Parasha Yitro: Whose Torah is it anyway?

Since the Torah is meant to spread throughout the world, it is understandable why Jethro is a fitting hero for the portion describing the Revelation at Sinai.

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January 21, 2011 15:16
4 minute read.
judaism

judaism58 (do not publish again). (photo credit: avi katz)

‘Now I [Jethro] know that the Lord is greater than all gods...” (Exodus 18:11)

Is it not strange that the portion in the Bible which records God’s revelation to the Israelites – the religio-legal covenant between the Almighty and His chosen people – begins with, and is named in honor of, a Midianite priest: Jethro (Yitro)?

And why did God choose Mount Sinai, a desert mountain outside the Land of Israel, as the location for His Revelation? Would it not have been more fitting for God to have presented the Law on the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah – the place of the binding of Isaac, in the Holy City of Jerusalem?

The Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, the Midrash Bahodesh, provides a fascinating response to the second question: “Had the Torah been given in the Land of Israel, the Israelites would have told the rest of the nations that they have no portion in the Torah. Now that the Revelation was given in an open, ownerless, public space which is accessible to every human being, let anyone who wishes to accept it come and take it.”

Another midrash, cited by the classical commentator Rashi, takes an even more active approach to conversion in discussing Moses’s final blessing to the Israelites at the end of the Pentateuch, toward the beginning of the portion Vezot Habracha, “And this is the blessing” (Deuteronomy 33:1, 2). The Midrash here pictures the Lord on His way to Sinai, first approaching the descendants of Esau (Seir) and then the descendants of Ishmael (Mount Paran), offering them the Torah first. It was only after these gentile nations rejected the moral laws prohibiting theft and licentiousness, and after Israel accepted all the laws unconditionally, that it became Israel’s Torah.

And since our God is Lord of the universe and not only Lord of Israel; and since every human being – and not only the Hebrews – was created in the divine image, God’s intention is that every citizen of the world will eventually accept the seven Noahide laws of morality, and perhaps even the entire Torah. That is the significance of Isaiah’s depiction of the end of days, when “the Mountain of the Temple of the Lord will stand secure, and all the nations will rush to the Temple and shall declare, ‘Let us learn from [Israel’s] ways and let us walk in [Israel’s] paths, for from Zion shall come forth Torah, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2: 3).

Similarly Zephaniah prophesies: “At that time, I shall turn the nations around [and bring to them] a clear and universal language which will call out to all of them in the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder.” And one of our most ancient prayers, which our talmudic sages have ordained must be said at the conclusion of each and every obligatory prayer service, declares our hope that “idols will be completely cut off, the world will be perfected under the Kingship of the Almighty, all mortal children of flesh will call upon Your Name, all the wicked of the earth will be turned to You… and everyone will accept the yoke of Your Kingship.”



To be sure, the great legal codifier and philosopher Maimonides says that Moses was only to teach the 613 commandments to the Israelites and to those who wished to convert to Judaism. Jews are commanded to convert – and even to coerce – gentiles into accepting the seven Noahide laws of morality, not into accepting the entire package of Jewish law and traditions (Laws of Kings, 8,10). Any gentile who accepts these seven laws of morality (not to murder, not to steal, not to commit sexual perversion, not to eat the limb of a living animal, not to blaspheme God, not to serve idols and to establish law courts for the expedition of these laws) is entitled to a share in the World to Come.

However, Maimonides also says that at the End of Days, everyone will – of their own volition – turn to the true religion, refrain from robbery and destruction, and eat only permitted (kosher) foods like the Israelites.

Moreover, Maimonides praises “Yehoshua the Nazarene and that Ishmaelite [Muhammad], whose teachings pave the way for the King Messiah,” and through whose religious teachings – which we can in no way accept for ourselves – “the world has [nevertheless] become filled with words of the Messiah, with words of Torah and with words of the commandments, and these words have spread to the furthest islands and to many nations of uncircumcised hearts.”

Since the Torah is meant to spread throughout the world, it is understandable why Jethro – a Midianite priest who came to accept and praise the God of Israel and His laws – is a fitting hero for the portion describing the Revelation at Sinai.


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