Ex. 18:1 – 20:23
Rabbi Baht Weiss
Parshat Yitro is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro in Hebrew, Jethro in English. The beginning of the Torah portion tells us that Yitro is a Midian priest, not a Jew. It acknowledges that Moses’ wife Tziporah is of non-Jewish descent. Moses and Tziporah’s two children are Gershom, which means “I was a stranger in a strange land” and Eliezer “a help to his father.”
This means Moses was intermarried and his two children have a mother born of another faith. And still, Moses’ children become the next in line in this patriarchy. While today only Reform Judaism recognizes Patrilineal Descent, which means only Reform Jews consider a person Jewish in they have a father that is Jewish but a mother who is not, here we see it in the Torah! We are taught that traditionally religion passes through the female parents. This is likely because there can be no confusion about who the mother is. Yet here we have Biblical evidence of religion passed on through the father’s religion. If Moses’ wife can be welcome and accepted into the Jewish community, clearly Interfaith families should also feel as welcome in our congregations.
Judaism’s disfavor of intermarriage developed much later when the Israelites returned from exile in the Diaspora to build the Second Temple. Finding many intermarried to the local population, the scribe Ezra prescribed divorce. Yet I have learned in my years as a rabbi, that we can look at intermarriage not as marrying outside of the faith but rather as an opportunity for others to marry into the faith.
Moses’s children are evidence that people of other faith backgrounds can be warmly welcomed into the Jewish faith. I have witnessed numerous children of interfaith parents, who have chosen to raise their children solely in the Jewish faith, become Bar and Bat Mitzvah and maintain their Jewish heritage and customs. And often the non-Jewish spouse ends up converting in their own time, not because they felt an ultimatum was given but rather of the warm way they have been welcomed into the Jewish faith.
Despite their religious differences, Moses looks up to his father-in-law Yitro and respects him. The portion begins with Moses going out to greet Yitro warmly, modeling the value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests as first witnessed with our Patriarch and Matriarch Abraham and Sarah.
Then just a few verses later, Yitro notices behavior that he feels isn’t beneficial to Moses and the community—that Moses is taking on everything himself, not delegating nor empowering others in his community to lead and is on the road to burnout. What’s even more remarkable is that Moses takes his fathers-in-law loving advice and does as he says—appoints magistrates and trustworthy and capable men in leadership positions.
The respect given to Yitro, a Midianite, is noteworthy. He passes on wisdom and actual Torah to Moses. Here we have a model of how we can embrace diversity and realize that when we are accepting and welcoming, there is an opportunity to pass Judaism on to others.