“I have always believed I was Jewish,” Cathy said.
This was her real reason for converting to Judaism, she confided to me. Though her ancestors came many generations ago from Sweden, she believed that her great-great-grandmother may have been a Jew; she had always been attracted to Jewish teachings, never felt right in the church and preferred Jewish men.
Was there mystical union she had with the Jewish people? Was her path to conversion pre-destined in some way?
I didn’t have the answers, but Cathy turned out to be one of my best students and eventually brought her husband to be more serious about Judaism.
I am sure everyone knows some non-Jewish relative or friend that falls into this category. I call it the “Yitro Phenomenon,” named after Moses’ non-Jewish father-in-law. God has placed a variety of non-Jewish persons in our world to look after the viability of Judaism and the Jewish people. It is a strong statement given our history with Jew haters, but for every Amalek or Haman, I believe there are Yitros out there who in their own quiet way play a supportive role in preserving Jewish civilization.
The origin of this idea is found in the portion of the Torah that introduces us to Yitro, also called “Hovav” (Dear One), early on in the Book of Exodus. He plays a vital role in giving Moshe good advice about how to organize his leadership and a system of justice. Yitro makes his last appearance in this week’s portion. At the start of the second year after the Exodus, Moses leads the people towards the Promised Land away from Mt. Sinai; Yitro informs him of his plans to return to his home in Midian.
But is it really the second year? There is an argument among rabbinic commentators concerning whether this short conversation (Numbers 10:29-32) is actually a flashback to nine months earlier (the first year) just before the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The conversation would then be the capstone of stories found in the Torah and in the Midrash about Yitro the Midianite, who advised Moshe, taught the Jewish people to celebrate their new freedom with a feast in their honor, and would have converted to Judaism had he remained for the Mt. Sinai revelation.
Moses tries to persuade Yitro to stay: “You know how to be our guide in the wilderness and you have been eyes for us!”(Numbers 10:31) These are powerful words. Perhaps Yitro’s eyes see what the Israelites cannot see and Moses worries that they will be blind without him, despite the guidance from the approaching Sinai revelation. The story is removed from its context just before the Mt. Sinai event and placed in our portion — nine months later — to highlight the ramifications of Yitro’s absence and his way of seeing as the people lose faith in God and head towards rebellion and ruin.
“Seeing” in the Torah is the primary way that persons experience God’s presence in the world. Seeing pre-figures “listening” as a mode of spirituality that is not reserved for Jews alone. Noah sees a rainbow as a sign, Pharaoh’s magicians see the “finger of God,” Zipporah circumsizes her son and so on. All of humanity is capable of seeing and believing; the Jew is required to “listen” to the commandments and obey the law but is also aware of varieties of spiritual experience.
Perhaps a spiritual way of seeing is what the Torah wants us to re-capture in yearning for the vision of Yitro the non-Jew. Like my student Cathy, we need to remind ourselves of non-Jews who see what we don’t see and help sustain the Jewish nation. Despite our recent worries about our enemies, we need to be thankful for non-Jewish folks who see, speak out and take action in our community and for our community.
Five years ago, Pastor John Hagee brought 400 pastors together in San Antonio, Tex, to form Christians United For Israel (CUFI), now the largest pro-Israel organization in America reaching millions with local “Night to Honor Israel” rallies. Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper publically made his thoughts known when he said “we are morally obligated to take a stand” against the delegitimization of Israel.
In private life, there are many non-Jews who marry into Jewish families and take responsibility for the teaching of Judaism from generation to generation. Judaism has never claimed to be an exclusive club. Witness the number of non-Jewish students who flock to Friday night dinners on campus and other events.
Jewish history is filled with examples of non-Jewish supporters and Yitro is the Torah archetype. We ought not only to feel cheered by their presence; we can learn from their spirituality and “see” the beauty of our heritage and the presence of our living God.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)