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Revealing the difference of the ‘Other’ – Parshat Yitro 5775

Updated: Jan 31

For a printable PDF version click here:Parshat Yitro – 5775

A Sign of the Times:

As I wrote a few weeks ago the events over the last month have not been entirely unsurprising, yet a tidal wave leaves aftershocks and in the wake of the Paris shootings those aftershocks are still being felt and they are not exactly what we would have expected.  Instead of a renewed commitment to respecting the 'Other' and a commitment to fighting fundamentalism in all guises as part we have witnessed a litany of double standards from journalists, world leaders, human rights NGO’s and the general public.  On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we stand perched on the cliff edge threatening to fall into the abyss once again.  The excuses and justification of anti Semitism veiled as anti Zionism, confound us. Sitting at the heart of these prejudices and hatred is the same age-old aversion to the ‘Other’.

And though fundamental Islam may be critiqued, the fear of reproach is so great the battle against it is minimal.  Jews on the other hand, generally present little by way of violent threat, and are thus an easier scapegoat.  In an article in the Washington Post, David Bernstein an American professor of Law offered an interesting analysis of why the Jews are not accepted anywhere. Quoting a friend he writes ‘ Interesting that there are two contradictory assumptions made at the same time. First, that Jews aren’t really Europeans even when they live in Europe; instead, they are Israelis or at least some form of collectively non-European other. Second, that Jews in Israel/Palestine are not really from there, either, but are some sort of colonizers that is oppressing the natives.’[1] In other words the Jews are persecuted for the same age old adage that they are ‘different’.

Jewish Elitism and the Danger of Revelation

It might be argued that Judaism itself, presents a negative, antagonistic view of the ‘other’.  We need not search far to find examples of this in our ancient texts and Rabbinic literature. This week’s Parsha may be the obvious place to begin. God chooses us above all other nations to become ‘ a Kingdom of Priests and Holy nation’.  We are elected, elevated above others, made ‘Holy’ and special.  We are better are we not than the ‘Goyim’, the other nations, having been selected differentially for special treatment by the Holy One.  The revelation at Sinai is a climatic event in the history of our nation.  But it is also a dangerous one.  The danger of revelation is evident throughout the text, the continued reminders not to approach the mountain, the contradictory descriptions of coming close and moving afar.  The careful preparation needed by the people.  And finally the terror and eventual cry of the people to halt the revelation and let Moshe speak in place of God.

Here the Torah describes the danger of direct confrontation with the Divine power.  It describes quite vividly but yet enigmatically the almost ineffable encounter between man and God and the very real danger of Man coming too close to a transcendent being.  Tittering on the edge of death we see that a mortal being cannot possibly face the immortality of God without being transformed and possibly even consumed.  It is therefore no surprise that when Moshe recounts the events at Sinai to the next generation he recalls God’s reaction to the request of the people to cease the revelation as a positive thing:

טו נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי, יָקִים לְךָ ה אֱלֹקיךָ:  אֵלָיו, תִּשְׁמָעוּן.  טז כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-שָׁאַלְתָּ מֵעִם ה אֱלֹקיךָ, בְּחֹרֵב, בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל, לֵאמֹר:  לֹא אֹסֵף, לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת-קוֹל ה אֱלֹקי, וְאֶת-הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת לֹא-אֶרְאֶה עוֹד, וְלֹא אָמוּת.  יז וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֵלָי:  הֵיטִיבוּ, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ.

15 A prophet will the LORD thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; 16 according to all that thou didst desire of the LORD thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.’ 17Then God said to me ‘they have done well in what they have said’.  (Devarim 18)

Revelation in all its ramification is not an ideal.  As I wrote last year[2]revelation absconds man of his free will, as well as creating an unsustainable reality of dependency of miracles that will eventually give way to doubts and questioning.  But it also creates a paradigm of absolute truth and certainty that in its essence is also unsustainable in the real world and can create a very real danger in our relationship with others. This conceptual threat is also very real.  There is a danger in revelation and election, the danger of the arrogant assumption that I am better than you.  In that presumption lies the heart of many conflicts emerging from a fundamentalist view that my existence is more important that yours, my views more correct and my way of living and being superior.  It is this that leads to an extremist approach that inevitably leads to violence and terror.

Revelation at Sinai was a necessity.  Having come from a world of ‘proof’ – divine incarnations and miracles, it was necessary to couch faith in the language the people of Israel knew and understood.  Perhaps it was even necessary for the generations that followed to know that God is involved with mankind, that he is accessible and concerned with events in this world.  But with necessity comes dangers and consequences, one of which is dependency on miracles – a malady of the first generation.  The other is the superiority syndrome that plagues all generations to come.

The Counter Narrative in the Election Script

If perhaps we listened carefully to the text, if we opened our ears and hearts to the counter narrative in the Parsha, we would deduce a very different message to the one heard by the elitist elements in our religion throughout the ages.  What is this counter narrative? The answer is in the very name of the parsha itself – Yitro.

Is it not baffling that the parsha in which the Jewish people receive the greatest epiphany of all time is named after a non -Jewish priest? Why is it that in our sub-conscience the two are eternally connected?  What message is the Torah revealing in placing the narrative of Yitro directly preceding the greatest revelation of all time? The torah is already anticipating the danger of revelation.  It knows that ‘electedness’ will easily be interpreted as ‘superiority’ and consequently with a less ethical commitment to the ‘other’.  If I am better than them I have less of a responsibility towards those who are inferior to me.  There is no doubt that Jewish tradition emphasizes Jewish particularity.  It is imperative to our existence that we do so.  We have survived thousands of years due to the laws that govern intermarriage, kashrut, Shabbat and particular customs and tradition.  Without these laws we would have nothing to teach the world about.  Without maintaining our difference we cannot possibly learn from the other, and the other cannot learn from us because we would be the same.

However as we see plainly in this week’s parsha, our particularity need not, and in fact should not cloud our vision towards those that are unlike us.  Revelation, election, uniqueness, cannot be equated with antipathy, arrogance and superiority to others around us.

Yitro is a prince of Midian.  He is as far removed from the Jewish slave nation, as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam is to the Jewish people today.  And yet his arrival is described in exquisite detail.  His advice to Moshe is what saves Moshe from despair and the nation from disaster.  The ‘other’ in all his glory and wisdom, arrives and leaves having shared an inordinate amount of insight and knowledge, even before the laws have been given.[3] The message is subtle yet unwavering in its clarity.  Revelation is not all encompassing, it cannot be the cornerstone of Jewish haughtiness.  It is easy to get drawn into a parochial existence, to live with a narrow and exclusive  frame of mind but the danger of this attitude can be catastrophic.

Jews are chosen for a mission, a purpose, a sense of responsibility and not for their innate uniqueness. Hence we are introduced to Avraham through a command and not through a narrative of his uniqueness.  It is through his acceptance of a mission and unique responsibility towards God and mankind that he becomes unique.

The dialogue between Yitro and Moshe teaches us this exact lesson.

6 and he said unto Moses: ‘I thy father-in-law Jethro am coming unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.’ 7 And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent. 8 And Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the LORD delivered them. 9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in that He had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. 10 And Jethro said: ‘Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. (Shemot 18)

The narrative is littered with language of mutual respect, kinship and equality.  Yet whilst Yitro affirms his respect and awe of the Jewish God, he equally does not want to ‘convert’ or remain with the people:

כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר ה, אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם; לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי-ה דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.  ל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, לֹא אֵלֵךְ:  כִּי אִם-אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, אֵלֵךְ

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 said unto him: ‘I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.’ (Bamidbar 10)

His story is the antithesis of Avraham’s, whilst Avraham has to leave his land and birthplace, Yitro has to return to his.  To  become particular and different, as Avraham does, the ‘other’ must also be different and unique.  If everyone becomes like me then what becomes of my own particularity? It gets swallowed into the universal, global.  The uniqueness of Yitro was not in the fact that he was like the Jewish people.  It was rather in his very difference to them.  His respect and admiration for the Israelites and their God, did not lead him to renounce his own unique position and background, on the contrary, he comes, he shares wisdom and a mutual respect and he leaves to return to his own place and homeland.

His is a lesson in identity and particularity, not at the expense of the other but instead  in a deep respect of the essence of the other.  It illustrates the vital message that in encountering  the other our aim should not be to integrate him into our likeness but to encounter him through our differences.  To allow our subjectivity to exist and not to subsume it into my own.

Emmanuel Levinas and the ‘face to face’ encounter

Emmanuel Levinas, the celebrated twentieth century Jewish French philosopher taught us this exact lesson, that for him was at the basis of any ethical imperative.  My responsibility to the ‘other’ is derived by my face to face encounter with him.  When I confront the face of the other my own identity is called into question and i am forced ot be attentive ot the needs of the other.  From this my ethical responsibility is awakened.  This is in a very real sense revelation.  It beckons me to be responsible for the ‘otherness’ of the other, rather than merge in into my own being.  The ‘uniqueness’ of self stems from being summoned or commanded by the other and not from any innate essence.[4]

The face in  which the other – the absolutely other- present himself does not negate the same, does not do violence to it as do opinion or authority or the thaumaturgic supernatural.  It remains commensurate with him who welcomes; it remain terrestrial.  This presentation is pre-eminently nonviolence, for instead of offending my freedom it calls it to responsibility and founds it.  As nonviolence it nonetheless maintains the plurality  of the same and the other.  It is peace.  (Emmanuel Levinas: Totality and Infinity p203)

Thus revelation has another aspect that is not found in the fire and lightening of Har Sinai.  Revelation expresses not the objective uncompromising law, but also the unique particularity of the other.  Perhaps it is this type of human revelation and awakening that the Rabbi’s saw in Yitro, that they express in the following extract from the Talmud describing Pharaoh’s council:

Said R’Chiya Bar Aba three people were in that same counsel, Bilam Job and Yitro. Bilam who advised to kill them (the Jews), Job who remained silent was judged through troubles and Yitro who ran away merited to have his children and grandchildren sit in the Sanhedrin.

(Talmud Sotah 11a)

The paradigm that Yitro presents here is antithetical to the arrogant claim of superiority over humanity that haunts our religion.  Here a non-Jew is the voice of morality, the paradigm of ethical responsibility, the salvation of humanity.  The source of this ‘revelation’ emerges not from some transcendent mystical experience but rather from the very act of seeing the other that is distinct from myself and recognising his/her suffering.[5]

Until recently interfaith dialogue had been centred on finding the similarities between the religions, in an attempt to understand the other.[6]  In very recent years there has been a move away from this paradigm to a renewed emphasis on the inability to truly know the other, and hence instead on difference to the other, and an appreciating and recognition of these differences in overcoming my alienation to the other.

There is no better example of this then man’s encounter with God the quintessential ‘Other’.  The Torah goes at lengths especially in this week’s parsha to describe the indescribable.  It is in the inadequacy of language to express the inexpressible, the experience of the absolute other, that creates the enigmatic feel of the text at Matan Torah.

Martin Buber, also a modern Jewish philosopher who couches he ethical imperative in terms of the encounter between men describes  the paradox in revelation:

Of course God is the ” wholly Other “; but He is also the wholly Same, the wholly Present. Of course He is the Mysterium Tremendum that appears and overthrows ; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.  If you explore the life of things and of conditioned being you come to the unfathomable, if you deny the life of things and of conditioned being you stand before nothingness, if you can hallow this life you meet the living God.  God cannot be inferred in anything in nature, say, as its author, or in history as its master, or in the subject as the self that is thought in it. Something else is not ” given ” and God then elicited from it; but God is the Being that is directly, most nearly, and lastingly, over against us, that may properly only be addressed, not expressed. (Martin Buber: I-Thou)

In this extract Buber is alluding to the very message we find in the text of our Parsha.  Revelation does not come to describe God nor to describe us, an idea we expanded on in Parshat Shemot, it comes rather as means of addressing God.  In the same way that we cannot and must not possess, coerce or impel another to be like me.  Instead we must address the other, entirely aware of the fact that he is not the same as me.

Yitro as the quintessential ‘other’

For this reason I believe the Torah places the Yitro narrative directly preceding the revelation narrative,  for one without the other will lead to ominous conclusions.  Absolute particularity and revelation must be tempered with total respect and admiration for the other.  Claims of superiority and innate uniqueness must mitigated by Yitro’s advice and wisdom.  The precedence of Yitro’s arrival to the Divine arrival should challenge our claims to the centrality of revelation in our ethical and moral attitudes to the other.

To ignore the ‘Yitro’ part of the revelation narrative, is to ignore the very essence of the tension within revelation and religion.   It is to wear blinkers in our attitude to the ‘other’, a concept that can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, or insecure.  It is to shed us of our responsibility towards those that are unlike our own, a responsibility that is less easy to recognize and much harder to fulfill.

And so we return to our situation today.  The Jews are the thorn in the side of the global project of mankind.  They are the counter-narrative to universalism in all its projections.  They preach a paradigm of particularity yet ultimately believe in the dignity of every human to live as they choose.  In today’s age these values seem contradictory, and yet they are at the heart of our answer to fundamentalism.  The world has not learnt the lessons of history, liberalism wants everyone to be like them, open minded and universal, particularity is a threat to this vision.  Equally the particular religions with advent of extreme proselytizing have forgotten the one fundamental given – that everyone, despite their beliefs and way of life, is created in the image of God, and hence deserves equal respect and protection.

Both internally within our own religion and externally in our relationship to other faiths we would do well perhaps to reassess the narrative from this weeks Torah portion and truly face ourselves and ask ‘ what is our real attitude to the other? We would benefit greatly from seeing that the very source of our redemption – Moshiach Ben David – originates in our encounter with the ‘other’ -Rut, the paradigmatic convert.

If we ourselves begin to appreciate the role the ‘other’ plays for us, how it allows us to move outside of ourselves, to temper our feelings of self importance  arising from our particularity, then maybe the world would begin to hear our message, and through it to fight a real battle against the arrogance of fundamentalism.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Extract from an article by David Bernstein in Washington Post 11/01/15 ‘ The BBC’s Tim Willcox projects the last two hundred years of European anti-Jewish ideology on an elderly French woman’.

[3] Of course according to Rashi, Yitro arrival in actuality occurs following the revelation at Sinai, but the torah goes at lengths to put it out of chronological order for thematic reasons alone. See Rashi 18:13 who bases his opinion on a discussion in Gemara Zevachim 116a

[4] My university Professor, Ephraim Meir, himself a convert and a student of Levinas, writes of Levinas thoughts on Jewish election in his book Dialogical Thought and Identity: ‘Jewish election is conceived of him as made up of responsibilities: it is a ‘nobility’ based on the position of each human I who is not equal of the other, but obligated to him.  Every consciousness is a moral consciousness in Levinas’s view, and as such each and every human being is elected to respond to the other.

[5] The description of Moshe in Shemot 3 also describes this exact moral development that emerges from within the person and the person recognising his difference to the other and seeing the other suffering.  When Moshe leaves the palace he sees the ‘other’ and recognises their suffering ‘ וירא בסבלותם’ he see’s into their suffering. He then acts upon his ethical sensibilities by smiting the Egyptian.  Again the Torah is emphasising the moral imperative that emerges from within the person rather than from external law.

[6] There is an interesting observation by Rabbi Sacks in his book The Dignity of Difference (prologue p21) where  he writes that after meeting many religious leaders that he had a sudden realisation that they were always talking about what they had in common and not what differentiated them one from the other – he argues we need not a theology of commonality but a theology of difference.

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