Moses and Jethro in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments"
Moses (left) and Jethro in the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments"

Here’s to the non-Jews in the Torah! (There are more than you might think)

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 18:1–20:23

The principal reason that the Torah portion Yitro is so well known is because it contains the famous revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, followed by details of the eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel.

You could argue that it represents, in many ways, the very birth of the Jewish religion.

But to me, Yitro is also important, and especially compelling, because of the section in the parashah that occurs immediately prior to the theophany at Sinai.

Moses and the people of Israel are finally free from bondage in Egypt. They’ve successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds, and they are about to embark on a 40-year journey through the desert in search of the Promised Land. Moses has led them the entire time, and he is exhausted.

Jethro, a Midianite priest and Moses’ father-in-law, approaches the great prophet at the beginning of the parashah and observes that Moses is making decisions, unilaterally, over every single dispute between his people “from morning until evening.” (Exodus 18:13)

Jethro questions Moses: “Why do you act alone?” (Exodus 18:14)

Then Moses’ father-in-law offers him advice: “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)

This is not only practical advice; it is moral counsel. Jethro has the courage to tell Moses, the supreme leader, that autocratic governance is problematic holistically. It will wear Moses out, but it will also, eventually, alienate Moses from the very people he is trying to lead.

In the next scene, Jethro advises Moses on how to delegate authority and establish a judiciary for the Jewish people. He tells Moses to choose capable and God-fearing people, those who are trustworthy and beyond reproach, to serve as judges and help him to resolve conflicts.

The revelation at Mount Sinai occurs in the very next chapter.

Think about that for a moment. Before Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, before the most significant and seminal moment in the history of the Jewish people, it is a non-Jew who plays the lead, pivotal role in the creation of a legal, social and moral framework that will guide Jewish society for generations.

To me, that is very noteworthy.

So, what is the lesson for us?

If you study the corpus of Jewish Scripture, it becomes clear that there are many other important non-Jews who play key roles in the narratives and literature that define our people and our faith. Without these gentiles, Jews and Judaism would look different, even diminished.

Early in the book of Genesis, long before Abraham and Sarah are called to become the world’s first Jews, the world itself is in danger. God, enraged by humanity’s lawless and sinful behavior, decides to destroy all of creation with rains that last 40 days and 40 nights. Only Noah, a righteous gentile, is spared, along with his family and two of every animal.

After the rains end and the flood starts to recede, Noah, his family, and all of the creatures inside the ark that Noah built exit onto dry land. The world can now start from scratch. Existence is renewed. God makes a covenant with humanity to never again take such a dire action.

In the very next Torah portion, Lech Lecha, Abraham receives God’s call and he and his wife Sarah give birth, literally and figuratively, to the Jewish people. One could argue that without Noah there would be no world, and without Noah there would be no Jews nor, eventually, Judaism.

Later in the Torah, in the book of Numbers, we find another non-Jew, Balaam, who plays an outsize and important role in the life of the Jewish community and of Jewish worship. Balaam is a prophet who is hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse the people of Israel before he engages in battle with them.

Yet after Balaam sees the Israelite camps arrayed before him, he has a divine epiphany and, rather than cursing the Jewish people, Balaam blesses them instead: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5)

This scene — and these words — are so powerful and poignant that Jews recite them every morning during their daily prayers at the synagogue. The gentile Balaam’s poetic and beautiful declaration is central to the Jewish liturgy.

Despite all these examples of the positive impact by non-Jews on Jewish life and spirituality, the Jewish community has been, at best, ambivalent in the way that it sees gentiles.

We’ve been concerned about the negative role that intermarriage can play in the perpetuation of Jewish identity in our children and grandchildren. We’ve worried that the influence of non-Jewish faith traditions can lead to syncretism and/or assimilation. And, of course, we are and have always been cognizant of the long and bloody history of antisemitism perpetrated by the gentile world.

Still, it’s complicated.

Jews and Judaism have also benefited from, and been greatly enriched by, our interactions with non-Jews and different cultures and religions. This has been especially true after we left the land of Israel.

While the diaspora was frequently an inhospitable and dangerous place for Jews, it also produced a number of amazing creative achievements: the Babylonian Talmud, the Golden Age in Spain, Hasidism, the Musar movement, a flowering of art, music (klezmer) and Yiddish literature. All these contributions to the world were the direct result of the interplay with, and response to, the Jews’ gentile neighbors and their cultures that surrounded us.

Now is not the time for ambivalence. In societies that are ever more diverse and intercultural, Jews need to move beyond our silos and parochialism and learn to embrace non-Jewish ideas without fear or prejudice. They have much to offer us. Let’s stay grounded in the values and practices of our Jewish heritage, but let’s also affirm the gifts of the other traditions around us.

Let’s step forward into this brave new world as boldly as our forebears stepped into the old one.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."