Encounters that Can Make Us Become Better Jews

YITRO, EXODUS 18:1–20:23

Jews are good at nostalgia. We remember with fondness the tenements of the Lower East Side when our community was tight knit and intact. We remember the quaintness of shtetl life untouched by outsiders. We yearn for the sovereignty of Ancient Israel where we controlled our own fate, unmolested by other nations.

But as Rabbi Rachel Adler reminds us, “there never was a time when ancient Israelite religion or the Judaism that succeeded it were not being influenced by the cultures and religions they encountered.”1

To be Jewish is to mix with others. In our early days, we called ourselves Hebrews, iv’rim — boundary crossers. For most of the last two thousand years, we have wandered throughout the world, adopting elements of our host cultures as our own. Today, we engage the question of a more complete assimilation with non-Jews around us. At every stage, we have been defined by how we engage with others. And it makes us nervous.

We may yearn for a time when we were free of outside influences. But “a nostalgia for such a time is a nostalgia for what never was.”2

Enough with the nostalgia for a simpler era.

We should stop seeing these encounters with “the Other” as problems and start seeing them as opportunities. What if the story we told ourselves about the Other was one in which our encounters made us stronger?

We have substantial precedent for that narrative with Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro. Moses struggles to the lead the Jewish people. He finds himself exhausted listening to a litany of cases as the only judge for the entire Israelite community. He cannot dig himself and his people out of this rut, and he doesn’t even know how to start trying. It is an encounter with his non-Jewish father-in-law, Yitro that enables his breakthrough. He embraces the recommendation of this Midianite priest in how to structure the Israelite community.

Yitro tells Moses, “Make it easier for yourself by letting them [additional leaders] share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you,” you and the people won’t be so tired. “Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he said” (Exodus 18:22-24).

A non-Jewish pagan priest saved our community from implosion and gave us a blueprint for how to function.

In that moment, Moses could have rejected his father-in-law’s advice. After all, what does an outsider know about our community that gives him the credibility to weigh in?

Moses teaches us that our encounter with “the Other” can be an asset for our evolution, not an obstacle to our survival. That interfaith encounter made Moses a better Israelite leader. Sometimes, we need insight from the outside to demonstrate what else is possible for us.

I had my own transformative “Yitro” encounter a few years ago. In December 2015, I attended Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, six months after a white supremacist opened fire and killed nine members of their community. I was shocked to witness a church united in forgiveness. They drew strength from the fact that Jesus forgave his tormentors. They applied his model in their own lives to forgive a murderer. They refused to allow hatred into their hearts.

I envied that spiritual disposition to forgiveness. It made me recognize the utter pettiness of grudges I held in my own life.

That Christian community facilitated a spiritual breakthrough I was not going to reach on my own. It made me take more seriously the language of forgiveness that already exists within Judaism. I dug into Jewish texts. I studied. I did my best to implement changes in my life. That encounter with Christians made me a better Jew.

In my interfaith work, I have witnessed so many Yitro encounters. I have witnessed Jews yearning for the deeply personal relationship with God that Muslims speak of so naturally. I have witnessed Muslims hungry for the culture of argument lived out in the Jewish sacred texts. The phenomenon is a kind of “holy envy.” It is the idea that our own lives and tradition can be enriched by learning from the faith, spirituality, and action of “the Other.”

We have grown accustomed to telling ourselves a bad story about our history with the Other. The Other has tried to defeat us, expel us, extort us, and kill us. There is truth to that narrative historically, but it’s only half of the truth. And I think that we would benefit from drawing out the untold good that has come — and can come — from encounters with the Other.

Moses’ relationship with Yitro reminds us that transformation by the Other is not peripheral to our tradition. It is the very core foundation upon which our community was built. For too long, we have told ourselves that the Other should be a source of fear. That fear blinded us from the possibility that we actually need the Other to become better Jews.

1 Rachel Adler, “‘To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’ — Boundaries, Borderlands and the Ethics of Cultural Negotiation” The Reconstructionist, Spring 2004

2 Ibid.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in Beverly Hills, CA, and former executive director and board member of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.