Friday, March 12, 2010

Can I Keep My Maiden Name? by Rabbi Moss

Question of the Week:
What does Jewish law say about a woman taking a man's surname after marriage? Some girls nowadays refuse to change their name to the man's. Not sure if the man really cares, or if he has a say, but I wanted the Jewish take on it.

Family names are a recent thing for Jews. For most of our history we used first names only. You were called by your own name, the son or daughter of your father's or mother's name, like Rachel the daughter of David.

Surnames were formally forced upon us in Europe about 200 years ago. And so the tailor's family name became Schneider, which means tailor, and the short guy took on the name Klein, and David's children became the Davidovitzes.

For the most part Jewish law did not utilise these names, and so the question of keeping a maiden name after marriage was never discussed by the rabbis. This was a question of secular law, not Jewish. But even where there is no Jewish law, there is a Jewish attitude.

Getting married means creating a oneness out of two people. Having a family means extending that oneness to our children. The Torah says that husband and wife become one flesh, and our children are the tangible expression of that oneness.

It would seem apt that this unity should be reflected in the family name. If the husband has one surname, the wife another, and then the kids perhaps a third, this does not reflect the togetherness and unity that a family structure is supposed to represent.

Of course one option is to hyphenate. But for the next generation this will lead to absurdity: if Joseph Cohen-Brown marries Josephine Jones-Levy, will they become the Cohen-Brown-Jones-Levys?

Keeping a uniform system is the best way to avoid conflict. And so there is reason to say that the husband's name should be taken. In Jewish law, soul identity follows the mother, but tribal affiliation follows the male line. A surname, which identifies which clan you belong to, would logically go after the male.

For someone to give up their name can be challenging. It can feel like giving up a part of their identity. But if that's what it takes to create a sense of family unity, it is a small ask. After all, starting a family will require many more selfless sacrifices for the greater good of others. That's the challenge of family life, and that's its beauty.

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