Exodus 18 begins with a verse that for years has stopped me in my tracks: “Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, God’s people, how God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt.”
My stunned disbelief abounds: Moses was married to a gentile? Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite priest? Who told Jethro about the Exodus? Did Jethro identify the Israelites as God’s people? What, where, why, how, who?!
Our classical commentators also seemed surprised by the verse and equally surprised by the broader story of Exodus 18, which recounts Jethro’s journey to meet up with Moses and the Israelites and mentor Moses in the art of delegation and effective administration to such a large and diverse people.
But much of their surprise centers upon one aspect of the story: Jethro as a Midianite priest.
The great Midrashic work, Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, focuses intently upon what Jethro heard, which brought him to the Israelites – ultimately inducing his conversion. It focuses upon the Israelite’s victory over Amalek as the sign Jethro took to mean that it was time to join a new people and tradition.
The great commentator Rashi builds upon this line of thought, particularly noting Jethro’s many names within the Torah and an addition to his name in this passage. Jethro’s name gains the Hebrew letter (vav), which Rashi interprets to mean that Jethro must have had a conversionary experience (in the way of Avram becoming Avraham or Sarai becoming Sarah in encountering God and becoming Jewish).
The Midrashic discussion of Jethro in Sh’mot Rabbah takes as practically given that Jethro “affixed” himself to the Israelites after hearing of their battles with Amalek and the exodus itself. It instead focuses upon Jethro’s origins and background.
It seems unthinkable to many classical commentators that the priest of another people (much less the often-adversarial Midianites) would provide such key guidance and support to Moses. While such skepticism is understandable, it is not clear how much support it derives from the text itself – and how much is ascribed to the text after the fact.
As it turns out, I am among the many contemporary readers of this passage who have spent years poring over this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, and the wider arc of the story of Jethro. My dear friend and study partner, Rabbi Benjamin Spratt, and I both wrote our Senior Sermons for rabbinical school on the topic, asking the natural follow-up question: What would it mean if the literal reading of the passage were correct, and Jethro was, in fact, a Midianite priest?
I want to ask an additional question today: Aren’t both possibilities wonderful?
It seems evident that classical commentators found anathema the idea that someone would so wholeheartedly care for the well-being of the Israelites and their leader without throwing his lot in with them. In recent decades, the notion of profound love and care from the leader of another people has become more plausible – itself a remarkable transformation. What if we could behold with wonder both possibilities?
In the first scenario, how wonderful if someone who converted to Judaism so thoroughly transformed the Israelite legal system. In the second, how wonderful that someone with no intention of converting to Judaism so thoroughly transformed the Israelite legal system. While I still lean towards the latter textual interpretation, both are remarkable. May our minds and hearts grow big enough to embrace the beautiful ambiguity of both possibilities.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.