Feb 12, 2009

Did Yitro Really Convert?

When I was meeting with the rabbi this morning, he mentioned this week's parshah, Yitro, in relation to conversion, and it got me thinking more about the portion.

Yitro, also known as Jethro, is Moshe's father-in-law, also known as the father of Tzipporah, Moshe's wife! Together, Moshe and Tzipporah have two children. In this parshah, Yitro brings Tzipporah and the two boys out to Moshe to be reunited with their father. Likewise, Yitro helps Moshe delegate some of the work that is keeping him overly busy (decision-making and what have you) so that he can spend some time with his family. The big thing about this parshah, though, is that Yitro supposedly converts to Moshe's and the Israelite's religion (not quite yet Judaism, but, you know).

When the rabbi was discussing this, he focused on Yitro's returning to his land in Exodus 18:27. We never hear about Yitro again, and the rabbi suggested that the reason we never hear from Yitro again is perhaps because he faded back into the way of the idolatrous land -- without community, he couldn't live as a Jew.

I've always had a difficult time accepting the fact that Yitro converts in this parshah. The basis for this assumption is that Yitro is talking to Moshe, telling him about all that he had heard for what G-d did for the Isarelites in Egypt, and goes on to say, in Exodus 18:11, that he now knows that G-d is the greatest of all gods. In some translations, it reads that "your G-d is the greatest of all gods" and in others merely "G-d is the greatest of all gods." There is a big difference between the two, but overall the argument remains. By simply stating that he believes that G-d is greater than all other gods, is this a basis for assuming that Yitro embraces the Israelite religion? As a pagan, perhaps Yitro had various gods, and Yitro recognized that G-d is the greatest, but that does not mean that he embraced YHWH as the ONLY god.

At the end of this passage, in Exodus 18:27, it says that Moshe sees his father off, and Yitro goes home to his own land. The parenthetical in my Gutnick Chumash adds "to convert his family" after this statement, which I find a little troublesome. (This derives from the Rashi commentary.) If Yitro had in fact left, converted his family to the Israelite religion, and went about his life, wouldn't they have joined the rest of the Israelites? This is pre-Diaspora, of course. Or if they had led their lives -- if Yitro had converted his entire clan -- wouldn't we have heard about them later in life?

It is, thus, believable that once Yitro left the Israelites he fell back into his old many-godded ways. Without the community, one can lose their sense of self, and this is absolutely true. I often find myself longing to be within the community -- if you're surrounded by observant people, people having kosher dinners and being shomer Shabbos and walking to shul and schlepping in the eruv, it's so much easier to really be a part of a community, to feel a sense of self within the community, and most importantly, to feel a sense of self within.

Yitro, having left the community, faded into the annals of the Tanakh, never to be heard from again. Did he become a Jew? Did he convert the masses? Did he die alone, without a sense of self, wondering if his grandchildren were helping to grow the nation of Israel? Who knows. But it's a fascinating commentary on the parshah.

I could write a lot more about this parshah and about conversion as a result, but it's for another time and another post. I'm looking forward to the upcoming parshah Ki Tisa -- the infamous portion with the sin of the Golden Calf! My tour de force! My first-semester's work! Prepare for a monsoon of good Torah-y goodness!


Tuvia said...

This is a very interesting interpritation here, and something I never thought about before.

Even living in a Jewish community it sometimes can be tough to maintain the Jewish aspects of your life, I couldn't imagine how tough it would be without that community.

KosherAcademic said...

My kids came home from school this week telling me that Yitro converted -- and I also challenged them on this, so your dvar Torah came at just the right time, as far as I'm concerned.

While I realize the commentary says he converted, I'm there with you -- I'm not sure that's what happened at all.

The bigger question is: what are you going to do with this interpretation? Do you think this is a sign/calling/moral that you need to live in a community? Do tell!

Shavua Tov!

EYR said...

Hi Chaviva,

I liked the post. However, I must correct what the Rabbi told you: We DO hear about Yitro later on, though under a different name. It is actually a very touching moment, that takes place in the last Parsha before the people of Israel sin and are told they will have to remain in the desert for 40 years. Here, as they prepare for the final stretch of their journey to Israel, the Torah tells us the following story (Numbers, Ch. 10):

"29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law : 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.'

30 And he (Hobab/Yitro) said unto him (Moses): 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.'

31 And he (Moses) said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' "

We are not told what Yitro did in the end, but given that Moses has the last word, one can only assume that he did, indeed, join the people of Israel. And in joining their community, perhaps he was able to escape the fate you so eloquently described. :)

chaviva said...

@Tuvia True. Living in the community alone is not enough to make it happen!

@KA It definitely is a sign I should live in a community, and that's coming soon, actually. At least, for Shabbos, I'll be living in the community with an observant family and their two kids. I'll be honest, the woman reminds me SO MUCH of you. She's so welcoming, friendly, and absolutely full of heart. So it's sort of like having my own KA around :) Other than that, Tuvia has been taking a gander at places over in West Hartford, and there are some in the price range. Of course, it would be a little while, but we're getting there! Tell the kids hello! And Ely, too!!! Tuvia and I need to come up sometime, darn't. Turns out he has family up there, but I don't know when the last time he saw them was.

@EYR I was unaware -- though, many biblical personalities have multiple names -- that Yitro appeared by any other name. Even from this, though, one could glean that Yitro, departing to his own land and to his kindred, left the community. I suppose there is no way we can know, and it would take further study, but is Yitro/Hobab mentioned anywhere else in Tanakh? Rashi has his sentiments about the experience, and I think they're pretty standard as far as everything goes. I guess I need to do some more looking in to everything, though. Thanks for mentioning this :)

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