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Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, 5774/2013
What's in a Name?

© Rabbi Jack Moline

Here is my sermon from our annual community worship service. To see the service itself, link to:

Thank you for your interest in my Thanksgiving Interfaith Sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! My apologies for any typos. Jack Moline

Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, 5774/2013 - What's in a Name? - ©Rabbi Jack Moline

The first time I participated in this interfaith service was in 1987. We gathered in Baptist Temple Church for a very polite custom of communal worship. I was asked to speak as the new kid on the block. The title of my sermon was "What's in a name?" That's the title of this sermon, but I am not recycling the substance, just the topic.

My sermon back then was about a new project initiated by a local Episcopal church in an empty warehouse on Duke Street. It was a much-needed shelter and social service hub for Alexandria's alarmingly large homeless population. In an attempt to expand its mission, the church had come to the city government and the interfaith community asking for both charter and financial support.

The name of that project was and is Carpenter's Shelter. And I strenuously objected to that name - as I still do - for an institution that was meant to welcome people regardless of their religious background in the name of the secular city government and the many religious communities who are asked to support it. In case I am being obtuse, the "carpenter" in question is Jesus. It was suggested to me that I should be happy that Catholic Charities had already taken "Christ House," but you know me - I replied "Let's just name it Mitzvah House if the name is so unimportant."

The institution is still called Carpenter's Shelter. And all these years later it still tells me, a Jew, that whatever I might do on behalf of the children of God it serves I do on somebody else's terms.

So what's in a name? There is actually an adage in our Jewish tradition, kishmo ken hu. It doesn't translate well, but if you ever said about someone, "You know, she has just the right name," you get the idea - a seamstress named Betsy, a traitor named Benedict, a tank named Patton, a spaceship named Enterprise. Kishmo ken hu. About the time I arrived in Alexandria I published a book of humor, and the funniest line in it is one I did not write: And Pharaoh named Joseph "Zophenat-panei'ah," saying, "I don't know, he just LOOKS like a Zophenat-pane'iah." Kishmo ken hu.

Speaking of the Bible, we learn the importance of names very early on. In the second chapter of Genesis, as we read earlier, we learned that "Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field." That first earthling didn't give names like Fido or Irving or Mylie, rather names like giraffe or vulture or ladybug (though obviously not in English), and by those names we know not only the creatures but the characteristics associated with them.

And you know that the names of the characters in the Bible have significance, too. Eve's name means "life" because she was the mother of all who live. Jacob's name comes from the word for "heel," because he was hanging onto Esau's heel when he was born. Joseph, from the word meaning "additional," the additional blessing of a son his father never anticipated. Benjamin, bin-yamin, meaning "my right-hand man," slightly modified by Jacob from the name his mother tried to give him as she breathed her last ben-oni, "my son of suffering." Moses, Moshe, meaning drawn from the water. Samuel, Shmu'el, meaning God heard the prayer of Hannah. Elijah, Eliyahu, meaning the Lord is my God. Jesus, Yeshu'a, meaning redemption.

The name gives meaning to the one who bears it, and the one who bears it gives meaning to the name. Esau is not such a bad guy in the Bible, but he comes to symbolize the oppressive rule of Rome in later time. Amalek becomes the paradigm of all evil people, his descendant Agag carries on that tradition and Haman, the Aggagite, may or may not have been Agag's great-great-grandson, but he carried the name that labeled him a villain. In the book of Amos that we just quoted, God admonishes the Israelites that they shouldn't think they are so privileged - you are just like the Ethiopians, the Philistines, the Syrians, says God. Those are not compliments, by the way.

The danger, of course, in attaching negative meaning to a name is that all sorts of people are unfairly diminished by situational prejudice. An Ethiopian or Syrian reading this passage would be insulted twice by the implication that there is something wrong with being who she is. A Philistine would probably be glad just to be 3000 years old. But some names cannot have their negative connotations erased, even if by common usage they are no longer intended to be slurs.

The prophet Hosea was well aware of the double entendre of just such a name when he spoke to his wife Ruchama in a manner that was metaphorically God speaking to Israel. I must quickly acknowledge the truly awful and abusive scenario in which these words take place, but that's the subject of a different discussion. Having chastised, cast out and denigrated his wife for her infidelities, Hosea then speaks lovingly to her and imagines a time when they are reconciled. Their attachment to each other will be renewed and their devotion will be restored. And you will refer to me, your husband, he says, by the Hebrew title ishi. Ishi literally means "my man," and it is the masculine form of the word for "my wife," ishti, which literally means "my woman." In colloquial Hebrew, still in common usage today, the word for husband is ba'al. That word, which I leave untranslated for the moment, has multiple meanings. The person who is skilled at reading Scripture is called ba'al k'riah. The erudite scholars who explained difficult passages in the Talmud were each called ba'al tosafot. God, in the attribute of perfect courage, is called ba'al g'vurot. Generically, the translation of ba'al is "master." So to call someone ba'al habayit is to call him "Master of the House." Hosea suggests an egalitarian redefinition of his relationship with his wife when he jettisons ba'ali, my master, for ishi, my man. Uh.sort of.

You see, ba'al has one other meaning, especially in the Bible. The major competing god-figure among the pagans was known as ba'al. There were many different gods with the title ba'al in those times and not a one of them was considered a good thing by Hosea or the one true God he represented. Perhaps the most famous of these pagan gods was the scandalously scatological Ba'al-zevuv, the Lord of the Flies, known more colloquially by John Milton, William Golding and Freddy Mercury as Beelzebub.

"I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth," saith the Lord, according to Hosea. When you say ba'al, you may be thinking "husband," he says, but there is no getting away from the association with the false deities that bring shame and dishonor on those who even speak their names.

'Round about now you are asking yourself, "where is he going with all of this?" Well, your patience is about to be rewarded, but I am willing to bet this will be the most controversial message I have ever delivered at one of these Thanksgiving services.

I received a plaintive request from a gentleman named Bill Ade in early September. He is a Christian who grew up at a time when and in a place where people who were different than the almost homogeneous community were called by names and presumed to be "less-than." After briefly recounting the lessons of his lifetime about race, religion and ethnicity, he got to the point.

The point is the name of Washington's beloved professional football team. He thinks it should be changed.

The name is offensive. You might argue with me about whether the name offends you, but that's like someone who is not Jewish trying to persuade you that "jew you down" doesn't mean anything about you personally, or that "cafeteria Christian" is about more liberal denominations. The extremely uncomfortable question is this: is it offensive enough? Is it just ba'al my husband, or is it ba'al of the flies?

And what do I mean by that? In spite of the hype and the money and everything else, this controversy is about a game. Professional sports, especially football, baseball and hockey, remain the last places in our society in which certain forms of discrimination are hallowed. On the field and on the sidelines, it remains difficult to impossible for people of certain backgrounds to represent, never mind succeed. And it remains curious to me that after tens of thousands of men have qualified to play these sports, not a solitary woman has developed the physical prowess or management ability to participate. If that kind of overt discrimination is excused because it is "just a game," are we able to point at one team name or logo among others - Braves, Saints, Canucks - that resonate ethnically, religiously or otherwise and say that Washington's fans are the most egregious?

I have to admit to pretty much ignoring this question during the thirty years of my adult life that I have lived in the Metro area. But we live in a different world. As kids, we thought nothing of calling someone a homo or a retard or a dork (look it up). And while I am certain that in our Commonwealth there are still some folks who believe "nigra" is a step forward, an African American child has never known a United States with anything but an African American President, and that kind of normal demands a comparable standard of language.

The name has to go. Abe Pollin had less reason to rename the basketball team he owned. Washington, DC, was the murder capital of the United States at the time, and he was applauded for giving up "Bullets." Okay, we got a stupid name in its place, but only because the league turned down my suggestion that we call our basketball team the Supreme Court.

We are gathered here tonight celebrating the anniversary of an event that has soothed the conscience of America for a long history of abuse, denigration and murder of the native people who lived on this land when Europeans colonized it and claimed it as their own. Thank God we have grown out of the mindset that justified our excesses. But I have to ask myself what I would say to a young man or woman who is the child of one of those Indian nations we recalled at the onset of this interfaith service about why otherwise intelligent and compassionate men and women tolerate the near-worship of a name that was never descriptive, never respectful, never laudatory, never accepted by the people it described. I wonder if that child would feel like I do when I walk into Carpenter's Shelter.

We're here for a good time, so it isn't fair for me to end on that note. So let me end here instead. Abraham and Sarah had their names changed when they were deep into their senior years. Everybody knew them as Abram and Sarai, Avram and Sarai, so a sudden change of name could not have been easy, even if the new names resonated with the former names. But along with that change came a blessing - Abram would become av hamon goyim, the father of many nations, Avraham. Sarai would no longer be just "my princess," as her original name meant, but simply Sarah, "the royal one," to be admired by all. Kishmo ken hu. A name befitting the person.

So I am willing to compromise. Years ago, Tony Kornheiser's suggested that we could keep the name the same if we just changed the mascot to the Redskin Potato. Perhaps tomorrow as you sit in front of an abundant table, you can consider whether relinquishing the disrespect for an entire race is worth the ridicule we would receive in return.

Hail to the Tubers! Hail to the Spuds! Mash our opponents; turn them into duds!

Happy Thanksgiving and, in the spirit of political correctness, Happy Holidays.

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