Posted by Mark Paredes
Like just about every other blogger for the Jewish Journal, I found myself at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills this evening to watch Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman lead an Israeli consul general, a female Conservative rabbi, an Orthodox lawyer, two female Reform rabbis, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and a Modern Orthodox rabbi in a spirited discussion of religious pluralism in Israel. The event was inspired by the recent arrest of Israeli feminist activist Anat Hoffman for “inappropriate” religious expression at the Western Wall. I went primarily to hear how the Orthodox speakers would defend the religious status quo in Israel. While I was very glad to see Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky take his seat, I was rather disappointed that the organizers had to ask Chabad Rabbi David Eliezrie to drive up from Orange County on a weeknight because no other prominent Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles had the courage to show up at a Reform synagogue and defend his beliefs.
A few observations on the evening:
1) Consul General David Siegel is a very impressive guy. In fact, every time I see him he seems even more impressive. He started his talk on pluralism by showing us the logos of 92 Israeli organizations currently engaged in promoting pluralism/Jewish renewal in Israel. He also let us know that this was a personal issue for him: his father was the second Conservative rabbi in Israel (there are about 120 today).
2) The battle lines were drawn early. Everyone gave kudos to Rabbi Eliezrie for volunteering to be the Orthodox lightning rod for the evening, but I found his arguments less than compelling. His main justification for the denial of certain religious rights to women at the Western Wall was that “Jews have been praying this way for 3300 years, since the days of King Solomon.” Needless to say, his Reform and Conservative colleagues took exception to this statement. The night’s best line went to Rabbi Judith HaLevy, who noted that Jews don’t slaughter animals at the Western Wall today “even though they did it at the time of King Solomon.”
3) I found Rabbi Kanefsky’s comments to be the most thoughtful and engaging. His most interesting observation was that the well-documented return to tradition by Israelis does not necessarily translate into a return to Orthodoxy, whose rules and strictures are difficult for modern secular people to accept. Moreover, he believes that Israelis are actively involved in the creation of an organic Israeli Judaism.
Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t take a position on whether Judaism needs to be “reformed” or on which Jewish movement is more authentic, though I have expressed my thanks on occasion to Orthodox leaders for their stances on certain moral issues. I am also most unwilling to express my opinion on which laws Israel should or should not adopt. Having lived in their country for two years, I know that the last thing Israelis need is for non-Jews to lecture them on how they should live. However, on a night when only one prominent rabbi in the Los Angeles Orthodox world was willing to engage in a public dialogue on religious pluralism, I do feel comfortable offering an outsider’s opinion on which argument I found most compelling.
I can see why many Orthodox Jews are not impressed by liberal Jews’ willingness to change their traditions simply because they think that it’s a good idea to do so. However, invoking King Solomon to defend your practice of exclusion isn’t terribly convincing, either. I went to Rabbi Kanefsky after the event in order to understand the Orthodox theological objection to female rabbis. His candid response? “You’re assuming there is one.” After all, while the Torah does state that priests in ancient Israel were male descendants of Aaron, modern Rabbinic Judaism doesn’t have priests, priesthood, or temples. Rabbis are teachers and decisors of Jewish law, not priests. As a Mormon I believe that the Israelite priesthood has always been conferred exclusively on men, and I understand that men were almost exclusively the teachers and judges in ancient Israel, but in a modern world with many female teachers and judges, what is the theological objection to authorizing female rabbis if they don’t hold the priesthood? Rabbi Kanefsky offered up the belief that halacha conferred divine authority on the sages to lead Jews in the right paths. Fair enough. It’s a lot more convincing than the King Solomon argument.
I hope that this is the first in a series of candid discussions on Jewish religious pluralism. My only suggestion for improvement would be to limit the number of participants to four: a Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, and a Modern Orthodox rabbi. Additional participants will only add needless repetition. Evenings like this are entirely absent from the calendars of Mormon communities, and it was a delight to watch Jews who are all passionate about their Judaism challenge each other on an issue that is much more important to American Jews than to their Israeli cousins.
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November 19, 2012 | 11:47 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
“The state of Israel is an illegal, genocidal place… to equate Judaism with the state of Israel is to equate Christianity with Flavor Flav.” – UCC Pastor Emeritus Jeremiah Wright, in a speech to thousands of people in Baltimore in 2011
These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. – Acts 17:11
Much has been made in the Jewish community – too much, in my humble opinion – of the recent letter signed by 15 Protestant church leaders calling for Congress to review and possibly suspend U.S. aid to Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East. The signatories believe that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” To add insult to injury, the letter was released with no notice on a Jewish holiday, just days before a scheduled interfaith meeting between Protestant and Jewish leaders. Predictably, Jewish leaders angrily withdrew from the meeting and denounced the letter. It is hard to see how this troubled dialogue can be resurrected in the near future.
A letter like this doesn’t come out of a vacuum. The offending churches -- Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist Church, National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ (UCC) – are all mainline Protestant bodies. In a recent Pew survey, white mainline Protestants knew less about Christianity and the Bible than Mormons, white Evangelicals, white Catholics, black Protestants, Jews and atheists. By way of contrast, Mormons and white Evangelicals, the most knowledgeable groups on those topics, tend to be very strong supporters of Israel. Instead of developing talking points on Israel to present to Protestant leaders, I think that Jewish leaders would accomplish more by creating Bible study courses, perhaps co-taught by rabbis and pastors, that could be used to educate Protestant congregants and leaders on Jewish themes in the Bible.
Israel needs to become a priority for these churches. Right now it’s not even on their theological radar screens. Let’s take the UCC, for example. On the church’s official website right now are the following lead stories: “Minnesota church plans to be carbon neutral by 2030,” “UCC churches celebrate 14th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance,” and “UCC President, Office of Communications, Inc. ask FCC to lower prison phone rates.” Although Jeremiah Wright is best known for his incendiary statements about Jews and America, he also helped thousands of people in Chicago through his decades-long service as a popular pastor. Clearly this is a church that believes in doing good and helping people. However, on Israel, Jews and the Bible it clearly needs more education.
As I see it, the problem is that the leaders of these churches focus every Sunday on social justice and other contemporary issues instead of an intensive study of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. When the time comes for them to gather together and vote on Israel issues like divestment, Jewish leaders have to make Israel’s case to people who have generally devoted very little pulpit time (and thought) to the subject. If current trends are any indication, Jewish leaders’ efforts will soon become futile. Last summer Presbyterian leaders rejected divestment by the slimmest of margins in a 333-331 vote. I know that my Presbyterian friends keep reassuring me that the overwhelming majority of their coreligionists strongly support Israel, but apparently their leaders haven’t gotten the memo.
Jewish leaders who are trying to engage mainline Protestant leaders on Israel clearly have their work cut out for them, and I applaud them for trying. The sad truth is that unless these churches make the Bible and Jewish themes a focus of their study and ministry, secular arguments for Israel will eventually fail to carry the day with their leaders, especially when a nominally Protestant organization like Sabeel spews out religious-themed drivel advocating Palestinian Liberation Theology. As we see during the current Israel-Hamas confrontation, people who are confused about the Jews’ (and Israelites’) role in God’s plan are often unable to make meaningful moral distinctions between competing narratives in the Middle East.
I applaud the Jewish leaders for their efforts to reach out, and I applaud those Protestants who are trying to effect change from within their churches. I will pray for their success in bringing mainstream Protestantism into the pro-Israel fold. After all, it’s an article of the Mormon faith that miracles have not yet ceased.
November 12, 2012 | 8:33 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
LDS Seminary and Institute (= Mormon Hillel) coordinators are an oft-overlooked resource for Jewish leaders in Europe who are attempting to conduct outreach to friendly Christian communities. Some of the most philo-Semitic Mormons I have ever met are Institute directors, and one has profoundly changed my life. Marin Iachimov, the Institute coordinator for Romania and several other countries, kindly invited me to speak on LDS-Jewish relations in Romania and Moldova, and I met my lovely wife-to-be in Bucharest. I have already blogged about the former Institute directors in Lund, Sweden, a German couple who organized groups of young Mormons to clean Jewish cemeteries. In this column I’d like to profile the dynamic philo-Semite who serves as the Seminary and Institute coordinator for Ukraine. If you know Jews in Ukraine, by all means forward this interview to them.
Igor Piddubnyi has been an Institute coordinator for 15 years, and writes that he “was always attracted to our brothers, the Jews. I had many Jewish friends during my school years.” Like many Mormons, Igor had this to say about his trip to Israel: “I love them [Jews] with all my heart. I have never heard that I had Jewish roots, but when I went to Israel, I felt home. I almost wept as I stood at the Western wall. There is still something sacred there.” In addition, Igor speaks and reads some Hebrew. I asked him to respond to a few questions for this blog, and he was kind enough to send the following responses:
How long have you been a Mormon? When did your interest in Judaism begin?
I was baptized in June 1993. My wife was baptized in February 1991, when there were only five members of the Church in Ukraine. As I look back, the topic of Judaism has been on my mind since I can remember. Basically, it started along with my membership in the Church, after I had come back from serving in the Soviet Army.
Which Jewish sites have you visited in Ukraine?
As a S&I (CES) coordinator I travel a lot throughout Ukraine. As I visit classes in the mission branches, I often pass by famous Jewish sites. All of them are located in picturesque areas. Sometimes I visit such places to think about my life and feel closer to God. So far I have visited:
Besides the Bible, what is your favorite work of Jewish literature?
I have not read the Talmud yet, but I really like Moshe Haim Luzzato’s “Mesilat Yesharim” (The Path of the Just). He wrote it when he was 33. I also like Martin Buber’s “The Tales of Hasidim” (parables and stories) and “Roots of the Bible” by Friedrich Weinreb. The three books (Gardens) by the modern writer Shalom Arush (especially his “Garden of Peace”) should be read by every husband.
You recently purchased a Torah with commentary by Rashi. How does this add to your understanding of Judaism -- and Mormonism?
Jewish people are people of details as we know. They believe that there are no excess words in the Scriptures. Rashi wrote his commentaries with a close look at small details, but also gives a lot of contextual material. When I read some passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand, where principles can't be seen because of lack of context, I usually try to look up the same passage in the Torah with Rashi or other commentaries to see what historical background can found there. For example, in Genesis 6:1 – 8 we read about “sons of God and daughters of men” – the time when the Lord, because of the wickedness of men, gives them a certain time to repent. Rashi suggests two meanings for the expression “the sons of God” – 1. Sons of the princes and the nobles of the land; 2. Messengers of the Most High, who mingled with men. Regarding the first possible meaning he explained, by quoting other authors, that wickedness was so great that when princes or nobles of the land saw “daughters of men” beautifying themselves before entering the nuptial canopy, a son of the noble or prince would come and take them by force “from whomever they chose” - even a married woman. After that the Lord sets the countdown timer. Many details give additional insights into the situation from which we can draw principles. The stories I used to read by blocks and pages, now become words and letters. I started to underline not sentences or verses as before, but words that become a basis for principles and doctrines
What were the spiritual highlights of your trip to Israel?
When I first went to Israel (it was November and I was flying in from cold Moscow), the very smell of the air in Tel Aviv, rose bushes, trees and many other details added to my understanding of why it’s a land chosen above all other lands and why they still fight for it. I remember my first feeling of seeing the Western Wall. I could not believe I was standing there. I was touching the wall of the Temple Mount and thinking how many lives were lost and touched at this place. I could feel somehow that I was standing in the middle of the universe, that that was the place of most interest for me. I have visited quite a few countries and seen wonderful sites and historical places, but I have never felt anything like that. For me it was such a native and natural place. Another highlight – Masada. It has a very dramatic story. It was so amazing to walk among stones that have seen so much. The trip to Israel changed my understanding of the Scriptures. The distances to, colors, smell of the places I visited – every time I come across those in the Scriptures – they become alive, it expands my understanding. Also, the Garden Tomb was such a touching moment. When we were leaving, I stood on Friday night on the Mount of Olives and looked at the Temple Mount. It was difficult to part with this city, I felt as if I was leaving someone very close to my heart. Jerusalem has a living soul.
What do you see as the most important Jewish-Mormon ties?
The belief in the absolute truth. Focus on the family. Working on your personal salvation by hard spiritual labor. Following the path of those who have trodden the path of righteousness before. Waiting for the Messiah (or for His return) with an single to the glory of God. Being separated from the world. I believe the Lord applied the same pattern working with the latter-day group of His covenant people as he used with ancient Israel. That’s why we have the same Root and we can find many similarities in the concepts of Judaism and Mormonism.
November 7, 2012 | 12:46 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
I write these words immediately following Mitt Romney’s gracious concession speech. I dearly wish that he had been able to deliver a victory speech instead, but the election gods clearly weren’t smiling on Boston tonight. While I was disappointed with the result, I remain enormously proud of this country’s progress. Ten years ago few people would have thought it possible for either a black or a Mormon candidate to have a serious shot at the White House. This year a black and a Mormon ran against each other, and the issues of race and religion were largely absent from the campaign.
I hope that Mormons of all political stripes would take pride in having one of their own make a serious run for the most powerful office in the world, winning tens of millions of votes from other Americans who believed in him. Mormons have come a long way in this country, and I believe that our best days are ahead of us. I know many Jews who strongly supported Mitt’s candidacy, and he appears to have convinced 30% of Jews to vote for him. In addition, his strong support for Israel and the Jewish people highlights the philo-Semitic nature of his faith. Although I admire Paul Ryan, Mitt probably would have received more Jewish votes if he had had someone perceived to be more centrist as his running mate.
I didn’t vote for him, but I will pray for President Obama – and for our country. He’s got a tough job, and it’s unlikely to get any easier. This time he won’t have President Bush to blame for his failures. I want President Obama to succeed because I want America to succeed. The fact that he had to beat a Mormon in order to retain his office shows that America has come a long way in terms of tolerance and acceptance of minority groups. Who knows? We could even be a better nation after a second Obama term. Let us pray.
November 4, 2012 | 9:08 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil
against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in
heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. – Matthew 5:11-12
During a recent presentation on Mormonism at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, I was asked twice why Evangelicals don’t consider Mormons to be Christians and why some of them go so far as to classify the LDS Church as a cult. After suggesting that they must have a different definition of Christianity, I recommended that they ask Evangelicals why they hold those views instead of relying on me to explain them. In hindsight, I realized that I was extending to Evangelicals a courtesy that is rarely reciprocated.
Much has been made of the willingness of Evangelicals, Baptists, and other conservative Christians to set aside their misgivings about LDS Christianity and pull the lever for Mitt Romney this week. Four years ago they championed Mike Huckabee, and this time they’re holding their noses and voting for the Mormon anti-Obama candidate. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has even removed Mormonism from its list of “cults” just in time for the election. Well, bully for them! While one can certainly hope that decades of Evangelical anti-Mormon bigotry will soon go the way of Evangelical anti-Catholic bigotry and Evangelical anti-Semitism, I have a feeling that things will revert to the status quo ante after the election.
There are many opportunities for Mormons to work with Evangelicals (and Jews, for that matter) to make the world a better place. This is especially true in the political arena, which has witnessed the formation of conservative faith coalitions in order to uphold traditional moral values and religious freedom. People don’t have to worship in the same place or believe exactly the same things in order to see eye to eye on the issues of the day. In my experience, Evangelicals in the pews are decent, God-fearing people of conviction and action. Left to their own devices, I believe that they would be accepting of other people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. However, many Evangelicals are led by pastors who are theological cowards and liars to boot.
If only pastors would follow what I call the Jewish/Mormon Model for Interfaith Inquiry. When Jewish and Mormon congregations want to know what other religions believe, they invite leaders from those faith communities to address them and answer questions. I have spoken at many such events in synagogues and Jewish schools, and once moderated a series of presentations by religious leaders for Mormons living in Santa Monica. One presentation was made by a friendly Evangelical pastor whom I knew from my Israel advocacy work. Truth be told, Evangelical theology as seen through a Mormon prism is incomplete and fairly uninteresting. A recent Pew survey showed that Mormons know the Bible better than Evangelicals. In addition, we accept Jesus as our Savior, and we believe in God’s grace as a means of salvation. Those topics took up all of the good pastor’s talk, and those present were courteous and respectful as they peppered him with questions. What is relevant here is that a faithful Evangelical was given the opportunity to speak about his faith to Mormons. The reverse almost never happens in the Evangelical community.
Instead, pastors who want to “educate” members of their flock about the LDS Church will often invite anti-Mormon speakers to speak at a “Mormon Night” where living, breathing Mormons are not welcome. Some evangelical leaders even claim expertise in LDS theology after reading an anti-Mormon book or two. A case in point is Jay Childs, Senior Pastor of the Midland Evangelical Free Church in Midland, Michigan. On his personal blog, which is linked to the church’s website, Pastor Childs claims to have lectured on Mormon theology “in a couple of venues” and to have “talked these things over with Mormon missionaries” before stating his strong disagreement with the “bedrock theological moorings” of LDS Christianity. What, pray tell, are these offensive moorings? “In a nutshell, Mormons believe that Jesus was a polygamist, that He is the spirit brother of Lucifer, that all faithful Mormon males can become gods, and that Adam is the resurrected god of this planet.” A Mormon fact checker would have a field day with these assertions: The LDS Church does not teach that Jesus was married, let alone that He was a polygamist, and we certainly do not believe that Adam is God. The other two statements are true, but require additional explanation, sort of like having an “expert on Judaism” assert that faithful Jews support the “mutilation” of little boys. True? Yes. An adequate explanation? Hardly.
What is especially sad about this mendacious pastor’s rants is that just down the road is an LDS Institute (=Mormon Hillel) headed by a director with a graduate degree whose job is to teach LDS theology. One would think that a pastor in Midland who was truly interested in teaching his congregants about Mormonism would give Daymon Leonhardt a ring and ask him to make a presentation at his church.
However, if I were Daymon, I wouldn’t stand by the phone. The dynamic in play here is fear, not friendship. Lots of current Mormons used to be Evangelicals, and our church is viewed as a threat by their leaders. Fear is the catalyst for the whole anti-Mormon industry of books, videos, and speakers that have slandered and vilified our church for decades. My Catholic girlfriend in high school was given an anti-Mormon book by her guidance counselor after expressing interest in her boyfriend’s church. One can only imagine the reaction of Jewish parents if their son’s girlfriend were given The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by a school official after expressing interest in Judaism. Where Christian principles fit into this campaign of distortions and lies is a mystery to me.
While I welcome critical comments on my blog, I do have a policy of deleting anti-Mormon comments, reasoning that anti-Mormons are welcome to create their own blog on a Jewish website if they feel that Jews care what they have to say (good luck!). However, I must thank the good pastor for inspiring me to set a new rule for posters to my blog: If you claim that Mormons believe something outrageous, be prepared to back it up by offering up a quote from an LDS leader or official source from this century (i.e., the last 12 years). The pastor got his “Adam-God” theory from controversial statements made by Brigham Young over 140 years ago (and probably cited in an anti-Mormon book). Church leaders have opposed this theory since the 19th century, and in the 1970s LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball publicly denounced it. As any Mormon can tell you, we don’t believe that Adam is God. Here’s a theological rule of thumb for my Jewish readers: If the only source for a “Mormon” belief comes from the 19th century, it’s not a Mormon belief. I’ve set the 12-year rule because chances are good that the people making those statements can defend themselves. It’s pretty cowardly to attribute false teachings to Mormons by quoting leaders who are not around to respond.
I am proud to belong to a church that does not hold “Evangelical Nights,” publish anti-Evangelical books, produce anti-Evangelical films, or host anti-Evangelical speakers. Although we disagree with some aspects of Evangelical theology, we accept them as fellow Christians. However, we don’t believe that Christianity condones slander and libel. It is my hope that Evangelical leaders will eventually choose to shut down the anti-Mormon industry and devote themselves to the exclusive preaching of their faith. Until they do, they’re not going to get any applause from me for their occasional praise of individual Mormons’ virtues. If I had to choose today between having Romney win with the support of pastors who think he belongs to a non-Christian cult, or having Obama win without it, I would toss a coin.