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  • Stephen HRM

Torah Monks- Two Notes on Yitro

A statement we sometimes hear from our brothers and sisters in our movement and in Christianity more broadly is that the only authority they acknowledge is Jesus. Practically speaking this is not true, unless of course they live in a cave. While the sentiment may be admirable, it is not something the Torah teaches, as Yitro shows. In this portion we find Jethro, a priest of Midian, recommending Moses implement a structure of leadership that would govern Israel then and into the future. Moses agrees to Jethro's plan, and goes about putting his recommendation into place - being a hierarchy of elders with Moses at the top.

People question the legitimacy of this structure because Jethro was a pagan priest. Jason addressed this issue in his previous essay on Yitro, which you should read, so I will not dwell on that point now, other than to say Jethro was not the pagan bad guy many make him out to be and that this particular form of governance would later gain God's approval and become the Sanhedrin in New Testament times.

There are two additional points I want to add regarding this portion.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that the Sanhedrin was an entirely man-made institution and that God approved of it. Whilst the Sanhedrin became corrupt, Jesus attacked how the Sanhedrin discharged their duties, not that they had the right to do so, that is, he attacked the corrupt officials in the institution, not the institution itself. This is a very important distinction that is often ignored, the Sanhedrin was an entirely man-made concept that God permitted. I am not suggesting that we should all seek out the current iteration of the Sanhedrin and do their bidding - that is not my point. Rather, my point is that a human played a significant role in how to structure and administer Israeli society and God did not freak out or have a heart attack because Israel, of its own accord, made a decision in how to run its affairs. Apparently then, those who would listen to no authority other than Jesus would have had a hard time had they been amongst the Israelites in the wilderness. God, it turns out, wanted Israel to figure things out for themselves.

Many within our movement often get so caught up in trying to purge themselves of man-made traditions or authorities (which generally just so happens to mean Jewish things) that in this strange process of attempted purification they forget that God always intended for us to exercise our agency in partnership with Him. This drive to remove all man-made traditions is therefore contrary to the Torah, but also, to our very humanity. It is as if some people within our movement believe we can transcend the reality of our embedded human selves and hover above our humanity like some Torah obedient Buddhist priest trying to find the Torah equivalent of Nirvana, whatever that is. We forget, and it is to our great detriment that we do, that, as the great author Oz Guinness points out, God came down to us to give the Torah. The Torah was intended to function here on earth amongst political, social and cultural creatures. It was not given as a how to guide for every conceivable situation or as some mystical guide for Torah monks intending to empty there minds of everything, but a guide through which we, humans, could mediate the complexity of our embedded lives and co-partner with God in this great cosmic adventure we call life. Had God given us the ultimate how to guide, He would have only succeeded in squashing our agency as humans, making life incredibly dull and boring.

The second point worth noting is that Jethro was a Midian priest, a reminder that good things can at times be found amongst unbelievers or those whose beliefs differ from one's own. I have lost count as to how many stories I have heard about people leaving fellowships and congregations over differing beliefs. Sometimes it is fair, like when people hold beliefs that are at odds with the more foundational beliefs and values we hold (such as the divinity of the Messiah). Most times however it occurs over minor points of difference, like an egg at Passover or a certain Sabbath ritual, and is just sad. Community is the single most important aspect of Torah - without it you cannot come close to living a Torah life. It is also extremely difficult because if one thinks they are going to find a community where everyone thinks exactly the same they are kidding themselves and need to read the New Testament more - Jesus was a pretty unagreeable person all things considered. As Jethro shows us in Yitro, people of differing beliefs do have good things to offer despite their differences. I am not arguing that we need to tolerate everything or that we need to attend a Mosque or a Temple, though if you are one of those believers who bangs on about not doing man-made this or that then you should probably grab a robe and go to a temple, or that we should spend our Sabbaths attempting to divine what goodness may exist in other holy books. Rather, I am suggesting that we don't simply discard someone's potential for goodness or wisdom simply because they are not Christian or Jewish or do not strictly hold to our interpretation of Scripture and acknowledge that disagreements of belief are often the foundation for our growth in Torah.


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