In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro--named for Moses' father-in-law--Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) is described first as a priest of Midian, and only after that as the father of Moses' wife. The beginning of the parasha introduces us to two religious leaders who model the way different religious communities can appreciate God's covenantal relationship with the other.
Jethro says, "Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the Egyptians...Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods..." Jethro and Moses offer sacrifices to God and the elders of Israel join them in a meal before God.
And yet, Jethro, despite Moses' pleading, does not join the Jewish people on their sacred journey, but returns to his own land and his people. Clearly (though some midrashic interpretations suggest otherwise), Jethro retains his allegiance to his own religious tradition and community, while at the same time recognizing the covenantal blessings God bestows on the people of Israel.
This passage raises interesting questions about how we can witness to the covenantal continuity of other religious communities while maintaining our own particularity and religious distinctiveness. Is it possible to bless the revelation of God to other peoples without undermining the validity of our own covenantal experience?
One compelling example of this interreligious challenge is the recent statement by the Catholic Church. Last month, the Vatican released a document that further clarifies the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. Building upon the radical revision of Church doctrine regarding Judaism that was generated by Nostra Aetate 50 years ago, the Catholic Church reiterated the complexity of its theological position:
That the Jews are participants in God's salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery...Another focus for Catholics must continue to be the highly complex theological question of how Christian belief in the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ can be combined in a coherent way with the equally clear statement of faith in the never-revoked covenant of God with Israel.
In this passage, the Vatican is trying to hold on to both sides of this thorny theological issue. One one hand, the Jews' covenantal relationship with God is never revoked; on the other hand, salvation still occurs only through belief in Jesus Christ. There is a clear attempt here to witness to the ongoing faith and covenantal relationship of the other while maintaining some level of theological exclusivity.
Just days before the Vatican's statement, a group of Orthodox rabbis released a historic statement on Christianity recognizing the significant changes brought about by Catholic theology beginning with Nostra Aetate in 1965. It seems that for this group of Orthodox Jewish religious leaders, the tension between the particular covenantal relationship of the Jewish people and the covenantal relationship that exists for Christians is not as difficult to hold or as mysterious as it is from the Catholic perspective. The rabbinic statement prefers the word "partnership" in describing the relationship between Jews and Christians, whereas the Catholic statement refers to Jews and Christians as siblings. The rabbis' document states:
We acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies... Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.
Despite some significant conceptual and theological differences, there seems to be common ground between the two statements with regard to the religious imperative for Catholics and Jews to partner in efforts to create a more just and peaceful world.
The Catholic statement includes the following: "When Jews and Christians make a joint contribution through concrete humanitarian aid for justice and peace in the world, they bear witness to the loving care of God. No longer in confrontational opposition but cooperating side by side, Jews and Christians should seek to strive for a better world."
The Orthodox rabbis invoke the religious partnership in this way: "Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth."
In the first chapter of Parshat Yitro, Moses wants Jethro to join with the people of Israel. But perhaps Jethro understood that God desires religious diversity, as long as the divergent paths allow for points of intersections and do not result in enmity and mutual destruction. Jews and Catholics seem to be forging a new path with opportunities to meet and share along the way. God knows that--after such a long, painful journey with centuries of animosity, mistrust and violence--we need to find ways to share the road with each other, as our routes intersect and overlap, for the mutual benefit of our respective communities and the larger world.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.