Recently while monitoring a class for MJTI’s Panim el Panim program, Great Medieval Jewish Thinkers,i the instructor Rabbi Elliot Klayman gave a synopsis on the life and accomplishments of Moses ben Maimon, better known as either Maimonides or by the acronym Rambam. For those of you unfamiliar with Maimonides, here is a little background. Maimonides, originally from Cordoba Spain, was a medieval Sephardic philosopher and rationalist who is remembered as one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars from that time. He was also a distinguished physician and astronomer. Now, back to the topic, as the class was coming to a close Rabbi Elliot asked, “Can we as Yeshua-believers learn from non-Yeshua believers?”
A relevant comment made by Ben Zoma is recorded in Pirkei Avot 4:1, “…Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: ‘From all who taught me have I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).ii Rashi —Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the French Ashkenazi commentator on the Bible and Talmud whom Rabbi Elliot spoke about the following week— commenting on Ben Zoma’s opinion of “who is wise,” explained, “A wise person will learn even from those who are not as great as he, for he is not ashamed to seek knowledge from any source.” iii Rabbi Yisrael Lifschitz, a 19th century rabbi, also commented in his commentary Tiferes Yisroel on Ben Zoma’s assertation, “One who wants to be considered wise and yet refuses to learn from everyone— and certainly not from an inferior person, will remain ignorant forever.” iv
Now, let’s look back at Rabbi Elliot’s question, “Can we as Yeshua-believers learn from non-Yeshua believers?” Often the answer to this question is two-fold. The first answer is yes; we can learn some things from non-Yeshua believers, specifically secular subjects such as math, literature, philosophy, and the sciences, as long as we ensure that what is being taught does not contradict or deviate from our own understanding of Scripture. The second answer to the question is usually no; we cannot learn biblical principles from non-Yeshua believers because they are not guided by the Ruach HaKodesh, who is the teacher of all truth. v
This week’s parasha, Yithro, Exodus 18:1-20:23 vi seems to agree with the first answer but not the second. The parasha begins by reintroducing Yithro (Jethro) as the priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law. Yithro knew of the God that Moses served because he was a Midianite, descended from the fourth son of Abraham’s wife Keturah, whom he married after the death of Sarah (see Genesis 25:1). While there is no indication that Yithro was a follower of HaShem, who identified himself to Moses while he was shepherding sheep in Midian, as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, though Yithro did acknowledge the God of Israel and his mighty works when he proclaimed,
And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the LORD had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods…”Exodus 18:9-10
However, even though Yithro acknowledged that HaShem was greater than all other gods, there is no indication that Yitro became a ger tzadek or convert to the religion of the children of Israel. The narrative continues to the next day, where Yithro watched Moses as he “sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening” (Exodus 18:13). After questioning Moses about his actions, Yitro firmly states,
“The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”Exodus 18:17-18
We do not know how long Yithro had been the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16), but it is safe to assume that he had been at it a while. With that tenure came the experience and wisdom to know how to care for himself and for the people for whom he was responsible. Yithro proceeded to advise Moses on how to train others and then to delegate the judicial responsibilities, thus making it easier for himself (Moses) as well as all for those delegated to assist him (see Exodus 18:22). Yithro did not stop with the delegation of authority and responsibility, he went one step further by encouraging Moses,
“If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”Exodus 18:23
Not only did Yithro give Moses advise on how to deal with the people, but he also encouraged Moses to check it out with HaShem and determine if the advice was valid and workable. The end result, Moses “heeded (listened to and learned from) his father-in-law and did just as he had said” (Exodus 18:24). In learning from his father-in-law, Moses followed the wisdom that would eventually be written in Mishlei (Proverbs) “…let the wise listen and increase learning and the discerning obtain wise counsel…” (Proverbs 1:5, TLV). Rav Shaul’s admonition to the believers in Thessalonica echoes Yitro’s advice to Moses “…but test all things, hold fast to what is good…” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).vii
In conclusion, let’s answer to Rabbi Elliot’s question, “Can we as Yeshua-believers learn from non-Yeshua believers?” The answer is an absolute yes, and even a must. Whether it be Maimonides or the aged gentleman sweeping the streets, every person has gifts and talents that the Creator of the Universe has placed within them, each person has life experiences that they have collected over the years. Therefore, each individual has something that we can learn, even if it is in the negative, such as what not to do. If we learn that negative point, then we have added to our own collected wisdom. Once again, from the compiler of Mishlei, ““Lazybones, go to the ant. Study its ways and learn.”(Proverbs 6:6)!
ii Avrohom Davis. Pirkei Avos, The Wisdom of the Fathers. New York, Metzudah Publications, 1978, p 115.
iii Ibid., p 116.
iv Ibid., p 116.
v John 14:26.
vi Unless otherwise noted, all readings from the Tanakh are from The Jewish Study Bible 2nd edition. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. New York, Oxford University Press, 2004 & 2014.
vii Unless otherwise noted, all readings from the Brit Chadashah are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.