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Folks often ask me why I studied for my Masters degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School, a (nominally) Christian divinity school, rather than in some Jewish Studies program like Brandeis, or Hebrew College, etc.? There's always this presumption that I would have been better off if I had studied at one of these Jewish institutions.
Would I? Consider that I now work for one of the very few Jewish synagogues that actually shares a building with a church. (Of course, that always seems to engender its own set of questions. And the standard responses are, as usual--yes, it's a real Jewish synagogue and not some cross-denominational thing or some form of abominable messianic entrapment. Yes, we do have a high percentage of intermarried members. Yes, we have a permanent worship space with a built-in Aron Hakodesh. Yes, there are accommodations to be made. The church uses the building on Sundays, so our religious school meets on Shabbat. High Holy Day services have to use the church's main sanctuary. If you have any questions I haven't answered, feel free to e-mail me!) But I digress, as usual.
There is something quite apropos at my having wound up in this particular setting. Fortuitous happenstance, or is there more at play here? It is a wonderful setting in which to explore issues of interfaith dialogue, dealing with the realities of blended and interfaith families, and learning to learn from (and teach) the other. And learning from an outsider can be a powerful experience.
It's a lesson that Torah teaches us in parashat Yitro. First of all, if you stop and think about it, it was Yitro, priest of Midian, father-in-law, and non-Jew who helped Moshe rabbeinu establish our system for administering justice and the law. Just the kindly act of a wise and older father-in-law, or is there some greater purpose behind Gd's choice to use Yitro for this instruction? Why choose an outsider? (And for those who accept the text as having clearly been redacted and edited, why would not the editors redact the story in such a way that indicates that a "member of the tribe" was the source of this brilliant system of judges and courts? I don't think Yitro's in-law relationship with Moshe is enough to confer on Yitro such an important role. There is a teaching here, and there is a reason it is in the Torah as it is.
And there's more. A midrash from Mechilta Amalek (3) reminds us that an outsider, Yitro, came and blessed Gd's name (in Ex. 18:10.) The Israelites were so wrapped up in all that was going on, that it took someone from the outside to remind them to whom we owed everything. Yitro, the outsider, and priest to a different (?) gd could see the miracle, the awesomeness of the Gd of the Hebrews in what had been done for Moses and his people. 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 Gd 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!"
My experiences among the outsiders (i.e. Christians) at both the divinity school years ago, and now in my current work setting are truly eye-opening. They are to me as Yitro was to Moshe. These are people 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.
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 Gd, still reading our scripture from scrolls. Still covenanted with Gd. Still guarding and sharing Gd's message. When confronted with this reality, a Christian has a lot of thinking to do, and most certainly repudiate any notion of Christian supercessionism. 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."
When Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" hits the theatres, I know I'll be ready to deal with controversies it might cause. But my reaction won't be a knee-jerk one. Hutton Gibson and his ilk may be as extreme an outsider as is possible to my Jewish understanding of the world, but perhaps there is even something I can learn from them. (I have to be honest and say I don't expect to learn that much, except reinforcement of my belief that their kind of rhetoric can only serve to exacerbate underlying anti-Semitism, but I promise to be open to lessons from outsiders.)
And Gd seems intent on pushing my envelope. Now I'm teaching an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by the regional URJ office (an irony, perhaps, since my current congregation has no affiliation, and is somewhat Jewishly post-denominational?) Once a week, I get to teach Judaism to, but more important learn from 26 students of varying backgrounds and religious experiences. It's like Gd sending me 26 Yitros each week.
And there's little doubt in my mind that the opportunity to study as I did, and to learn about Christianity and other theologies, has made me a better teacher, and enabled me to be better prepared to answer the kinds of questions that often come up in places like my Intro class, or the synagogue and church setting where I work.
While I was at the Divinity School, Gd sent me lot of Yitros in the form of some Christian student asking yet another question about Judaism. In order to be able to respond to them, I needed to study and understand my own faith far more than I ever imagined possible. It was and is an amazing journey as I turn it and turn it again. Now, both in the many interfaith interactions and activities of my work setting, and my Intro to Judaism class, Gd continues to send Yitros my way, so that I may teach them and learn from them. And so that I might strengthen my Judaism even more.
Yitro said: "Blessed be the Lrd 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 Lrd who sends us our Yitros to awaken us from our complacency, encouraging us to re-examine the gifts given to us and the covenant we have with Gd, always reminding us to thank and praise the source of all.
May Gd send a Yitro your way this Shabbat, and whenever you need one.
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
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