Why we named our son Simon Ishmael

There are lots of reasons that we chose the name Simon Ishmael for our newborn son. As with our daughter Leila, we chose the name primarily for our own aesthetic and social reasons, and not because it was a family name — although in Simon’s case it is. My father’s maternal grandfather was Shimon, and was apparently a lovely man.

The first, most obvious reason is purely aesthetic: we like the name Simon; we like the way it sounds; saying it out loud makes us smile. We like the way that it’s a soft, gentle-sounding name in English and yet a stronger, more forceful name in Hebrew. It’s nice to have both soft and hard in your name.

On an etymological level, both Simon and Ishmael are names derived from the root meaning to hear. Ishmael means either/both “will hear God” and “God will hear,” depending on the way you choose to parse the grammar. Thus Simon Ishmael can mean either “God will hear Simon” or “Simon will hear God.” (The name Simon does not have a literal meaning besides Name-Derived-from-the-Root-Meaning-to-Hear.)

Ishmael is also a very positive character in the pshat Torah (the simple literal meaning of the words, without additional commentary or rabbinic interpretation). He has a good relationship with his father and an even better relationship with his younger half-brother, despite the way that his stepmother Sarah effectively banishes him and his mother to the desert.* He joins with Isaac to bury their father, and marries one of his daughters to Isaac’s favorite son (oh you totally forgot that Esau was Isaac’s favorite there, didn’t you?). Ishmael is also the subject of my wife’s favorite story from the Bible, the story of him and his mother Hagar in the wilderness. After Abraham banishes them (on the orders of his wife Sarah, backed up by God), the two wander aimlessly for a time, and cannot find food or water. All seems lost and Hagar tells Ishmael to hide under a bush, because she can’t bear to watch him die. But God hears the boy’s cries (Ishmael=God Will Hear, remember?) and shows Hagar where to find water for the two of them, promising to make Ishmael a great nation.

And speaking of great nations, there’s another reason why the middle name of Ishmael was so attractive to us. That great nation, the people who derive their ancestry from Ishmael, are the Arabs. Ishmael appears in the Qu’ran as a paragon of faith, virtuous and unwavering. The story of the Akkeida, the Binding of Isaac, is in the Qu’ran the Binding of Ishmael. As with Leila, the choice of a Hebrew name that is more common in Arabic is a conscious choice to bridge some of the divide between our two semitic peoples. We are essentially cousins, and recognizing our kinship on a very basic level is important to us.

Rabbinic sources have a very strong, very dangerous tendency to lionize all our ancestors and villainize every character who isn’t an ancestor to the Jews. They do it to Ishmael, they do it to Esau, they do it to Balaam. It’s a rabbinic practice that angers and horrifies me, for it paves the way for all the demonization and blindness to our common humanity (and common ancestry!) that afflicts the Religious Right in Israel and abroad. It’s a tradition that my wife and I joyously reject as we name our beautiful son Simon Ishmael.

May his name be a blessing.

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*Even the crime Ishmael is banished for, a vague, likely-sexual action toward his brother (the word used is matzhik, a word derived from that for laughter), is not as unambiguously negative as the commentators would have you believe. First off, it’s not 100% clear that the word is sexual in this context — it could mean, for example, that he was tickling Isaac. But even in a sexual context, it is a positive word. The Torah has plenty of words for sex, from the neutral ladaat (to Know in the biblical sense), to the clinical legalot erva (to uncover nakedness), to the negative le’anot (to rape/torture/deprive). Letzahek is an unabashedly positive word. The only evidence that it is even sexual comes from a few chapters later, when a king sees Isaac metzahek-ing Rebecca and goes, hey, why didn’t you two tell me you were married? If taken to be sexual, it’s a word that implies pleasure and even consent. And it’s pretty notable that while Sarah and Abraham end up punishing Ishmael for whatever act this may have been, God actually rewards Ishmael with his own covenant, his own great nation to found. Not the kind of divine reaction you’d expect from what is supposedly such a terrible sin.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.

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