Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): What's In A Name? (Or What's With Orev?)

CoverDesign2_RavenNow and again, someone asks me why I sign my CBS emails with a two-part first name: Christopher Orev. Fair question.

In day-to-day life, I prioritize my given, secular name, Christopher. In this respect, I'm like most Jewish Americans. My patronymic Hebrew name, Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu, is known by very few people and used by fewer still, generally reserved for use in a ritual context.

So why, then, do I insist on writing Christopher Orev? Because my Hebrew name is very important to me, and I feel it should appear in formal correspondence, especially in a Jewish context. Because the name itself is unusual, however, I'm often asked what it means. Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer suggested that I share the origin of the name on the CBS blog in the hopes that a handful of readers might find my explanation of interest.

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Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake.

Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).

Where did the raven go?

Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is evidence of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove.

The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and mythmaking. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy.

But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah (soul). This particular orev "flew the coop," so to speak, for a few generations, but has at last come back to the ark (through the covenant of conversion).

I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב. Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.

But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.

This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerged from the mikveh, I was a new Jew. If you had asked me then if I stood at Sinai, I would have confidently replied, ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past informs my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I am actively engaged in the Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), my very "Jewishness" is sometimes challenged. Some fellow Jews review my attributes and deem me kosher; others say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews. The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.