I learned about kavod habriyot (dignity for human beings) from my mother (of blessed memory). She likely did not know the Hebrew term, but she embodied the concept in her life. She spoke of the need to treat all people with equity and showed my brother and me how to be open to a diversity of people in the town where we grew up. When I was about twelve years old, I decided to put my mother's cherished beliefs to the test. I asked her how she would feel if I decided to marry a black woman. Without missing a beat she said,"I would ask you if she was Jewish."In that moment I was taught that how we interact with people must not be colored by gender, socioeconomic status, race, or ethnic background. Rather, our relationship with others should be founded on the values they embrace and the life they live.
Is this pluralistic attitude a dominant view in Jewish tradition? Given the breadth of Jewish history and experience, it would be foolhardy to claim that there is a single response of our tradition to those who are not Jews. Jews have often seen our relationship with others as contentious, if not outright hostile. This week's parashah suggests, however, that a legitimate position in the relationship between Jews and non-Jews can and should be one of mutual respect and cooperation.
The early Rabbis who established the division of the weekly portions could have begun aparashah at any point. It is telling that our Torah portion, Yitro—which includes the giving of the commandments at Sinai—begins where it does. In this may be a hint to how we are to understand our relationship with those who are not Jewish.
The portion opens with Moses's father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) coming to greet Moses upon hearing what God had done for Israel. At their meeting,"Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other's welfare" (Exodus 18:7). More than this, Jethro"rejoiced over all the kindness that the Eternal had shown Israel. . . . 'Blessed be the Eternal,' Jethro said. . . . 'Now I know that the Eternal is greater than all gods. . . .' And Jethro . . . brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God"(Exodus 18:9-12). Immediately after this, Jethro offers Moses advice on how to lead the people more effectively. It is counsel well given that Moses implements immediately.
This is a remarkable passage that highlights the positive relationship that can occur between people of different faiths, and from it we learn three fundamental truths:
- Faith in God is not exclusive to the Jewish people. The early Rabbis underscore this point in a midrash that addresses why the Torah was given in the wilderness, in a place that belonged (at the time) to no one. The answer is to show that the people of Israel may be the guardians of the Torah but its truths are for all peoples ( M'chilta Bachodesh1, 2:198 on Exodus 19:2, quoted in Reuven Hammer, The Classic Midrash : Tannaitic Commentaries on the Bible [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995], p. 136).
- The ability to pray to God, in a Jewish context, is not limited to Jews. The precedent established in the Torah is given official recognition in the acceptance of sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem from those who are not Jews. Rabbinic Judaism establishes the principle that"righteous people of all nations have a share in the world-to-come"(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a).
- We can and should learn from others. The interplay of Jew and non-Jew is evident in every period of history. The attempt to insulate Judaism from the non-Jewish world not only is fruitless, but also would rob us of much that continues to make Judaism relevant and meaningful in every generation. The great pietistic writer of the eleventh century, Bachya ibn Pakuda, for example, who focused on the inner life of the soul in contrast to the dominant behaviorist approach of Rabbinic Judaism, was almost certainly influenced by Sufism (for a debate on the Sufi influence on Judaism, see Jorg Luyken, "Mystical Transcendence," Jerusalem Post , May 22, 2008). The greatness of the Rambam is his ability to integrate Arabic philosophy and Greek rationalism with Jewish faith. It is impossible to imagine any modern interpretation of Judaism without recognizing in it the influence of modern Western thought (on the importance of cross-fertilization of ideas to Judaism, see Shaul Magid,"Monastic Liberation as Counter-Cultural Critique in the Life and Thought of Thomas Merton," Cross Currents 49, no. 4 [Winter 1999/2000]).
In short, the decision to begin the portion that includes the giving of the Torah at Sinai with the story of Moses and Jethro established tolerance, pluralism, and intellectual openness as paramount Jewish values.
What makes the positive view of Jethro in the Torah even more noteworthy is that it comes so close on the heels of the story of Amalek, the nation that attacks Israel in last week's parashahand is so vilified. The negative example of Amalek and the positive one of Jethro serve as dual reminders that we should judge others based on their behavior, not their background.
Openness to others is not an advocacy for there being no separation or distinction between us. After the reunion of Jethro and Moses, they do end up going their separate ways. The English translation of Exodus 18:27 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (rev. ed., ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 473) states that"Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way."The Hebrew, however, indicates that Moses"sent"( vay'shalach ) him. The root of the Hebrew verb is the same one used in last week's parashah (shin-lamed-chet) where Pharaoh"sent," shalach (rather than "freed" or "let go"), the slaves (Exodus 13:17). Despite what is shared, then, there is a difference that cannot be denied.
Jethro and Moses represent people who must walk their own paths. There are moments, however, when those journeys intersect. Rather than see those points of connection as a source of contention, our parashah offers that they can be times of blessing, benefit, and bounty.
Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz is the senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York. He has taught at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, JLearn on Long Island, and the URJ Kallah. He is immediate past president of the Alumni Association of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was chair of the Joint Commission on Sustaining Rabbinic Education. He can be reached at email@example.com.