Friday, February 13, 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!