Posted by Mark Paredes
“And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.” – Doctrine and Covenants 88:77-79
During a meeting that I attended at one of the leading Orthodox synagogues in Los Angeles, a rabbi educator stood up and declared that Orthodox Judaism was the only religion that required its members to become scholars of its own doctrine. According to him, all other religions trained a select group of ministers in their theology, while average members in the pews had no obligation to read their holy books or study their doctrines. Even other Jewish movements were lax in teaching their followers the principles of Jewish theology and practice. I approached him after the meeting and informed him that Mormons had a lay (not professional) clergy and five books of scripture to master, which of necessity required them to become scholars of their own doctrine. He didn’t seem too impressed, and I quickly changed the subject.
I’d love to track that rabbi down today and share with him the results of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey released this week by the prestigious Pew Forum. More than 3,400 respondents answered 32 questions on the Bible, Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, world religions, religion in public life, and atheism and agnosticism. Atheists and agnostics had the highest average total score (20.9 questions), followed by Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3). White Evangelicals (noted Mormon-bashers) were a distant fourth (17.6).
The breakdown of the scores understandably led to a lot of backslapping in the Mormon blogosphere. Mormons knew more about both testaments of the Bible than any other religious group. They also scored highest in knowledge of Christianity, and were second only to Jews in knowledge of Judaism. Mormons knew more about Mormonism than others polled (sigh of relief), followed by atheists/agnostics and Jews. Only Jews and atheists/agnostics scored higher in knowledge about world religions and general knowledge questions. To summarize: Jews, atheists and agnostics have a greater general knowledge about religion, while Mormons are more familiar with the Bible and Christianity than members of other faiths. Mormons also know more about Judaism than members of any non-Jewish faith group. This is very encouraging to those of us who are actively promoting LDS-Jewish ties.
The emphasis that both of our communities place on education and study is evident in the survey’s results. Jews are known worldwide for their academic accomplishments, and have established many first-class institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and Israel. Every week Jews study the Torah portion in their synagogues, and many Jewish communities run Jewish schools for their children. In this country, the LDS Church currently operates three universities (BYU, BYU Hawaii, BYU Idaho) and a business college in Salt Lake City. In addition, Southern Virginia University, while not officially sponsored by the Church, actively promotes an LDS environment on campus. Speaking of campuses, it is rare if not impossible to find a major college or university without both a Hillel chapter and LDS Institute program. Most Mormon teens begin college after having studied the scriptures every weekday before school for four years, in addition to the hour they spent in Sunday School each Sunday.
Given that we have multiple books of scripture to master, I’m very proud of the Mormons’ performance on the Pew survey. That said, there is clearly room for improvement: we need to learn more about non-Jewish/ non-Christian world religions. This may be easier to do in large cities like Los Angeles, where Buddhist and Hindu temples are a short drive away, than in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, followers of a religion that believes “the glory of God is intelligence” and that requires its members to study all things (see scriptural quote above) need to find a way to learn more about their brothers and sisters of all faiths – and none.
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September 27, 2010 | 9:04 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
“There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary.” – Israeli President Shimon Peres
It’s too bad that Mr. Peres didn’t accompany me earlier this month to London. And Edinburgh. And Leicester. Had he done so, he would have seen a thousand Brits – mostly Mormons—take time out of their busy schedules to listen to a speaker sing the praises of Jews and Judaism, a subject dear to their hearts. The same dynamic occurred in Copenhagen, Budapest, Bucharest, and Chisinau, the hometown of the current Israeli Foreign Minister. Of the many things that I learned during my third pro-Jewish speaking tour of Europe, the principle that has become an axiom in my mind is that stereotypes about European anti-Semitism should not be applied across the board and in fact can often be jettisoned. This is especially true when dealing with the continent’s growing LDS community.
Case in point: Hungary. There was standing room only in the lovely chapel in Budapest last Wednesday evening. Hundreds of Mormons and their friends had come from several cities in Hungary not because they knew the speaker (indeed, I had never met any of them before), but because they knew that he would be speaking about Jews in Magyar, their melodic native language. I have found that advocating support for Jews in German, Magyar, and Polish creates an intimate, emotional connection between the speaker and the audience, some of whom are old enough to remember a time when Jews were rounded up in their cities and deported to death camps. Speaking in American English to Americans just doesn’t have the same dynamic. Not only were the Hungarians extraordinarily gracious and respectful, but several of them told me that they had never heard a public speech in Magyar advocating respect and support for Jews. I was assured that there were many more Hungarians who shared their love and admiration for the Jewish people. If I were a Jewish leader in Hungary, I’d figure out a way to reach them.
I have now visited 15 countries and spoken in 8 languages on the importance of LDS-Jewish collaboration. I am often asked why I expend so much time and effort to make these trips. The simple truth is that I know that things are not going to get better for Jews living outside of the U.S. and Israel. Prophets can see over the horizon, and I’m certainly not a prophet. However, for some time now I have been viewing the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. I feel impressed to leave my testimony of the importance of supporting the planet’s 14 million Jews with people of goodwill in the U.S. and abroad. Ultimately, I believe that only divine intervention and grace have saved and will save many Jews from utter destruction at the hands of their enemies. However, we mortals also have a responsibility to educate people around the world on the beauty and relevance of Judaism and Jewish values. I do not want it to be said of me that I was a passive observer who sat around and did nothing while anti-Semitism continued to metastasize around the world.
It is my hope that Mormons and other philo-Semites will find a way to contribute to the ongoing revival of Jewish life in Hungary, Poland, and other Central and Eastern European countries. In order for them to do so, local Jewish leaders should be encouraged to extend a hand of friendship to them and build bridges of friendship, trust and understanding. Joint Passover seders, Shabbat dinners, and service projects are good places to start.
This hope was buoyed by the events that bookended my last day in Budapest. I arose early to make my way to the Danube River and pay my respects at the bronze shoes memorial to Holocaust victims designed by Gyula Pauer. As I knelt down to view the shoes more closely, I was surprised by a young bearded guy wearing a kippah (the only identifiable Jew I saw in Budapest) who appeared out of nowhere and asked me if I could read Hebrew. When I nodded, he knelt down beside me, placed the kippah on my head, and asked me to recite a psalm with him. Afterwards, he took the picture that accompanies this essay. It’s transcendent moments like this that let me know that I’m not alone on these trips.
As I made my way to the hotel to take a taxi to the airport, I was approached on the street by a lovely young girl (also pictured) who worked for a company that sold sightseeing tours to tourists. When I motioned that I wasn’t interested, she smiled and told me in excellent English that she had attended my presentation the previous evening. She said that she and her family had always had a great deal of respect for Jews, and that she in particular had always felt close to them as a Mormon in an inexplicable way. Her name? Rebecca Abraham.
September 9, 2010 | 11:26 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Random thoughts on the eve of my departure for Europe to promote Mormon-Jewish ties in six countries:
1) Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman’s poignant essay in this week’s issue profiles a Jewish musician who was helped by a Mormon in his time of need: http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/you_dont_know_jack_20100908/
2) Pastor Terry Jones’s 15 minutes of fame expired long ago. It’s scary to see how an idiot with 50 followers and a harebrained scheme can come to the attention of some of the most powerful people in the world. The best news I’ve heard all week is that the webhost for the pastor’s “world outreach center” has shut its website down, along with the accompanying “Islam is the Devil” site. It’s time for the nation’s media and pundits to pull the plug on this story as well. I don’t have children, but I’m told that brats don’t throw too many tantrums when no one is around to notice.
3) The second-best news I’ve heard all week is that Fidel Castro strongly denounced anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by Iran’s president in a revealing conversation with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Of particular interest to me were his comments concerning theology-based anti-Semitism:
4) I will be sans cell phone and laptop during my trip, which will be a welcome vacation from gadgets and technology. I hope to have interesting tales to relate in two weeks’ time. In the meantime, I wish my Jewish friends a Gmar Chatimah Tova as their fates are sealed in the book of life next week on Yom Kippur.
September 7, 2010 | 12:23 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
This week Jews worldwide will observe Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of both the new Jewish year and the Days of Awe period that ends with their names being sealed in God’s book – for better or worse – on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is a sabbath of introspection and repentance, and Jews are encouraged to reflect on the previous year’s sins, make amends wherever possible, and resolve to do better in the coming year. Moreover, they get what many Christians would love to have: a special 10-day period during which they can try to alter the divine decree for them in the coming year. God pencils in our fates on Rosh Hashanah, and after observing our repentance, prayer and charity during the Days of Awe, He sometimes pulls out an eraser before finalizing everything with a permanent marker on Yom Kippur. I’m sure that this belief alone has inspired people to sign up for an Intro to Judaism course.
The holiday’s themes definitely resonate with Latter-day Saints, who enjoy mini-Rosh Hashanahs on 48 Sundays of the year (churchwide and local conferences take up the other 4 Sundays). Mormons are expected to reflect and repent prior to partaking of the sacrament (blessed bread and water) during the main Sunday worship service. In this way they renew the covenants that they made with God at their baptism. If they do not repent and therefore feel unworthy on any given Sunday to renew these covenants, they are supposed to decline the bread and water when they are passed to them. We don’t blow shofars during our services (alas!), but we do listen intently to the words of the sacramental prayers, which remind us of our obligations as members of the Church. [While the Bible is silent on the meaning of the shofar, many interpret it as a call to repentance and introspection].
Pulpit rabbis are expected to speak to their congregations at this time of year; indeed, their sermons are eagerly anticipated and often parsed for deeper meanings. A similar dynamic happens in the worldwide LDS community each fall. Because of the Jewish lunar calendar, the two days of Rosh Hashanah can coincide exactly with the fall session of General Conference. The largest annual gathering of Mormons in the world, it is held on the first weekend of October (a spring conference is also held in April). Church leaders give talks on spiritual topics that are transmitted via satellite around the world, and huge crowds of the faithful fill the 21,000-seat Conference Center and other buildings in Salt Lake City. How appropriate that modern Jews gather on Rosh Hashanah to hear their rabbis and shofars call them to repentance and introspection around the same time that their Mormon brothers and sisters gather to hear their prophets preach similar themes.
I wish all of my readers much happiness, love and spirituality in the coming new year.
September 2, 2010 | 11:08 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
“You know, there are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons.” – David Ben Gurion to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (and future LDS Church President) Ezra Taft Benson
For Mormons who love Jews, yesterday’s headline on the LDS Church’s website couldn’t have been better: “Church and Jewish Leaders Resolve Concerns Over Baptisms.” “Mormons, Jews in New Pact on Baptisms” was the header for The Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt’s upbeat assessment of a final agreement between the Church and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants concerning LDS proxy immersions for the dead. I have included my recent blog post on this issue for those needing a little background: http://www.jewishjournal.com/jews_and_mormons/item/mormon_proxy_immersions_for_the_dead_39100728/
These headlines would have hardly seemed possible two years ago. A prominent member of the American Gathering publicly expressed his frustration with the implementation of the group’s 1995 agreement with the Church, and it appeared that the two sides were going to have to agree to disagree on the feasibility of eliminating all improper name submissions of Holocaust victims. Thanks largely to the efforts of former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams and other Jewish leaders, meetings were arranged in the past year that generated the goodwill that eventually led to this breakthrough.
It was apparent that the Church’s new computer system for submitting names for temple work was an important component of the agreement, so I contacted David Rencher, Chief Genealogical Officer for Family Search, the Church’s family history website. It would be hard to find a happier (or more helpful) man in Salt Lake City right now. I asked him what the Church was doing to prevent the unauthorized submission of names of Holocaust victims for temple ordinances (Jewish leaders have agreed that “authorized” submissions can be made by Mormons who are direct descendants of Holocaust victims or have written permission from a victim’s direct descendants to submit the names).
First of all, he pointed out that the Church has assumed more of the burden of flagging and eliminating these names. The 1995 agreement had placed the burden of identifying the names on the Jewish side, with the Church agreeing to eliminate any names that were brought to its attention. Now, armed with databases of names of Holocaust victims, a team of dedicated LDS volunteers regularly scans lists of submitted temple names to ensure that no Holocaust victims are included. If a name is found, Rencher said that the pedigree for the name (currently required for all submissions) will be examined closely to see whether the person submitting the name is a direct descendant. If there is a question, the person will be contacted. If the name is found to have been wrongly submitted, it will be deleted from the database. If Jews find names of Holocaust victims on Family Search, they can also ask to have them deleted from the database. Finally, Mormons who have written permission from victims’ families to submit their names to the temple (undoubtedly a small group) must send this documentation directly to the Church, which will review it before authorizing the submission of the names. Mormons found violating Church policies on name submissions will be contacted and asked to cease and desist. It is hard to fully express the pride that I feel as a Latter-day Saint after hearing the lengths to which my Church is going to address the concerns of Jews and to honor the memories of Holocaust victims.
Of course, it is important to realize that the law of unintended consequences is in play here for Jewish genealogists. Family Search is an important research tool for genealogists, including Jewish ones, and the deletion of Holocaust victims’ names from its database could complicate individual efforts to fill in Europe-based family trees. When asked about this, Rencher acknowledged this reality, saying that it was a tradeoff that the Jewish leaders were willing to accept.
As someone who helped to launch an ongoing LDS-Jewish theological dialogue in Los Angeles and actively seeks to duplicate this effort in other cities around the world, it is important to me that Jews and others take LDS theology seriously. When it comes to Jews and Judaism, I believe that we have the most comprehensive and complete theology of any church. It is therefore necessary to clarify assertions that were made yesterday in Jewish media that this agreement makes Holocaust victims “the only category exempt from Church doctrine that calls for vicarious baptism for the dead,” and “Out of all humans who ever lived, the Church has carved out Jewish Holocaust victims as the only exception to a universal doctrine.” While it is true that Holocaust victims are the only category of people whose names the Church has agreed to delete from its genealogy database, it is also true that Mormons who are direct descendants of Holocaust victims are still under the same religious obligation to perform temple ordinances for them. As I have pointed out before, this obligation is as binding on a Mormon as circumcising newborn sons is for observant Jews. Nothing in the agreement prevents a Mormon from fulfilling this religious obligation, though it may make it harder for her to track down her relatives who were victims.
The text of yesterday’s statement gives us reason to hope for increased cooperation in the future. Jewish leaders quoted in The Jewish Week echo my sentiments exactly. Bob Abrams reminded everyone that “we need as many friends and allies as possible,” and an American Gathering official observed: “we are living in a very difficult and critical time, and as an American Jew, I felt we shouldn’t keep on fighting a church that principally is very friendly to the Jewish community and has created an important center in Israel.” For its part, the official statement begins by noting that “Goodwill and friendship have marked the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jewish people” and closes with an expression of finality and optimism: “It is gratifying that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including in important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.” Amen to that.
I am willing to host guest bloggers during my upcoming pro-Jewish speaking tour of Europe (Sept 10-24). If you would like to have your essay published on this blog, please submit it (along with a photo, if desired) by September 8. The topic should be of interest to both Jews and Mormons. Thank you.