[Note: This was written in 1999 while I was one of few Jewish students at Vanderbilt Divinity School]
Many people ask me (and I often ask myself) why I am a student of theology at a (nominally) Christian divinity school. Wouldn't I be better off in a Jewish Studies program somewhere like Brandeis, or Hebrew College, etc.?
Would I? Torah teaches us a great lesson in parashat Yitro. First of all, if you stop and think about it, it was a non-Jew who helped Moshe rabbeinu establish our system for administering justice and the law. Was this just the act of a kind father-in-law, or was there some purpose behind G-d's choice to use Yitro for this instruction? Now, I can hear some argue that perhaps G-d let humans decide this particular logistical issue. But I ask you, considering all the niggling little details of law and teaching that G-d hands down to us, do you really think G-d passed on this detail? Somehow, I think not. So, why choose an outsider?
The Midrash (Mechilta Amalek 3) reminds us that an outsider, Yitro, came and blessed G-d's name. (Ex. 18:10) We were so wrapped up in all that was going on, that it took someone from the outside to remind us to whom we owed everything. Yitro could see the miracle, the awesomeness of G-d in what had been done for the people of Israel. We were out there griping and complaining, causing such a fury that Yitro had to suggest to his son-in-law that he take on some help dealing with all the disputes and disagreements , complaints and questions. Yitro must have thought we were nuts. I can just hear him thinking to himself; "their G-d brings them out of Egypt from slavery to freedom, parts the sea for them, and all they do is bicker amongst themselves? What a bunch of fruitcakes!"
Well, my experience among the outsiders (i.e. Christians) at the divinity school has been as eye opening to me-they have been my Yitro. They are looking at the same holy scriptures I am, and seeing them in ways I never saw them. Yes, some of those ways are beyond my ken, and severely influenced by their own doctrines, but they challenge me to re-examine things. And they help me reclaim the heritage that is mine-for I have unwittingly forsaken much of it.
When I hear what I perceive as a Christian misreading of Torah, I cannot stop myself from having to study the text myself, and understand why I know in my heart it is a misreading. But without that outside challenge, I might never have even given that bit of Torah a second look.
An example. In my Hebrew class the other day, we were reading the story of the visit of the messengers to Abraham and Sarah. At one point, Abraham has his "young boy" (na'arah) prepare food for the visitors. Implicit in the sentence is that the "young boy" was somehow a servant of Abraham. Now, the instructor in this course is a female African-American scholar of Hebrew Bible. And, in my exegetical methods course and in other classes of late, we had been examining more "post-modern" reader and liberationist centered interpretations. So I thought to myself, and then asked the professor if she found it as oddly coincidental as I did that here in Torah we read of Abraham instructing his "boy" to do something, when this same terminology has been (and still is) used by whites towards African-Americans. Now these two societies are thousands of years apart, and I'm not suggesting that Abraham treated his servant lads in the same way whites treated their slaves and servants in America. But it's an interesting observation that might never have occurred to me had I been studying with group of all whites. It took someone outside my world to put me in such a state of awareness.
The question always arises: why are we still around? The Christians have not succeeded, despite their best and worst efforts, to convert us all, wipe us out, or make us completely irrelevant. We're still here, worshipping the one G-d, still reading our scripture from scrolls. Still covenanted with G-d. Still guarding and sharing G-d's message. When confronted with this question, a Christian has a lot of thinking to do. In that way, I am their Yitro. Yitro said to Moshe "hey, this is crazy. Try this method of organization and see if it helps." I might say to my Christian friends "Hey look, I know you think it's your mandate to convert us all. but you've been trying to do it that way for almost 2000 years. Don't we define addiction as trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Let's try something else now."
Almost daily, G-d sends me a Yitro in the form of some Christian student asking yet another question about Judaism. In order to be able to respond to them, I need to study and understand my own faith far more than I ever imagined possible. It is an amazing journey as I turn it and turn it again.
Yitro said: "Blessed be the L-rd who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and the Hand of Pharaoh, who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians." (Ex 18:10)
Blessed be the L-rd who sends us our Yitros to awaken us from our complacency, encouraging us to re-examine the gifts and covenant given to us, and reminding us to thank and praise the source of all.
May G-d send a Yitro your way this Shabbat.
© 1999 by Adrian A. Durlester
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