Parashat Yitro: Every knee shall bend

There is a fascinating debate among the talmudic sages as to whether Jethro actually converted to Judaism.

bible 88 (photo credit: )
bible 88
(photo credit: )
I have previously commented on the fact that the biblical portion which records the Revelation at Sinai - the Ten Commandments which serve as the foundation of our faith and morality - opens with praise from, and is actually named after a Midianite priest, Jethro (Yitro). This gentile father-in-law of Moses is depicted as rejoicing at the Israelite victory against Egyptian enslavement, and is quoted as declaring: "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other powers, because the very object which they [the Egyptians] used sinfully [water, when it was used to drown Hebrew babies] was turned against them" (Exodus 18: 9-11). And it is this same Jethro who goes on to teach Moses how to establish a proper judicial system to put the Decalogue into daily practice (Exodus 18:13, 14, 18, 21). One cannot escape concluding that the Bible is telling us that its message of human freedom and the absolute morality of "thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery," as well as its trail-blazing teaching of ethical monotheism was meant for the entire world. There is a fascinating debate among the talmudic sages as to whether Jethro actually converted to Judaism. After all, the Bible does tell us that at some later point he returns to his home in Midian (Ex. 18:27). His departure is described in greater detail in Numbers 10:29-32, where Moses is pictured as urging his father-in-law to remain with the Israelites, promising him respect and reward (and, according to the Ramban, even lands in Israel), but Jethro demurs. Nevertheless, his descendants, the Kenites, do join with the tribe of Judah (Judges 1:16), and the Midrash Mekhilta (to the biblical portion of Yitro) records a dispute between R. Yehoshua, who suggests that Jethro "departed from the glory of the world," and R. Elazar Hamodai'i, who maintains that he went back to convert others. If indeed our Torah is ultimately meant for gentiles as well as Jews, and if Jethro was actually our first convert after Sinai, and went out to convert others, does this mean we ought to be friendly toward would-be converts, that there may even be a Divine commandment for us to accept converts? Although conventional Jewish wisdom says Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, many halachic and historical sources suggest an alternative attitude. Despite the fact that there are some seemingly negative statements in the Talmud about converts, such as that of R. Halbo ("converts are as difficult for Israel as sapahat, leprosy," B.T. Kiddushin 80b), that very same word is used by R. Berakhiya to teach that "the descendants of proselytes shall serve as kohanim in the Holy Temple" (Shmot Rabba, Vilna, Parasha 19,4). Moreover, R. Elazar declares that "the Holy One Blessed be He commanded that the Israelites go into exile among the nations only in order for them to gain converts (B.T. Pesahim 87b). Indeed, the commanding position of the Scroll of Ruth - depicting a Moabite convert as grandmother of King David, progenitor of the Messiah - which is read on Shavuot, our Festival of the Covenant at Sinai, should be the deciding voice. The Tashbetz (R. Shimon b. Tzemah Duran) maintains that a commandment to accept converts is implied by the divine ordinance that we love the proselyte. Maimonides goes so far as to include within the commandment to love God the "necessity of seeking and summoning all peoples to the service of and belief in the Lord of the Universe." He cites the Sifre, who defines the biblical verse to mean, "cause God to be loved by all living beings (briyot)." Rav Yehuda Gershuni (in Kol Tzofayikh, Jerusalem 5740, p. 503) concludes that this means proselytizing them, since Maimonides' proof text comes from Abraham, who wished to convert everyone to his new-found faith. The Ravad likewise derives the commandment to convert from the phrase, "the souls he made in Haran" (Genesis 12:5). And Josephus documents our successful proselytizing activity throughout the Roman Empire during the Second Commonwealth (Against Apion 2, 39). Perhaps the final word on this subject is the command of Hillel for us "to love all human creatures [briyot] and bring them close to Torah" (Mishne Avot 1, 12). Returning to the biblical message of Yitro, at the very least we are enjoined to oppose human enslavement and spread the Ten Commandments. After all, the Midrash on the verse "God came forth from Sinai [after] He had shown [His laws] to them from Seir and revealed [them] from the Mount of Paran …" (Deuteronomy 33:2) teaches that God initially offered His Decalogue to the descendants of Esau (Seir) and then to the descendants of Ishmael (Paran), only to have them rejected by all except Israel. And Maimonides rules that only the Jews must keep the 613 commandments for ultimate "salvation"; it is enough for the gentile world to accept the Seven Noahide Laws of morality (Laws of Kings 8,10). But we certainly must proselytize every human being to keep those seven laws - do not worship an idol, do not misuse God's Name, do not murder, do not commit licentious sexual acts, do not steal, respect all creatures, and create a judicial system to enforce the first six laws. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.