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Must Je​ws Spread Religion Far and Wide?

February 12, 2009 By:
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
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"And Yitro said, 'Blessed is the Lord who has saved you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh ... ' "

In the past, I've commented upon the fact that the biblical portion that records the divine revelation at Sinai -- the Ten Commandments, the foundation of our faith and our morality -- opens with praise from, and is actually named after, a Midianite priest, Yitro.

As we know, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, rejoices over the Israelite victory against Egypt, declaring "that the Lord is greater than all other powers," because the Egyptians sinfully used the waters of the Nile River to drown the Hebrew babies, and the sea "was turned against them."

This very same Yitro goes on to teach Moses how to establish a proper judicial system, putting the decalogue -- and the myriad of laws and statutes that derive from it -- into daily practice.

Given this intimate relationship, one arrives at the inevitable conclusion that the Bible wants to teach us as clearly and powerfully as possible that its message of freedom from enslavement, its unmitigated demand for the absolute morality and its trail-blazing teaching of ethical monotheism were meant not only for Israel, but for the entire world.

There is a fascinating debate among the talmudic sages as to whether or not Yitro actually converted to Judaism. After all, the Bible does tell us that after voicing his admiration and giving his advice, Yitro returned to his home in Midian.

Later, his departure is described in greater detail, with Moses urging his father-in-law to remain with the Israelites, promising him proper respect and reward.

But Yitro demurs, choosing to return to "his birthplace."

Nevertheless, his descendants, the Kenites, do join with the tribe of Judah, and the Midrash Mekhilta (to the biblical portion of Yitro) records a dispute between R. Yehoshua, who suggests that Yitro "departed from the glory of the world," and R. Elazar HaModai'i, who maintains that Yitro went back to convert others.

If, indeed, the message of the Bible is meant for gentiles as well as Jews, and if Yitro was actually our first convert after the covenant at Sinai, and he "departed" to convert others, does this mean that we ought be "user friendly" toward would-be converts, that there may even be a divine commandment for us to accept converts? Although conventional Jewish wisdom would have it that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, many halachic and historical sources may suggest a different attitude.

True, there are negative statements in the Talmud about converts. But R. Elazar declares that "the Holy One Blessed Be He brought exile among the nations upon the Israelites only in order for them to gain converts."

Indeed, the Scroll of Ruth depicts the life of a Moabite convert who becomes the grandmother of King David, progenitor of the messiah.

Maimonides goes as far as to include within the commandment to love God the "necessity of seeking and summoning all peoples to the service of and belief in the Lord of the universe." Rav Yehuda Gershuni concludes that this means proselytizing every human being, since Maimonides' proof text comes from Abraham, who attempted to convert everyone who entered his tent to his newfound faith.

Perhaps the final word on the subject is Hillel's command "to love all human creatures, and bring them close to Torah."

Returning to the biblical message of Yitro, we are enjoined to oppose human enslavement and spread the universal Ten Commandments to the gentile world.

However, Maimonides rules that only Jews must keep the 613 commandments for "salvation"; it is enough for the gentile world to accept the seven Noahide laws of morality for their salvation and share in the world to come.

Thus, we must certainly proselytize every human being to keep the seven laws of morality. This is necessary not only for our eternal souls, but for the continued existence of our temporal bodies in a free world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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