The Importance of a Non-Jewish Spouse - Moses and Tzipporah

Early in the Book of Exodus, Moses encounters the divine at the burning bush. In that exchange, God identifies the divine self to Moses four times as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – an elaborate use of repetition in a text known for being terse.

The first of these claims of divine identity to Moses is different from the other three – it says “God of your father”, singular, instead of “God of your fathers”, plural. Our sages throughout the ages come up with many explanations for this.

Nachmanides, a 14th century scholar from Spain, points to the idea that Moses plays a role most similar to that of Abraham, so that the first part of this central revelation to Moses emphasizes that connection. The connection that Nachmanides focuses on identifies the similarities as that of two prophets confronting populations with different perspectives on the divine. Abraham goes forth as the first to be in relationship with the divine as the leader of a people, and Moses must accomplish something similar in bringing the Hebrews back into relationship with a divinity that has been absent from their lives for some time.

I would highlight a different aspect of the parallels between Abraham and Moses – namely their relationship to circumcision, the distinguishing mark of the Hebrew male. Abraham heeds the divine command to circumcise himself and his household’s males in his 90’s, not an easy thing to do at even half that age. Moses’ circumcision goes unmentioned, but we read a hint of it around an incident with Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, which leaves us with the possible reading that Tzipporah may have in fact done Moses’ circumcision herself, his age being around 80 at the time.

This leads to the possibility that God said, “I am the God of your father”, singular, followed, but “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”, to emphasize that like Abraham, Moses needed to circumcise himself. Moses never got around to it though, (we may understand why he hesitated), and it was Tzipporah instead who upheld this tradition for Moses and their sons.

This provides us with a beautiful understanding of the historical importance of the non-Jewish spouse in Jewish families. Often the most central of ideas of Jewish identity can slip the mind of the one thought most responsible for them. Then the partner who has learned about Judaism as an adult, making it their own out of a desire for the richness of Jewish heritage, might step in and remind us of something central that we forgot.

As a rabbi married to someone who became Jewish, I often find that Ginny will remember regular Jewish observances for our family far better than I do. Even more than that, Ginny will more likely safeguard the Jewish identity of our family than I will.