Posted by Mark Paredes
In recent months I have corresponded with members of the LDS Church on two continents who are planning to convert to Judaism while remaining active Latter-day Saints (one has already begun the process). They in turn have told me of others who have completed the conversion process while remaining LDS. At first I was incredulous that anyone would attempt to do this, and I must admit that I’m even more baffled after our exchanges. While I certainly applaud their desire to draw closer to Jews and to identify with the Jewish people, I fear that they are trying to square a theological circle in a way that mocks the sacred beliefs of both faiths.
Some of the most interesting gospel conversations I’ve had have been with Jews who have converted to the LDS Church. I’m always fascinated to learn how they came to accept Jesus as their Savior, how their families reacted to their baptisms, and how they define themselves in terms of Jewishness. I think that they’re some of the bravest converts out there, and the ones that I know are very strong members of their adopted faith. I have also met a few Mormons who have become very religious Jews. I doubt very much that members of either group believe that it is possible to be a practicing Mormon and a practicing Jew at the same time, for a number of reasons.
The most obvious barrier, which to me is an insurmountable one, is the centrality of Jesus Christ in our theology. One of my correspondents maintains that “[Jewish] rejection of Jesus is incidental,” but it clearly is not: our church bears His name. Contemporary Jews do not accept the divinity of Jesus, and their belief is certainly worthy of respect. It’s not clear to me how one shows respect for this bedrock Jewish belief by pretending that one shares it while secretly harboring a belief in the divinity of Jesus.
For that is clearly what would have to happen during the conversion process. I spoke with rabbis from all three major Jewish movements, and each one said that he would not consider participating in a conversion ceremony for a candidate who professed a belief in the Christian Savior. Moreover, they would not recognize that person as Jewish even if he successfully completed the conversion process, and would report any rabbi who knowingly performed such a ceremony. For rabbis, there is a term for someone who accepts Jesus as the Son of God: a Christian, not a Jew. Whether or not individual Mormons agree with the rabbis’ criteria for becoming Jewish, it’s the height of chutzpah to come up with their own standards and then expect the rabbis to accept them.
From an LDS perspective, another barrier to conversion for active members of the church is that rabbis do not have the priesthood and the corresponding authority from God to bring people into the Abrahamic Covenant or the covenant House of Israel. I hope that this statement is not offensive to Jews, but for Mormons there is a huge difference between the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible and modern Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is not the Mosaic Judaism of prophets, temples, and priesthood. According to LDS scriptures, Adam was the first “Mormon,” or covenant Israelite, on earth, and Jesus observed the Law of Moses (which He gave) when it still needed to be observed. However, rabbinic Judaism doesn’t recognize Him and His Atonement. For Mormons, if Moses were to walk the streets once again, he would not be worshipping in an Orthodox synagogue but in LDS chapels and temples.
For Mormons, an authorized baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is the only way that people on earth today can be made heirs to the eternal promises made to Abraham. If a Mormon submits to the authority of a rabbinic conversion court (called a beth din), which is acting without priesthood authority, then he is saying in effect that LDS priesthood and baptism don’t matter, since one can obtain the same blessings and privileges from a rabbinic court. My respect and admiration for rabbis are boundless, but my theology limits their ability to act in God’s name.
A Jewish conversion has two parts: a religious act and a public affirmation of the desire to associate with the Jewish people. For a believing Mormon who “converts” to Judaism, the ceremony can only be a kind of initiation into a club or bestowal of citizenship by a nation. Since he is already a member of the House of Israel and an heir to Abraham’s promises, the conversion cannot have any religious significance for him.
One of the more interesting statements came from a European Latter-day Saint who is of Jewish descent. According to him, “Mormonism in its forms is for Gentiles outside Israel.” This is an elegant theory, but there is nothing in LDS theology that supports it. While Mormons have no obligation to target Jews (or any other group, for that matter) for conversion, we don’t have a separate gospel for Jews. We also don’t have a way in our belief system to recognize the co-equal authority of other faith leaders to act in God’s name while performing ordinances, ceremonies and sacraments. No one else can perform eternal marriages, sealings, posthumous baptisms, etc. Our gospel is for everyone on earth, regardless of race, creed, or color. All are free to accept or reject it, but the Gentile/Jew distinction in Christianity was erased following Peter’s vision in the tenth chapter of Acts.
Most confusing to me was the assertion made by two correspondents that Jewish religious law (halacha) is a “national law” that Mormons need to sustain according to our Twelfth Article of Faith (“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”). This is clearly a secular argument, since LDS Church doctrine does not recognize Jewish law as being binding on its members.
To begin with, halacha is not the “national law” of Israel, which is a secular Jewish democracy. Even if it were, only Mormons living in Israel would need to recognize and/or be subject to it. It’s not at all clear to me how respecting halacha as a “national law” (even though it’s not one) would inspire a Mormon to convert to Judaism while retaining Christian beliefs.
Righteous Gentiles are people who adopt Jewish beliefs and practices without converting to Judaism. In my opinion, this is the best option for Mormons who feel a strong affinity and love for Jews and wish to identify with them. It allows these church members to become “Jewish” while respecting the theological integrity of both faith traditions.
Indeed, integrity and honesty are values that both faiths embrace. I know of one Jewish convert to the LDS Church who received Israeli citizenship after fully disclosing his current religious affiliation. However, he did not undergo a religious conversion, probably because he still considers himself to be fully Jewish.
The only way that Mormons can engage with Jews is in a spirit of honesty and openness. LDS Christianity is a universal faith, and is not only for Gentiles. In fact, there are no Gentile members of the Church; in our belief system, they’ve all become (or remained) Israelites. There is no legitimate reason for a believing Mormon to contemplate conversion to Judaism. Truth be told, if he is 100% honest with the rabbinic court, they will not allow him to convert. Indeed, the most revealing confession in my correspondence was the admission of one man that “I hide much of my Mormonism” when dealing with Jews. My correspondents want to be fully accepted by Jews, and feel that conversion is the way to accomplish that. They are mistaken. They express admiration for the outreach efforts of Jews for Jesus
and Messianic Jews, but these groups are rejected by Jews from every movement.
I am in complete agreement with one statement made by a European member: “We do not know many things about what God is doing among the Jews.” However, it’s probably a safe bet that He is not inspiring Mormons to hide their faith while becoming Jews, even if they want to ingratiate themselves with their fellow Israelites. In the end, one can’t believe that Jesus is the Savior and that He isn’t, that the Law of Moses was fulfilled by the Atonement and that it remains valid today, that the LDS Church is the only institution authorized by God to administer His ordinances on earth—and that it isn’t, that LDS temple ordinances are necessary and that they aren’t. One can only reconcile the two by watering down and distorting both LDS and Jewish doctrines, and it won’t work. When we try to build bridges between the two faiths, we can’t do it by trying to create a hybrid religion. Both Judaism and LDS Christianity deserve better.
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August 22, 2011 | 12:38 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
I knew I had to write this essay after reading that Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Courage” pro-Israel events scheduled for this week were denounced by both liberal Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater and racist right-wing Israeli blowhard Moshe Feiglin. According to Beck’s website, the purpose of the rallies in Israel is to show that “Israel does not stand alone.” Today’s kickoff event, a gathering of mostly American Christians in Caesarea, featured several speakers who delivered strong pro-Israel messages. A Holocaust commemoration is to follow tomorrow, and a big rally near the Temple Mount will be held on Wednesday night.
Beck’s love for Israel hasn’t prevented him from being targeted by his ideological opponents in the Jewish community. Rabbi Grater, a liberal Conservative Jewish leader, denounced him as a “fundamentalist-extremist” whose rally in Jerusalem will be “nothing more than a media-driven, money-making, self-serving, end-of-times messianic-lunacy circus show.” This is not the first time that liberal rabbis have attacked Beck: 400 of them signed an ad earlier this year demanding that Fox sanction him (I publicly criticized the ad), and he in turn has called Reform rabbis’ involvement in politics “almost like radicalized Islam.”
Feiglin’s anti-Beck comments were more surprising, since they came from a man who believes in strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity by restricting citizenship to Jews, denying Israeli Arabs civil rights, and forcibly kicking out Arabs who don’t recognize Jewish sovereignty in Israel. You’d think that Feiglin would applaud a prominent American media personality who was holding pro-Israel events in his country. However, instead of gratitude the wannabe politician expressed his opposition to Beck for infringing on Jews’ “spiritual sovereignty” by holding his Jerusalem rally so close to the Temple Mount.
When it comes to Glenn Beck, I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction. I try to evaluate his actions individually. As a result, I have written an essay taking him to task for inappropriate comments about George Soros, and I have also defended him against attacks by liberal rabbis that I felt were unfair and politically motivated. I would ordinarily applaud anyone who organizes pro-Israel events in Jerusalem, but after further investigation I am inclined to agree with Rabbi Grater’s assessment of Beck’s rally. In fact, I’d like to add one more adjective to the list: delusional.
Since the organizers of Restoring Courage aren’t publicizing details of the events, I decided to hear what Beck himself had to say about them. Although I don’t listen to his radio show, I did listen to many recordings from the show in which he discussed his plans for this week. His vanity seems boundless. What else to make of Beck’s announcement on the air that the rally in Jerusalem will be a “planet course- altering event” where “there’s a possibility a pillar of fire appears?” Or his suggestion that the gathering could well fulfill a prophecy of Zechariah and that it will open the “very gates of heaven?” It’s no wonder that members of Congress like Senator Joe Lieberman and Rep. Eric Cantor have bailed on Beck after promising to come.
When I was the regional executive director of a Jewish organization, I constantly preached to Jewish audiences the need to accept support for Israel from everyone, regardless of race, creed or religion. For the most part, Jews in this country have done so. However, Jews and sober people of all faiths also need to take a stand against delusional self-aggrandizement masquerading as Israel advocacy. Israel is not just a pawn on Glenn Beck’s eschatological chessboard. While the Mormons I know are not nearly as obsessed with end-times theology as many other Christians, Mr. Beck clearly believes that he has been called on a divine mission to enlighten the world before the end comes.
This is primarily a religion blog, so I feel a need to point out a theological concern that I have with Beck’s recent statements. His unfortunate obsession with end times themes and delusional statements about playing a role in the fulfillment of prophecies can cause thoughtful Jews to lump Mormons together with other Christian groups whose theology focuses on eschatology. I winced when I read Rabbi Grater’s characterization of Beck’s rally as an “end-of-times messianic-lunacy circus show.” While Mormons do tend to interpret literally the events predicted in the Book of Revelation and in our modern scriptures, we do not put “In the Event of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned” bumper stickers on our cars or spend a great deal of time worrying or obsessing over events leading up to the end of the world. We choose to concentrate instead on preparing ourselves spiritually for that which is to come.
As we see from recent headlines, Israelis have real problems (some of them existential) to deal with. It strains credulity to believe that they need someone like Glenn Beck – a non-Jew who has never lived in their country, doesn’t speak Hebrew, and has a Messiah complex – to teach them about courage. Rabbi Grater and Moshe Feiglin may not agree on much else, but they’re right to oppose Glenn Beck’s Holy Land Vanity Project. Until a pillar of fire appears at a Beck event, count me a skeptic as well.
July 10, 2011 | 11:01 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Readers of this blog know that I love to profile Mormons who are actively engaged in reaching out to Jews. Leslie Pearson Rees is a great-grandmother who has spent 40 years studying the lost tribes of Israel during her travels around the country and in Africa. I’ve just finished reading her labor of love, the book “Ye Have Been Hid: Finding the Lost Tribes of Israel,” and plan to recommend it to Mormons and non-Mormons who want a primer on LDS beliefs concerning the House of Israel.
The concept of covenant Israel is an eternal one for Mormons, and Leslie presents the scriptural record of Israelites in a clear and logical way. The title of the book comes from a scripture in the LDS book Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 86:9) that addresses the “lawful heirs” of the covenant who serve as a “light unto the Gentiles.” This topic is of great interest to Mormons, who believe that they are members of the House of Israel and receive blessings from “patriarchs” that assign them to an Israelite tribe through which they will receive their ultimate spiritual blessings.
The author begins by giving the LDS understanding of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. She correctly points out that these promises were extended to all Israelites, not just to members of certain tribes. After analyzing the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms and the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities that forever changed the course of Israelite history, Leslie answers the question “Who is of Israel?” with the following statement: “While those of Judah are most definitely a part of the whole House of Israel, not all of the House of Israel are of Judah.”
Undoubtedly the most interesting chapters of the book for non-Mormons are those dealing with the Israelite themes in the Book of Mormon and the latter-day gathering of Israel. Leslie also presents an interesting take on the LDS understanding of the term “Gentile” in scripture. I especially appreciated her discussion of the oft-misunderstood scripture in Jeremiah (16:16) where God promises to send “fishers” and “hunters” to gather scattered Israelites from the nations of the world. Some Evangelical pastors have erroneously hinted that this verse refers to monsters like Hitler, and I was pleased to read an informed LDS viewpoint on the verse.
The second part of the book recounts various histories and legends relating to Israelites from around the world, many of which will be familiar to Jews who have an interest in the subject.
The author has a great love for Israel and the Jewish people, and it shows on every page of this book. I enjoyed meeting her earlier this year in Salt Lake City, and hope that many non-Mormons will take the time to read her book in order to gain a greater understanding of our beliefs concerning the House of Israel. Yasher koach, Leslie.
June 27, 2011 | 10:10 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
In the past few weeks I’ve received a few dozen e-mails and calls from Mormons asking my opinion on whether a Palestinian state should be created in September. Most Mormons I know are against the idea, but a few support it. When I run across a Mormon who is more sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, I react in the same way that I do when I come across Jews who highlight Palestinian suffering: by giving thanks.
Both of our religious traditions promote kindness, empathy, and charity. When a Mormon tells me that her Palestinian friends’ stories have moved her to try to view things through their eyes, that’s a good thing. Ditto for a Jew who visits the West Bank and comes away questioning the wisdom of the ongoing occupation. The fact that Mormons and Jews value fairness and oppose injustice will inevitably lead some members of both faiths to embrace Palestinian nationalism. I would worry if this were not the case.
Truth be told, I was almost one of them. During my last two years at BYU, several of my good friends were Palestinians and Jordanians. We discussed politics a lot, and the Palestinians took every opportunity to tell me how brutal the Israeli occupation was and to describe their longing to have a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It was impossible not to empathize with their stories of suffering, though there was always a voice in the back of my head warning me not to rush to judgment. After all, I had had many positive interactions with Jews and Judaism, and the Palestinians’ perception of Jews didn’t square with mine. Everything became much clearer when I had the chance to live in Israel for two years and interview many Arabs and Jews about the reality of living there.
There is one interesting difference between Jews who side with Palestinians and Mormons who do so. Almost all Jews who openly side with Palestinians are secular, while their Mormon counterparts are often as religiously observant as Mormons who side with Israel. With the exception of a few fringe ultra-Orthodox groups, support for Israel is almost universal among Orthodox Jews. It has become an axiom that a good way to ensure that a Jewish child loves Israel is to teach it to love Judaism and to live an observant Jewish life. One way to ensure that a Mormon child loves Israel is to teach it to make basic moral distinctions among people and groups.
If I could herd all of these empathetic Mormons into a room for a tachles discussion on the Middle East, the following items would be on the agenda:
1) The fact that God loves all of His children is useless as a means of analyzing what is happening in the world. If we can’t criticize evil leaders or groups because we believe that God loves them, we can’t be a force for good in the world. God loved Hitler and Eichmann, but moral people still needed to oppose Nazi Germany in WWII. There’s no doubt that God has unbounded love for Syria’s President Assad, but I certainly hope that all thinking Mormons (and Jews) oppose the brutal war that he’s currently waging on his own people.
2) Just as it is wrong to stereotype individuals based on their race, ethnicity or nationality, it is also wrong to impute the positive characteristics of individuals to their governments or leaders. I recall reading a letter to the editor in BYU’s newspaper around the time of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008 to stop rocket attacks by Hamas, the ruling party. The writer’s argument seemed to be that BYU students shouldn’t automatically support Israel because there were nice Palestinian students on campus from Gaza. Well, those students may well be the nicest ones on earth, but their niceness has zero ability to influence the terrorist group Hamas. I too had nice Palestinian friends at BYU, but their friendship didn’t change Arafat’s support for terror.
3) Some Mormons fail to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They hear stories of hardship and tragedy from Palestinians, and they project these individual tales of woe onto the Palestinian nationalist movement as a whole. Because my friend Ahmad was humiliated at a checkpoint, that means that the Palestinian narrative is equally valid because both sides are doing bad things. This is the moral equivalent of saying that because my friend who survived the bombing of Dresden accused Allied soldiers of atrocities, that means that both sides were equally wrong in WWII. Instead of using Ahmad’s statements as an indictment of Israel, the smart question to ask would be why Israel feels the need to have its young soldiers man checkpoints in the first place. I know why, because I lived in Tel Aviv when buses and cafes were regularly blown up.
4) I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon prophets wrote about the Gadianton robbers (a secret band of robbers and criminals) just to fill space on the metal plates. There are evil groups and movements in the world, and it is irresponsible to pretend that we are obligated as Mormons to put on our blinders and pretend that everyone is equally moral and just. Just because there are competing narratives doesn’t mean that they are all equally valid.
Mormons who believe that their neutrality on the Israeli-Arab conflict will allow them to bring the two groups together are misguided. (I say this as someone who was asked by Jews and Muslims to conduct the memorial service for a Pakistani journalist). Why would Jews trust someone who can’t make basic moral distinctions in the conflict? It is for this reason that I do not refer to LDS supporters of Palestinian nationalism as “pro-Palestinian,” since true supporters of Palestinians would want them to live in a prosperous, thriving, peaceful democracy. There is no chance of that happening with Hamas and Fatah as their rulers, yet there is very little criticism of these groups from “pro-Palestinian” Latter-day Saints.
5) I have personally witnessed improper treatment of Arabs by Israelis, and think that this should be condemned by all thoughtful people. I have intervened more than once at an Israeli security checkpoint to prevent harassment of a Palestinian (most recently in Bethlehem), and will continue to do so. Moreover, I am under no illusion that Israelis are perfect or that they do not sometimes treat Palestinians abominably. On one occasion an Israeli settler in Kiryat Arba pointed a machine gun at me, an American diplomat in a suit, and demanded that I leave because I wasn’t Jewish. One can only imagine how he must treat poor Palestinians who cross his path. However, I no more view these unfortunate events as an indictment of Israel than I viewed Abu Ghraib as an indictment of all American soldiers in Iraq.
The old adage is still true: If Palestinians laid down their guns tomorrow, there would be no more conflict. If the Israelis laid down their guns tomorrow, there would be no more Israel. Unfortunately, the Palestinian nationalist movement has been headed for decades by anti-Semitic Gadiantons. This does not mean that all (or most) Palestinians are bad, but it does mean that we can—and must—make a moral distinction between a movement that has employed terror and led its people and the region into misery, and a modern state that produces Nobel Prize winners, leading universities, high-tech companies and world-class hospitals. We are free to love individuals of all nations, but I’m confident that Mormons (and Jews) who seek the power of discernment in the Middle East and elsewhere will not ultimately be deceived. As the good book says, by their fruits we shall know them.
May 17, 2011 | 11:31 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Last Friday night I had the honor of speaking on behalf of the Consulate General of Israel in Glendale, CA at Temple Sinai’s service celebrating Israel’s independence. I debated whether to give the typical rah-rah, rally-the-troops kind of speech that one normally hears in synagogues on that day, and decided in the end to be as honest as possible about the disturbing, almost depressing current state of affairs in the Middle East. However, I remain optimistic that Israel will continue to prevail and to prosper.
From my outsider’s perch, Israel is clearly the most important contemporary Jewish issue. It is the embodiment of the yearning of generations of Jews for just one place on earth where they could be left alone to prosper and thrive. [Thankfully, there are now at least two places on earth where Jews can do this – the United States and Israel]. It is also the embodiment of the Abrahamic covenant, and of the covenant that God made with the Israelites at Sinai. Israel is active, not passive Judaism, and it is a modern miracle. How anyone who is familiar with the establishment and survival of this tiny Jewish state amidst dozens of countries who want to destroy it can doubt the existence of the God of Israel is beyond me. When I walk the streets of Jerusalem, I feel closer to God. When I pick up a Hebrew newspaper, I marvel that an ancient language has been revived, and is now used to run a modern stock exchange, a nuclear reactor, world-class hospitals, and high-tech companies.
I have traveled to more than a dozen European countries in the last two years to give pro-Jewish speeches in many languages because I feel that it is necessary. I’m very worried about anti-Semitism in Europe and Latin America, and believe that there is a direct correlation between someone’s willingness to identify himself as “pro-Jewish” and his level of support for Israel, regardless of nationality. I cringe whenever I hear a Jew say that a social or political issue is the preeminent Jewish one of our time. Whatever a Jew’s political beliefs may be, the welfare of a Jewish state with almost 6 million of his coreligionists has to trump them, at least as a Jewish issue.
Things are looking rather bleak for Israel right now, and it’s time for its supporters to circle the wagons. I shared with the Friday night audience some words of advice that a Jewish man gave me when I first started working in the Jewish community. I told him that many Mormons had asked me how to they could convince their Jewish friends that they too were members of the House of Israel. Did he have any advice? He quickly responded that it was not important whether Jews believed it – it was important that Mormons did. If Mormons strongly believe that they are Israelites, and this belief causes them to show great love towards Jews and to respect Judaism, what Jew is going to fault them for believing this? Similarly, supporters of Israel need to show their support for the country and to have that support translate into action. It’s always a beautiful thing to see this dynamic at work.
Israel at 63 needs our prayers. My prayer is that the country’s 64th independence day anniversary will find Israel and the other countries in the region living in peace. In the likely event that that does not happen, I’ll settle for seeing many previously apathetic Israel supporters mobilized for the tough times that lie ahead. I encouraged the worshipers at Temple Sinai to become ambassadors for Israel and for Judaism, and they responded positively to my challenge. The establishment of the State of Israel is one of the greatest physical evidences of God’s existence, and more people of all faiths need to be saying this. Here’s to hoping that more people around the world will listen.
April 30, 2011 | 9:53 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Last month I came across a thoughtful blog post on Orthodox Jews and Mormons by Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. After a brief e-mail exchange, the rabbi was kind enough to post my answers to his questions on LDS-Orthodox dialogue. Here is an excerpt:
1] Which Orthodox rabbis are you friendly with or impressed with? why?
Rather than list specific rabbis, I’d prefer to list organizations with which I have worked. The OU, Agudath Israel, The Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, Jews for Judaism, the Sephardic Educational Center, Harvard Hillel and many LA-area Orthodox synagogues all have rabbis whom I know and admire. Last summer I conducted an especially meaningful dialogue with a Montreal Orthodox rabbi. I am very impressed by their dedication to Torah-based Judaism and Jewish values, and the way in which they use their influence both to strengthen their own communities and to work with people of faith to improve the world. I have attended OU seminars and lectures on kashrut laws and dina d’malchuta dina, welcomed the collaboration of the OU and Agudath Israel with Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelicals to pass Proposition 8 in California, attended a luncheon sponsored by Jews for Judaism, taken a Torah class from an inspired SEC rabbi, and conducted a town hall meeting on gay marriage at a leading Orthodox shul.
2] What theological topics do you talk with them?
It’s hard to identify a common theme to my religious discussions with Orthodox rabbis. Together we’ve explored many topics: the obligations associated with the Abrahamic covenant, what it means to be created b’tselem, whether dina d’malchuta dina can ever trump Torah law, whether evil was divinely created, the role of Satan in Jewish thought, why certain prohibitions are contained in the Noahide Laws, and why religious Jews and Mormons wear sacred garments.
Two weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of giving the D’var Torah to the Orthodox minyan at Harvard University. After discussing lepers and cleansing, I thanked the Orthodox for standing for morality and Torah values in a world that sorely needs them. I’ll never forget this experience.
3] Why is Mormon-Orthodox Jewish dialogue important?
Mormons generally consider the Orthodox to be Jews who take G-d and their religion seriously. We have enormous respect for people who believe that the Hebrew Bible is a divine book, and that this knowledge obligates us to act in certain ways. On a personal level, I have found that Orthodox Jews are usually much more knowledgeable about their own faith than their Reform and Conservative counterparts.
Given that Mormons believe that they are modern-day Israelites and that their theology is far more complete than other Christian belief systems on the Abrahamic covenant, chosenness and Israel, the prophetic tradition, etc., it’s only natural that they would seek to dialogue with Jews who look to Judaism, not secular liberalism, for enlightenment on these questions.
The LDS Church as a whole is interested in working with other faiths in two areas: humanitarian aid and promoting religious freedom. At the grass roots level, however, Mormons love Jews, Judaism, and Israel, and any attempt by the Orthodox to engage in dialogue with us would be warmly welcomed.
4] Do the Orthodox rabbis ever learn about Mormonism and its doctrines?
I’ve fielded many questions from Orthodox rabbis on LDS beliefs and practice. On one occasion the local LDS Church’s public affairs committee invited a group of LA-based rabbis to visit the temple in Draper, Utah, before it was dedicated. An Orthodox rabbi was in the group, and he was very appreciative of the chance to learn more about our sacred rituals.
5] If there is one message that would give an Orthodox audience?
Mormons have enormous respect for Judaism and Jews, and we have more to say to religious Jews than do other Christians.
6] Where do you see the most divergence?
Mormons have temples, revelation through prophets, and the priesthood. We consider them to be both necessary and irreplaceable. When we read the Hebrew Bible, we see a pattern of G-d calling prophets, giving them His word, and the sending them to transmit it to the masses.
There are no authorized dissenting voices in the Torah. Therefore, when a Mormon reads the Talmud, with its quarreling rabbis and multiple interpretations of scriptural passages, it’s difficult for him to accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition as being a continuation of temple-based Judaism. For us, there can’t be a prophetic tradition without prophets.
7] Is there any advice that you would give someone who is not used to encounter with Mormons.
Mormons do not believe that Jews and others who reject Jesus Christ as the Savior are going to hell. [For us the deadline for accepting G-d’s truths is not death, but the olam ha-ba]. Also, there is no room in LDS doctrine for replacement theology. The Abrahamic covenant is at the center of our temple worship, and children born to couples who have been “sealed” in our temples are said to be “born in the [Abrahamic] covenant.” To be sure, our definition of that covenant is more expansive than the Jewish one, but the idea that the Abrahamic covenant has been replaced by something else is antithetical to our beliefs. Does the covenant still apply to Jews? Yes. Are they keeping all of its requirements? That would make for a fascinating dialogue topic.
I will be leading a tour to Israel in March 2012 for Morris Murdock Travel. For more information, please visit this link
I will be speaking at an LDS singles conference in Santa Barbara, CA on May 21
April 24, 2011 | 8:06 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Thousand Oaks, CA was the setting for last month’s “Mormon Night” at Reform synagogue Temple Adat Elohim. Rabbi Ted Riter has long been active in interfaith affairs, and he had the good fortune to befriend Larry Bagby while serving on a local interfaith council. Larry is a former LDS bishop who currently serves as his stake’s public affairs director, and it was my pleasure to serve as his warm-up act at the event.
The synagogue’s interfaith lecture series was organized by Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe (pictured), the world’s first ordained deaf female rabbi and one of the kindest people I have ever met. After she welcomed us, Larry got out his accordion and set the tone for the evening with a John Denver song. That was a tough act to follow, which I did with a brief lecture on Jewish themes in LDS belief and practice (a subject for a semester-long course, to be sure).
Larry then got up and showed why he inspires so many people through his outreach efforts. He humbly shared with the audience his testimony of the LDS Church, its prophets, and the Book of Mormon. It takes considerable skill to do this in front of Jews without sounding preachy, but Larry pulled it off. We then took questions, including one from a 10-year-old boy who wanted to know the state of LDS-Buddhist relations. Larry pointed out that the next speaker in the series was going to be a Buddhist who used to be a Mormon, and suggested that the boy ask him the question. Another accordion number closed the memorable evening.
I commend Rabbis Dubowe and Riter (who was also in attendance) for exposing their congregation to other faith traditions. This kind of interaction often makes people grateful for their own faith and more tolerant of others. Good things are happening on the interfaith front in the Conejo Valley, and I’m grateful to the rabbis and Larry for inviting me to participate.
I will be leading a trip to Israel next March for one of the nation’s largest travel agencies. For more information, please visit the following link: http://www.morrismurdock.com/tours/tour_detail.cfm?ID=420&Grouping=Holy&page=tours
April 21, 2011 | 10:58 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Dr. Michael Freckleton, a personable radiologist, is an innovative stake president (stake = LDS diocese) in San Antonio, Texas. For the second year in a row he organized a two-day religious education conference (a mini-Limmud, if you will) featuring speakers from several states. On the first day, I had the honor of interviewing Reform Rabbi Barry Block, senior rabbi of the city’s largest synagogue. We drew the largest crowd of the conference, and I wish we had allotted more than 30 minutes for questions. Liberal Judaism was on display for a Mormon audience, and the contrast in theological reasoning could not have been more marked.
I often struggle with the question of whether to consider Reform theology as an authentic expression of Torah-based Judaism, and my discussion with Rabbi Block did not lead me to a conclusive answer. Some of his views seemed to come from Judaism, others from secular sources. The rabbi said several times that he does not adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and it showed. For example, when asked what a Jew’s responsibilities are under the covenant that God made with the Israelites at Sinai, the rabbi responded that he does not eat mammals. I’m not an expert on the Torah, but I suspect that vegetarianism was probably as popular at Sinai as it is in Texas.
The most striking example of our divergent views on scripture and morality came during a discussion on same-sex marriage. I really wanted to know how God’s will was expressed in the marked shift in the Reform movement’s position in the last 20 years. For some reason Rabbi Block was unaware that the Reform movement officially opposed any kind of marriage for gays until the 1990s and only began sanctioning ‘rituals of union’ for gay couples in 2000. This gap in his knowledge caught me by surprise, considering that the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a responsum in 1985 stating “Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future, which is assured by a family. However we may understand homosexuality… we cannot accommodate the relationship of two homosexuals as a ‘marriage’ within the context of Judaism, for none of the elements of qiddushin (sanctification) normally associated with marriage can be invoked for this relationship. A rabbi can not, therefore, participate in the ‘marriage’ of two homosexuals.”
I decided not to argue chronology with him, and repeated my original question: How was God’s will reflected in the Reform movement’s evolution on gay marriage? Rabbi Block’s three-part answer left us all somewhat perplexed. First of all, he outlined a difference in scriptural interpretation between the Reform and Orthodox movements. Reform Jews think that the Bible was written by men, not God, and the ancient prophets obviously didn’t understand homosexuality. Secondly, Leviticus contains lots of prohibitions that we don’t follow today. Last, but certainly not least, his third point undoubtedly left mouths agape: even if the Reform are wrong about the scriptural interpretation, their theological trump card is that we are all created in God’s image. I don’t know whether this is considered to be a serious argument in Reform circles, but this final point answers exactly nothing. After all, adulterers and their mistresses, adulteresses and their lovers, and parents and children are all created in God’s image, but no moral person would advocate sexual relations between them. I would still like to know the answer to my question, so I plan to inform my next Reform dialogue partner in advance that I will be asking him/her about God’s will and gay marriage in Reform theology.
While I find myself agreeing more with the Orthodox in terms of doctrines and interpretation of scripture, an understanding of liberal Jewish thought and theology is indispensable in a country where the majority of Jews are liberal in both politics and pulpit. I am grateful to Rabbi Block for sharing his passion for tikkun olam with us, and wish him and all of my Jewish readers a hag sameach.
Those readers wishing to peruse a comprehensive list of documents on homosexuality and Reform Judaism can go to the following link: http://huc.edu/ijso/PoliciesResponsa/
I will be the keynote speaker at an LDS singles conference in Santa Barbara on May 21.