Yitro: A Comment on Belief

by Benjamin Shribman

“Sitting in his room, Paul had often thought that the connection we feel to our surroundings is frequently built on belief.When this belief is violated then the connection is already dissolved and the consequences are incalculable. It doesn’t matter whether or not such belief is true if indeed it exists only as belief, for it preserves much more than its possible truth, namely the truth of belief in itself. To the extent that belief is refuted by real conditions it is indeed not enough in itself, but when it fails, nothing is enough.”
H.G. Adler, The Journey (Random House, 2008/1950)

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), Moses receives the Torah at Mount Sinai. The parshah begins with the arrival of Jethro, Moses’ father in law, and his “conversion”, which comes after he listens to Moses recount “all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for the sake of Israel ..” (18:8)  An obvious question raised by both the title of the parshah and the telling of the story is why Jethro’s conversion is so significant. Lest we be tempted to think that Jethro’s arrival merely allows Moses to be reunited with his wife and sons before receiving the Torah, the Zohar (2:67b) tells us that Jethro’s conversion was required before the Torah could be given to Moses.

What should we make of this? One possibility is that Jethro, a Midianite priest, was familiar with idolatry in many if not all of its contemporary forms, and therefore his recognition that “the Lord is greater than all the [other] gods..” is an example of a reasonable conclusion for everyone, and not just for those already committed to the G-d of Abraham. Some say that when Jethro’s  henotheistic conclusion became aligned with the monotheistic conclusion, the stage was set for the Torah’s arrival.

But this raises at least two interesting questions. First, why didn’t a man of Jethro’s intelligence arrive at this conclusion on his own, before hearing about the awe-inspiring stories from Moses?;  and second, why does it matter so much what Jethro believed and how he came to believe it?

The first question may remind you of questions one hears very often about the state of the economy, state of the nation, and the condition of the global environment. These questions all take the form of: “Why didn’t people do something about X when there was plenty of evidence of trouble, rather than waiting until things got into such a mess?” Unfortunately, the answer one hears commonly is that “things have to get very bad” before people will alter their beliefs about what they should do or not do. According to this view, it’s not enough for people to find certain behavior objectionable, or to find circumstances changing for the worse, or to find their own quality of life deteriorating gradually; only when they find themselves facing a personal or collective crisis or catastrophe will most people alter their beliefs and act accordingly.

For a post-Enlightenment Jew this is a pretty dim view of human possibilities; but it is certainly familiar to us when we consider the role that both “the love of G-d” (ahavat hashem) and “the fear of G-d” (yirat hashem) play in Judaism. Although there are some in the Conservative and Reform movements who interpret the latter as a kind of translation problem, claiming the English word “fear” gets things wrong, and who promote the idea of admiring God’s majesty as a post-Enlightenment substitute for something recognizable as fear, the Haftorah portion for the week (Isaiah 6:1-13) leaves no doubt about the essential role a fear of G-d is meant to play in our reading of Yitro. Indeed, it would seem that what moves Jethro to revise his beliefs, and to “convert”,  are the stories of the Lord’s violent power: e.g. the ten plagues that befell Egypt and the Splitting of the Sea.

This naturally leads to the second question of why we should care about Jethro’s beliefs. While it may be that the “common wisdom” is that “things have to get bad” for people to change their beliefs, we know of all sorts of instances that suggest that other motivations are possible. Whether these instances are “exceptions that prove the rule” isn’t as important as recognizing that these alternative motivations reveal a great divide in humanity: between those who can be moved by conscience in the absence of suffering or the credible fear of suffering; and those who cannot. There seems to be recognition in the Torah — and perhaps one sees this even in Pirke Avot – that an approach to belief in G-d that does not acknowledge such a divide cannot be widely successful.

Jethro is significant not only because he converts and shows how this conversion can come about rationally, peacefully, and peaceably -– and I like to think this  is the sense in which his conversion is required for the giving of Torah — but also because he calls attention to differences between levels or degrees of spirituality and their consequences for bringing about right belief. He tells Moses that the people’s spirituality is different from his own, and advises Moses to intercede between “the people” and G-d, and to create institutions, rather than act as an authority himself. In this way, Jethro calls our attention to the peculiar role that belief plays in Judaism: as an indispensable means for us to live and make progress in our lives, but as just a means nevertheless.

As the passage that I quoted at the start of this piece — from H.G. Adler’s brilliant, moving story, The Journey — makes clear: belief is a peculiar thing. It is both a tool we use and the house we live in. It is something we are proud to be able to change and manipulate with great alacrity, most of the time, and yet even slight changes and manipulations that we don’t control can bring chaos. That the story of Jethro does not speak of “belief” at all is perhaps telling: after listening to Moses, Jethro says instead that he knows now that the Lord is greater than all other gods. If the parshah in which the Torah is given to Moses is named not for Moses but for Jethro, perhaps this is because it is Jethro and not Moses who shows what can and should be done with belief, and how it can be the means to something stronger.

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