" (Bereshit Rabba, 42:8). To fulfill its mission as a beacon, Israel needs to keep its distance.

And this is what the Passover Haggadah insists the Hebrews managed to do in Egypt. They remained distinctive and readily identifiable. Neither exile nor oppression diluted their way of life. As Don Isaac Abravanel, the statesman of Spanish Jewry in the hour of its grim demise, wrote in his commentary on this passage: "They did not change their names nor their faith nor their language...Moreover, they congregated together in one place rather than disperse in different cities and thus they appeared as a singular nation."

Were They Assimilated?

In other words, even though both Jacob and Joseph were embalmed, tradition would have us believe that our ancestors in Egypt were able to withstand the allurement of assimilation. Perhaps it was hostility that reinforced their identity.

This was not the case in the wake of Alexander's conquest of the Near East in 333 B.C.E. Some 150 years later we hear of Jews in Palestine, in an era free of persecution, ready to remake Judaism according to the dictates of Hellenistic civilization. We read in First Maccabees: "At that time there came forth from Israel certain lawless men who persuaded many saying, 'Let us go and make a treaty with the heathen around us, because ever since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us'" (1:11). Led by priests, this group got permission from the Seleucids to build a gymnasium in the heart of Jerusalem, did away with circumcision and abandoned much of the Torah. In consequence, they provoked civil war. Radical change evoked a radical response. Traditionalists were not about to forego their apartness, especially in the precincts of Jerusalem.

To my mind, the names of Gershom and Ivri symbolize the existential reality of being Jewish. It takes a measure of independence from the surrounding culture to perpetuate Judaism, all the more so in a friendly society. Our survival in exile amounts to a millennial campaign for the right to be different, individually and collectively.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.