Love and (Non)Judgment

December 1, 2005
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Paula Brody

What does Torah teach us about the ethics of relating to in-laws and others in our family, and our friends and colleagues, who are of other faith traditions? Perhaps the most relevant texts are in Exodus, enabling us to study the relationship between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro (commonly translated as Jethro), who is a priest of Midian. Immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses has a wilderness reunion with his wife Zipporah, his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, and his father-in-law, Yitro. The weekly Torah portion carrying Jethro’s name (Exodus 18:1-20:23), which contains the Ten Commandments, demonstrates the profound mutual love between Moses and Yitro. Both men deeply respect each other’s different religious beliefs. When Moses talks to Yitro about his experience of God’s revelation, Yitro listens carefully, showing respect for his son-in-law’s beliefs. And Yitro rejoices with his son-in-law, even joining Moses in a ritual offering.

Yitro, who is experienced in leading the Midianites, offers Moses valuable leadership training, especially in the delegation of authority and stress management. Moses listens to Yitro’s wise counsel; he “heeded his father-in-law and did just as he said.”

This text provides an ethical basis for respecting another person’s cultural and religious faith without diminishing our own faith. Yitro models nonjudgmental, caring, and supportive listening, encouraging us to ask questions about faith differences and to listen to responses, without judgment. Like Yitro, we can acknowledge, even participate in rituals different from our own, while holding tight to our individual religious beliefs. We also learn that good communication is central to good relationships. But the most important lesson is that love creates the strongest connection between people – that love can overcome differences in background, religion, and experience.

As parents, how do we draw on our ethical heritage to open our hearts to loving relationships with our adult children’s choice of life partner? And how do we foster relationships with our in-laws, from other faith backgrounds, that will nurture the whole family? In interfaith families, where such openness abounds, religion – rather than being a taboo topic – becomes a subject for shared learning, even shared joy, through participation around a holiday table or at a lifecycle event. In fact, close relationships with people of different faith backgrounds may strengthen one’s own faith connection.

In Exodus we learn more about the relationship between Moses and his father-in-law than we learn about the relationship between Moses and his wife, Zipporah. In the mysterious verses Exodus 4:24-26, Zipporah does take a leading role in the circumcision of their sons, assuring their Jewish identity. And she thus serves as a role model for the many non-Jewish partners in interfaith relationships, reinforcing the Jewish identity of their children. Regretfully, the biblical text is particularly silent when it comes to Moses’s interaction with his sons Gershon and Eliezer. Although the text presents Moses as an exemplary “son” to his father-in-law, we never learn if Moses is a model father to his sons.

Moses is the stranger in Midian, embraced by Yitro and his family. Zipporah, Yitro’s daughter, becomes the stranger, when she links her destiny to Moses and the Israelite people. As Jews, we are commanded throughout the Torah to open our hearts to the stranger, to remember our own experience as strangers. When we open our hearts to those who link their lives to Judaism through our families, we may open the possibilities for greater personal fulfillment in our lives and in the lives of those we love. If we can express our appreciation to our adult children’s life partners, thanking them for sustaining not only our sons and daughters, but also our grandchildren, through their love, we will fulfill the ethical commandment to love the stranger. Our love and nurturing may make all things possible.

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Dr. Paula Brody serves on the Outreach staff of the Union for Reform Judaism, working with interfaith families and individuals exploring conversion.

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