Parshat Yitro

The natural focus of Parshat Yitro is always maamad Har Sinai, the “assembly of Israel at Mt. Sinai,” when Israel received the Torah. Yet the first chapter we will read this week, Exodus 18, which gives the parasha its name, concerns instead what Moses learned from the priest of another religion.

The intermarried Moses is the son-in-law of the priest of Midian, variously called Yitro or Yeter [both of which meanabundance], Hovav and Reu’el [which mean beloved and God’s friend]. Yitro teaches Moses something about managing his unruly people toward a just social order. (And in the wonderful film Prince of Egypt, Yitro teaches Moses to “look at your life through Heaven’s eyes.” Dang good song, voiced by Brian Stokes Mitchell, who lives in only two blocks from the shul. Have you seen him in the neighborhood?)

I was thinking of Yitro and his lessons this week, as we at Ansche Chesed continued our series of interfaith learning with a visit to a Korean Zen Buddhist temple in the neighborhood, in a brownstone on 96 Street.

A watchword for interfaith learning comes to me from the ancient Midrash [Lamentations Rabbah 2.13]: “If one tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If one tells you there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe it.” I take this to mean that – in the view of our Sages – all nations and all cultures can contribute valuably to the human search for meaning. At the same time, however, our particularly Jewish search belongs within the covenantal community of Israel. In bringing Ansche Chesed members to visit Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh temples this year, it is my hope that we can learn something about how very different cultures approach human spirituality, still with no desire to melt into a syncretic mess of traditions, but hewing to our own.

At the Zen temple, we found many resonances with our own tradition, as well as other vast differences. Among the obvious challenging differences: even though Buddhism is nominally non-theistic, and some strains are actively atheistic, they still have lots of idols! It is always jarring for Jews to enter shrines in which people venerate statues of human forms. This week, of all weeks, when we read the Ten Commandments, we Jews affirm that palpable images tend to shrink our concept of the Infinite who is beyond all images, into the forms of our limited human imaginations. That is not the view of Eastern faiths, which tend to think that focusing on images helps devotees see the possibility of sanctity in this world.

Also, we Jews – tiny people that we are, buffeted by such murderous oppression – are obsessed with passing on our traditions to our children, ensuring that our fragile culture survives. We are, as the historian Simon Rawidowicz said, “the ever dying people.” So we repeatedly asked our Buddhist hosts how they shared their teachings with their youngsters, both in Korea and in America.

They couldn’t quite get the questions. As one of the members of the community – a Korean-American raise here – said to us: “children wouldn’t get much out of this. It’s a practice for adults.”
This comment really helped me think about our American Jewish culture. We have a tendency toward the pediatric: it’s for the kinder. What will attract the kids? Can we send the kids to camp? Are we attracting the kids? And throughout American Jewish life, our institutions are forever trying to recapture the joy of Camp Ramah, or that special teen tour to Israel. Youthful enthusiasm is wonderful, of course. But I was struck that our Buddhist hosts were not trying to impress a culture on young minds. They try to speak to the condition of grown-up life – a mission we Jews could learn from.

Finally, I was touched by the mystical core of the meditative practice they described. In the Korean Zen traditions they described, Buddhist meditators keep asking themselves: who are you really? It was clear that our hosts didn’t mean who are you as an individual? What are your unique struggles and relationships? Instead, they meant, how does your life touch what is eternal? Are you the person in this body, born on day X who will die on day Y? How does your consciousness reflect what is beyond a single self? As many of you know, some strains of Buddhism deny that there even is a self, only a world-soul. This view spoke to me as a student of Jewish mystical traditions, attentive to the eternal who lives and loves through me.
This week, let us learn it through Yitro, and through our host, Do Am Sunim of the Cho Gye Sa Temple, that there is indeed “wisdom among the nations.”