Encounters that Can Make Us Become Better Jews

YITRO, EXODUS 18:1–20:23
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI SARAH BASSIN

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.

SOURCE

Tis a Gift to be Simple

“Tis a gift to be simple: How to Experience the Winter Celebrations in an Eco-Conscious Manner” was presented by Linda Ott of Sustaining Way at our Temple, December 5th.

Linda comes to the SCIPL (South Carolina Interfaith Power & Light) Director role most recently as a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary with a Masters of Theology in Creation Care. Linda’s vocation life journey included the military, social work, business, and law. Her passion for creation care stems from her time at Drew Theological School, where she completed a Masters of Divinity and discovered her passion for understanding the intersection of faith and the care of creation.

The occasion was one of Interfaith collaboration and good cheer.

Tis a Joy to be Simple

Save the Date! Linda Ott will be Speaking on Tuesday, December 5th.

Please be reminded that Linda Ott from Sustaining Way will be speaking at Temple B’nai Israel on Tuesday, December 5 at 12:00 noon on the topic “Tis a gift to be simple: How to Experience the Winter Celebrations in an Eco-Conscious Manner”. Please see attachments. We hope you will join us for this informative lecture. Lunch will be served as well. RSVP to the temple at 864-582-2001.

Linda comes to the SCIPL (South Carolina Interfaith Power & Light) Director role most recently as a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary with a Masters of Theology in Creation Care. Linda’s vocation life journey included the military, social work, business, and law. Her passion for creation care stems from her time at Drew Theological School, where she completed a Masters of Divinity and discovered her passion for understanding the intersection of faith and the care of creation.

Wofford College Lighting of the Hanukkah Menorah, November 28th!

Tonight is the Winter Lighting program in Leonard Auditorium which starts at 6:30. After the indoor festivities, the audience will move outside to watch the lighting of Wofford’s 6-foot menorah in front of Old Main. That menorah lighting typically occurs between 7:20-7:30 depending on when the indoor program ends. The menorah lighting is a quick ceremony to mark the beginning of the holiday season. Please join the Rabbi tonight at Wofford College for the lighting.

Special Friday Night Service!

WITH GUEST SPEAKER AND SCHOLAR DR. ROB MCCORMICK REFLECTING ON THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY OF MARTIN LUTHER’S REFORMATION AND ITS IMPACT ON JEWS

Dr. Robert McCormick, chair of the Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy and American Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate, recently published a book through I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd. titled “Croatia Under Ante Pavelić: America, the Ustaše and Croatian Genocide.”

Ante Pavelić was the leader of a paramilitary and terrorist force, the Ustaše, who, on Adolf Hitler’s instruction, became the leader of Croatia after the Nazi invasion of 1941. “Ante Pavelić was one of the most significant war criminals from World War II to never answer for his crimes,” McCormick said. “With Allied and Vatican assistance, he successfully escaped to Argentina and ultimately died in 1959 in Spain.”

McCormick’s book, examines the relationship between the United States and Ante Pavelić from when he masterminded the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934 to his death in 1959. For much of the 1930s, extremist Croatian-Americans were important supporters of Pavelić and the Ustaše, helping to keep his Croatian nationalist message alive in America and Europe. After gaining power in wartime Croatia, Pavelić’s regime killed about 330,000 Serbs, Jews, and Roma, while operating a series of concentration camps.

After the war, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Vatican conspired to help Pavelić and many of his allies avoid arrest and escape from Europe to the safety of Argentina. Tracing Pavelić’s escape to Argentina, McCormick argues that American authorities protected Pavelić, because he was devout Catholic and anti-Communist, who held the potential to be useful in the emerging Cold War. McCormick also examines the consequences of American decisions by studying Pavelić’s place in contemporary Croatian society.

“Pavelić’s legacy was influential in the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s and continues to be a factor in Croatian politics and society,” McCormick said.

McCormick is chair of the Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy and American Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate and is an associate professor of history. A native of North Carolina, he received a B.A. in history from Wake Forest University. He holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of South Carolina. He has published articles ranging from reform in Macedonia in the early twentieth century to genocide in World War II Croatia to an evolution controversy in 1884 Greenville, S.C.