Posted by Mark Paredes
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. – Ruth 1:16
While conversion to another faith is a rather sensitive topic for Jews, it is rarely a topic of conversation in Mormon circles. Although both communities are roughly the same size both in the United States (6 million) and worldwide (14 million), Jews have endured centuries of persecution, pogroms and anti-Semitism, and continue to be targeted for conversion by well-funded Evangelical groups like Jews for Jesus. Organizations like Jews for Judaism seek to counter these proselytizing efforts with varying degrees of success.
Mormons, on the other hand, are usually very tolerant of missionaries from other faiths, since we send out more than 50,000 of our own to dozens of countries every year. In addition, religious instruction for members born in the faith begins at age three and includes special scripture study classes for high-school and college students. Most LDS parents believe in administering the conversion inoculation found in Proverbs: Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
That said, there obviously are Mormons who convert to other faiths (though at a rate considerably below average). Last month I received a thoughtful e-mail from Ethan, an “ex-Mormon” who is considering conversion to Judaism. His letter inspired me to launch a search for Mormons who have become Jews. While I was unable to find a case where an active, temple-going Mormon had decided to become Jewish, I was contacted by two people who, like Ethan, were ex-Mormons when they began the conversion process. I’d like to share their stories with you in the next two posts.
Johnny is a gay ex-Mormon who once served as a missionary in Rome, Italy. Prior to his Jewish conversion, he had not attended religious services of any kind for six years. He started accompanying his Jewish partner to synagogue services, though he had no idea that Judaism accepted converts. What initially attracted him to Judaism? A Friday night sermon: “That first night, the rabbi spoke about the genocide that was taking place at that time in Rwanda. He said that as Jews, we couldn’t just sit back and say, “Tsk, tsk, isn’t that terrible?” We had an absolute obligation to do whatever we could to stop the slaughter … I remember thinking, ‘I would never have heard this sermon in a Mormon church.’ I decided to join an Intro to Judaism class just to see what it was all about.” Johnny went on to express his appreciation for the inquisitive Jewish mind: “I found I liked the fact that Jews were allowed to question. People debated over the meaning of scripture and what we should do with the information.” He also feels that his “contributions” to Jewish life are appreciated by his new coreligionists.
As with many conversions, there is a downside for Johnny: “I don’t feel I belong, the way I used to feel I belonged in Mormonism. I don’t know that this particular need will ever be filled again by any group… I find Jews in general much less open to meeting new people in their congregation.” Though Johnny clearly feels that he has been treated poorly by Mormon homophobes, he is also able to offer some words of praise for their faith: “How do I view Mormonism now? Well, part of me will always believe in Mormonism…It’s impossible to fully rid yourself of things learned in those formative years. Also, part of me rather likes some of the Mormon doctrines. I would like to believe in eternal progression toward perfection. I’d like to believe there will be peace and happiness, if not in a Millennium, at least in ‘heaven.’ Jews have a hundred different beliefs about the afterlife, and none of them seems any more comforting than Mormon beliefs. I don’t actually know what to expect after death, but I trust that God (who I do believe in) is kind and benevolent, and that’s all I need to know for now.”
I appreciate Johnny’s candor and fairness. While I regret that he is no longer part of my church, I’m happy that he now feels that he is part of a community that values his ideas and his service. I share his belief in a kind and benevolent God, and pray for Johnny to find the sense of spiritual belonging that has thus far eluded him.
Hillel Rabbi Lori Schneide and I will be making a joint presentation on the role of Israel in our respective faiths at USC on February 9.
12.3.13 at 12:19 am | It's a bad idea because Judaism is important
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11.4.13 at 10:43 pm | Greater expectations need to be placed on Jews,. . .
10.18.13 at 11:26 pm | My friend Brian offers an eloquent explanation of. . .
10.13.13 at 11:28 pm | The title says it all
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9.9.12 at 9:30 pm | When it comes to the Book of Mormon, I'll stick. . . (50)
6.5.12 at 11:26 pm | Marlena Tanya Muchnick, a Jewish convert to. . . (48)
12.3.13 at 12:19 am | It's a bad idea because Judaism is important (35)
January 28, 2011 | 12:35 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
“Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood… therefore my father was led away by their idolatry.” – Abraham 1:27
As I write these words, army tanks are pouring into the streets of Cairo to help put down a massive popular uprising in Egypt. My thoughts and prayers are with the brave protesters, and I hope that they succeed in bringing down the brutal, corrupt regime of their obtuse Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak. Coincidentally, my personal scripture reading this morning highlighted the actions of another Egyptian ruler who falsely claimed legitimacy.
The first chapter of the Book of Abraham, which Mormons accept as a book of scripture written by the ancient prophet, discusses the religion and founding of ancient Egypt. After reading it, you can understand better why 19 of 20 modern Egyptian women are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (which I have detailed on this blog). The priests of Pharaoh in Abraham’s native Chaldea sacrificed men, women, and children to their gods, including “thank-offerings” of children. The priests tried to sacrifice Abraham, but an angel appeared to set him free and to inform him that he would be led to another land and given God’s priesthood.
According to the Book of Abraham, the first Pharaoh was the grandson of Ham, Noah’s son. He was a righteous man who “judged his people wisely and justly all his days” (if only we could resurrect him now!). However, for some reason he was “cursed” with a denial of the priesthood, which led him to “imitate that order” of righteous rule by inspired men. Unfortunately, the scriptures record that the Pharaoh’s cheap imitation of legitimate priesthood rule ultimately led his people into idolatry. Today Egypt’s police state fools no one when it spouts the language of democracy and tolerance while it cracks head and jails opponents. Illegitimate rule by Pharaohs, both ancient and modern, cannot produce an enlightened civil society. As we view the disturbing images from Cairo and other cities, let us pray for another intervention by angels on behalf of the innocent.
Rabbi Lori Schneide and I will be speaking on the role of Israel in our respective faiths at USC on February 9th.
January 24, 2011 | 11:47 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you. – Genesis 9:8-9
Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come.—Sanhedrin 105a
One of my regular readers is an LDS Swedish theologian who is doing her best to counter anti-Semitic and anti-Mormon bloggers in her über-secular country. This week she posed a question that would be a great topic for a book: Do rabbis believe that Mormons are Noahides? Rabbis who understand our beliefs would undoubtedly apply that label to observant Mormons and other practicing Christians. However, there are good reasons for Mormons themselves to reject it.
Rabbinic Judaism divides the world’s moral people into two groups: Jews who observe the laws of the Torah, and Gentile Noahides who observe the Seven Laws of Noah. Jews believe that these laws were given to all mankind through our non-Jewish common ancestors Adam and Eve (Talmudic interpretation of Genesis 2:16) and Noah (9th chapter of Genesis). According to Jewish teachings, only Jews are required to observe the Torah’s 613 commandments, which include the Ten Commandments and the Noahide laws, while non-Jews who keep the Noahide laws are considered to be “righteous Gentiles” who will be rewarded in the world to come.
Mormons certainly have no theological objection to any of the Noahide laws. We are firmly opposed to idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and blasphemy. While our scriptures do not contain a specific prohibition against eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive, I doubt very much that many Mormons are guilty of doing so. Moreover, the Word of Wisdom (our health and dietary code) commands Latter-day Saints to use meat sparingly and only in times of winter, cold, or famine. Mormons have always established legal courts in their communities and believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the laws of the land. In spite of our scriptures’ lack of an affirmative commandment to avoid eating meat cut from a living animal, I’m pretty sure that Mormons would get a passing mark on any objective Noahide assessment. When Mormons are asked by Jews whether they are Noahides, they almost always answer yes.
When asked, I always tell rabbis that I consider myself to be an Israelite, so I can’t be a Noahide. Faithful Mormons are given special blessings (patriarchal blessings) that declare in which Israelite tribe they will receive their spiritual inheritance. The tribe may or may not correspond to their blood lineage, but the tribal designation is very real to Mormons, who strongly believe that they are Latter-day Israelites. My patriarchal blessing goes one step further by informing me that I am a direct descendant of Ephraim, the son of Joseph. If Israelite descendants of Ephraim could somehow be found and identified by rabbis today, would they be expected to observe the Seven Laws of Noah or the laws of the Torah? My guess is the latter. The Hebrew Bible clearly teaches that all of the Children of Israel, not just the Jews, received the Torah at Sinai. The 10 Lost Tribes disappeared from history about 600 years after Moses, but while the Israelites wandered through the desert and lived in the Land of Israel, they all had the same responsibility to observe the Law of Moses. For this reason, I believe that a Mormon who claims to be a Noahide—outside the covenants of Abraham and Moses—is implicitly denying his Israelite identity.
Regular readers know that one of my goals is to seek common ground and promote understanding between Mormons and Jews. On one level, it’s great for Jews to consider their LDS friends as “righteous Gentiles” who live moral lives worthy of respect (and vice versa, of course). However, they should know that by doing so they are exempting Mormons from the religious obligations expected of members of the House of Israel, which is impossible to square with our theology. I wish I had a quick and easy answer for my Swedish friend, but on this important issue I think clarity is even more important than agreement.
January 18, 2011 | 10:25 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Hine ma tov u’ma naim
Shevet achim gam yachad
[“How good and pleasant it is
When brothers dwell together in unity”]
- Jewish hymn
There was certainly a lot of unity on display on Sunday night in Lenexa, Kansas. More than a thousand Mormons and Jews gathered to witness a theological dialogue between Conservative Rabbi Alan Cohen, Director of Interreligious Affairs for the JCRC in Kansas City, and yours truly (see picture at right). After an hour of discussing prayer, worship, halachic pluralism, and proselytizing, we took questions from the audience. The most memorable one was from a young man who wanted to know what the difference was between Orthodox and “un-Orthodox” Jews. [I can think of many Orthodox rabbis who would have given him two thumbs up for that one]. This is the second Jewish-LDS dialogue in Missouri that has drawn more than a thousand people; the first one took place in St. Louis last year when I shared the pulpit with another Conservative rabbi. It looks like the “Show-Me” State is showing the rest of the country how interested Mormons and Jews are in learning about each other.
The dialogue was the result of one of those random encounters that sometimes bear fruit in unexpected ways. Last year Rabbi Cohen contacted Larry Nicholson, an LDS photographer and lucky husband of author Dorinda Nicholson (“Pearl Harbor Child”). After seeing the word “interreligious” in the rabbi’s title, Larry suggested to Dorinda, who is also a local public affairs leader in the LDS Church, that she speak with Rabbi Cohen to see whether he might be interested in working with her on an interfaith project. The rest, as they say, is history.
Our event capped a very productive bridge-building week for me. On Friday night I joined LDS leaders, Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Robert Tobin for a worship service and dinner at Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City. On Wednesday I was honored to speak at the stunning Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City, where I learned that most couples in the city’s Kol Ami synagogue are interfaith, including many LDS-Jewish pairings. The evening couldn’t have gone better: I was interviewed by the state’s two leading newspapers, my journalistic colleague Christa Woodall attended my speech (she blogs on LDS-Jewish issues for J Weekly in San Francisco), I got to hold my friend Karen’s three-month-old baby girl, and a lovely LDS woman presented me with two copies of her recently-published book “The Jews of Valencia and Tortosa and The Spanish Inquisition.” I have already found homes for them.
It’s weeks like this that make it all worth it. Shavua tov, everyone.
January 10, 2011 | 1:39 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” – Genesis 9:6
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.” – LDS Church official statement (www.lds.org)
The senseless killings in Tucson this weekend present as good an opportunity as any to discuss capital punishment, which may very well be applied in the future to the deranged Hitler lover who attempted to murder a Jewish congresswoman. Many Jews are surprised to learn that the LDS Church, which publicly and passionately opposed gay marriage and the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, does not take positions on many other controversial moral issues of the day. While other churches line up on all sides of the debates on evolution, stem cell research, and capital punishment, the Mormon Church asks members to let their conscience be their guide on these issues.
With regard to capital punishment, the five books of LDS scriptures can be used both to justify and oppose the killing of murderers by the state. While the Hebrew Bible clearly sanctions (indeed, commands) the shedding of murderers’ blood, the New Testament seems to promote the turn-the-other-cheek, recompense-to-no-man-evil-for-evil approach (Matt. 5:38-41; Romans 12:17-21). Similarly, capital punishment was practiced by the societies in The Book of Mormon that observed the Law of Moses, but there is no record of murderers being killed after Jesus appeared in the Americas and taught the people there the same principles that He had taught in the Holy Land. Verse 19 of the 42nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants clearly states “he that killeth shall die,” but 60 verses later we read that killers “shall be delivered up and dealt with according to the laws of the land…and it shall be proved according to the laws of the land.” The latter approach is the current policy of the Mormon Church.
While the scriptures may be ambiguous, there was no ambiguity in the actions of the LDS Church leaders who established capital punishment in the state of Deseret and the Utah territory in the 19th century. The State of Utah has always had the death penalty for murder, and it was the first state to resume executions after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. Nevertheless, Mormons’ views on such issues tend to reflect those of their societies unless they directly contradict the doctrines of their church. For example, Most Mormons in this country almost certainly favor the death penalty for murder, but I have yet to meet an Italian Mormon who does. I suspect that the same is true for most Mormons living in Western Europe. Given the modern LDS Church’s status as an international organization with a presence in nearly 180 countries, I think it is wise for it to avoid taking a position on state-sanctioned killings. The death penalty is not applied uniformly throughout the world, and any statement in support of it could reasonably be interpreted as Church support for the stoning of adulterous women in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, public executions in Iran, etc.
By way of comparison, the rabbis of the Talmud effectively outlawed capital punishment in Judaism, and the State of Israel (which is not governed by Jewish law) bans executions except for perpetrators of genocide and wartime traitors. The only person executed by Israel to date was the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in 1962. [Having visited Auschwitz, I think that the witnesses to his execution should have applauded].
Truth be told, capital punishment has never been a front-burner issue for me. My home state of Michigan abolished the death penalty for all crimes except treason in 1846, and completely abolished it in its 1963 constitution. No one has ever been executed in the state. However, I do think that each state should have a terminal sentence (for Ohio State fans who may not understand the term, it means execution or life imprisonment without parole) to give to murderers like Charles Manson who should never walk the streets again. Would I support the death penalty with more fervor if a close family member were brutally murdered? Quite possibly. Whatever one’s views on capital punishment, people of all faiths should agree that if the State of Arizona intends to execute people who commit heinous murders, it has just found its poster child.
I would like to interview Mormon converts to Judaism for a future post. Please contact me if you would like to share your experiences.
I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on January 12 at 7:00 p.m. I will also be speaking with Rabbi Alan Cohen at the Lenexa Stake Center in Lenexa, KS on January 16 at 7:00 p.m.
January 5, 2011 | 10:36 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
I am always happy to hear from Dr. Jahan Stanizai, a prominent Muslim interfaith leader in Los Angeles, but this week one of her emails was especially reassuring and timely. The Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an influential umbrella organization for mosques and Muslim organizations in our region, had a prominent header on its website entitled “In Grief and Solidarity with the Coptic Christian Community.” The accompanying article condemned the “senseless killing” of 21 worshippers in the bombing of the Saints Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year’s Eve. The council’s Egyptian-American chairman affirmed his abhorrence of “the heinous crime,” and its executive director sent a letter of sympathy to the Coptic Bishop of Los Angeles. Their actions were repeated throughout the Middle East by people of goodwill, including many Muslims.
While these expressions of solidarity were sincere and appreciated, the killing of the Copts is but the latest manifestation of the evil that is present in a very sick society. I visited Egypt many times while living in Israel, and enjoyed exploring the Sinai Peninsula, Cairo, and Luxor. A part of me will always love touristy Egypt, the ancient land of the pyramids, the Nile, the Sphinx, and my beloved ful. However, after I found out that almost all Egyptian women are mutilated, I stopped visiting. According to the latest UNICEF figures, 96% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 undergo some form of female genital mutilation. I have no interest in whether the practice is cultural or religious, or whether the Egyptian government at one time enacted a law banning the procedure. The truth is that 96% of Egyptian women continue to be brutally and cruelly tortured in a country that receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Given that Coptic Christians are 10-20% of Egypt’s population, one can assume that many Copts torture their women as well. I have no hope that such a country will ever become civilized. It’s no wonder that Hosni Mubarak insists on only answering questions about Israel in his press conferences and statements. It sure beats addressing the mutilation of females or the bombing of churches.
Last year I felt compelled to correct a well-meaning Mormon couple who had recently returned from a trip to Egypt convinced that Egyptians value chastity and modesty in the same way that Mormons do. Needless to say, they were shocked when I asked them when they had mutilated their two daughters. The idea that Egyptian society cherishes women and womanhood in the same way that Mormons and Jews do is utter nonsense. Instead of promoting modesty and virtue, Egyptians mutilate girls and create a society that incubates religious fanatics who fly commercial planes into buildings (Mohammed Atta, September 11, 2001) and blow up Christian churches. Such a society must be anti-Semitic at its core, and indeed this is the case with Egypt.
I will pray for the Copts to have a peaceful and joyous Christmas celebration this Friday, but I’m not optimistic about their fate in a country that tortures its daughters and sisters. When I contrast the Pharaonic dynasties and pyramids with Mubarak and mutilations, I conclude that Egypt is in fact a potato nation: the best part is underground.
January 1, 2011 | 1:52 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
I spent the last morning of 2010 at a screening of the new Yogi Bear movie with some very special kids. My autistic nephew’s therapy group reserved the theater, and about 100 people came to enjoy the movie with other families who don’t mind occasional outbursts or other disruptions from their neighbors. While being introduced to my nephew’s many friends as the uncle who was a Portuguese fisherman on the TV show Family Guy, I couldn’t help but reflect on LDS and Jewish teachings on the mentally disabled and our obligations to them.
According to LDS theology, all men and women lived with our Heavenly Father and Mother before coming to earth to gain a physical body and to be tested to see whether we would be faithful to God and prove worthy to live with Him again for eternity. Some of our spiritual siblings were so obedient and valiant in the pre-earth life that they do not need to prove themselves in this one. That is, their salvation is assured; they only need to come to this earth to gain a physical body that will someday be resurrected. It is our belief that people with severe mental disabilities are members of this elite class of souls who will be fast-tracked to heaven.
Other members of this group include infants and children who die before reaching an age where they can be held accountable by God for their moral choices, which we believe is eight years old for normal children. We do not baptize children before they are eight years old, and we hold that children who die before reaching the age of moral accountability are automatically saved in heaven. In addition, we do not believe that Satan has the power to tempt little children before they are morally accountable (which as any parent knows does not necessarily mean that little kids are incapable of doing “wrong” things). For us, circumcision reinforces the moral accountability of children: our modern scriptures teach that Israelite parents were commanded to circumcise their sons at eight days as a reminder that children are not accountable for their moral choices until they are eight years old (JST Genesis 17:11).
I am not aware of any authoritative Jewish teaching that explains why some people are born with severe mental disabilities and/or assigns a role to them in the next life. However, both Mormons and Jews, along with decent people everywhere, believe that we have a special responsibility towards them. According to Conservative Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner, “Contemporary Judaism sees the disabled as those who have a challenge to overcome and we are bound as a community to be compassionate, understanding and to facilitate their needs. That is why you see many more synagogues with hearing aids of various types, ramps to the bimah, etc.” My nephew has already taught me a great deal about unconditional love and acceptance, and I can only hope to deal with life’s trials and challenges in a way that will allow me to be where he will be in the world to come. The way things stand right now, it’s obvious which one of us has the true disability.
Best wishes for a successful and spiritual 2011 to all of my readers.
I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, January 12 at 7:00 p.m. I will also be speaking with Rabbi Alan Cohen at the Lenexa Stake Center in Lenexa, KS on Sunday, January 16 at 7:00 p.m.