Posted by Mark Paredes
“We support our friends in Utah who have been impacted by these disturbing incidents.” – ADL Central Pacific Regional Director Daniel S. Sandman, responding to arson attacks on two LDS chapels in Salt Lake City last month
News that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has once again expressed support for the LDS community brought back some very pleasant memories. In 2007, a “Christian” ministry distributed 18,000 DVDs of an anti-Mormon film to LDS homes throughout the state. The only non-LDS group to denounce the bigots was the ADL, and they didn’t mince words. Bill Straus, the Arizona Regional Director, stated: “This is the same kind of plain, old-fashioned Mormon-bashing that Jim Robertson and his group have been spewing for over a quarter of a century … It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.” The ADL’s Regional Board Chair, David Bodney, hastened to add, “Hate directed at any of us is hate directed at all of us. From whomever that hate comes, and to whomever it’s directed, ADL takes it very seriously and will continue to speak out against it.” When I called the ADL’s Phoenix office to thank them for their support, one of their leaders made an interesting observation: “They can’t fool me, Mark. I know that the anti-Mormons of today were in many cases the anti-Semites of yesterday.” In many cases he’s right.
I had the honor of representing the ADL for several years as a member of its Pacific Southwest Region’s speakers bureau. I got to speak to Hadassah ladies, havurot, and a few synagogues about the wonderful work the ADL was doing to promote understanding and tolerance. The powers that be must have noticed my enthusiasm and passion for the cause, since they went on to add another Mormon speaker (JD Payne) to the bureau.
My most memorable ADL speaking assignment was at Bakersfield College, where a special public meeting for students had been called to address an unfortunate incident. A Latino student who was opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians had defaced the Israeli flag and worn it as a shirt to class. A Jewish student immediately took exception to his attire, and the administration had requested that an ADL speaker come to campus. I shall never forget the charged atmosphere in the auditorium as a Mormon explained to non-Jewish students the historical significance of the Star of David and why its mutilation would be extremely offensive to Jews. To his credit, the offender stood up, apologized to the Jewish student, and promised to be more sensitive in the future.
They say that a friend in need is a friend indeed. Although the ADL strongly supports state-sanctioned gay marriage and opposed Proposition 8 in California, its leaders – to their everlasting credit – issued the following statement after witnessing attacks on Mormon temples, white powder sent in envelopes to LDS buildings, and harassment of Mormons statewide by pro-gay marriage extremists: ““Although we strongly opposed Proposition 8, its passage does not justify the defacement and destruction of property. We urge Californians to channel their frustration and disappointment in productive and responsible ways to work towards full equality for all Americans. To place anyone in fear of threat to their houses of worship or their personal security because they have expressed deeply held religious views is contrary to everything this nation represents. Our Constitution’s First Amendment protects freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion for all of us.” This cannot have been an easy statement for them to make, and I love them all the more for it.
A pair of overzealous missionaries caused me great embarrassment in front of an ADL group several years ago. Amanda Susskind, the organization’s dynamic Regional Director in Los Angeles, rounded up her staff one day and asked me to give them a tour of the LDS Temple grounds. Unwisely, I had agreed in advance to allow the Director of the Visitors Center to start off the tour in a small auditorium. I had explained to him that there was to be no proselytizing, no movies shown, etc. He was simply to greet them and explain a little about the center and the temple. Well, as soon as everyone was seated the director enthusiastically told the Joseph Smith story, held up a Book of Mormon and invited someone in the group to accept it as a gift before we proceeded on the tour. I was mortified. Amanda was kind enough to accept the book, which she handed to me as we left the center. We were then greeted by a cheerful missionary from Chile, who led us to a plaque commemorating the family. I explained to her rapidly in Spanish that this was a Jewish group and that they just wanted the basics. She nodded, then asked a woman in our group to read the inscription on the plaque, which contained a reference to Jesus as the Christ. The woman diplomatically omitted these words during her reading, and at this point I took control of the tour. To this day I regret that the ADL leaders were made to feel uncomfortable by the missionaries, albeit unintentionally; as a result, whenever I bring Jewish groups to Temple Hill, I conduct the tours myself.
I am very pleased that ADL National Director Abe Foxman met with LDS Church leaders in Utah earlier this year, and I hope that LDS-ADL relations will continue to evolve. We don’t need to agree with the ADL on every issue to know that it has proved to be an organization exhibiting great integrity and decency. Yasher koach, my friends.
I will be speaking to Jews and Mormons at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on January 12, 2011. More details will be forthcoming.
If you’d like to follow my blog on Twitter, the blog posts are retweeted to jewsandmormons.
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October 31, 2010 | 9:42 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” – Joseph Smith, explaining to a legislator how he managed to govern so many Mormons
In two days the nation’s Jews and Mormons will join their fellow citizens in electing political leaders to local, state, and national offices. While I try to document on this blog where the two communities converge, there is no denying an obvious difference: Jews are second only to blacks in their support for Democrats, and Mormons are probably the reddest religious group in the country.
While many rabbis believe that they are following in the “prophetic tradition” by speaking out on the issues of the day from the pulpit, LDS leaders – who actually believe they are led by prophets – almost never address political issues in their sermons. Many of my non-Mormon friends were surprised to learn that the one place where former presidential candidate Mitt Romney could not deliver a political speech during his campaign was an LDS chapel. In my lifetime, I can only recall our leaders asking members to vote a certain way on two political issues that we considered to be primarily moral issues: gay marriage and the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), both of which were viewed as threats to the traditional family.
In my opinion, local Church leaders sometimes make it harder for political representatives to be responsive to the LDS community by going to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of taking sides in partisan races. I was able to attend two town hall meetings this month at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. Hundreds of people showed up to hear a gubernatorial and a senatorial candidate respond to the questions and concerns of the Jewish community (candidates from both parties were invited, but the Democrats declined). I don’t see why a similar forum couldn’t be held for the LDS community at a large stake center. The person conducting could read a statement about the Church’s political neutrality and mention that the candidates are there to present their views on issues of concern to our community. Since we don’t invite political candidates to meet the Mormon masses (outside of Utah, at any rate), the only Mormons most of them meet are Public Affairs representatives from the Church, LDS colleagues, or Mormon “brokers” who have a personal relationship with them. I firmly believe that if more politicians were invited to address the LDS community in public forums, they would be more responsive to our needs. When a mob charged our temple in Los Angeles in 2008 following the Proposition 8 vote on gay marriage, not one politician in Los Angeles issued a statement of support for the LDS community. Had a synagogue or mosque been attacked, such a response would have been inconceivable.
Nineteenth-century Mormons would find many of their contemporary counterparts’ political preferences shocking, to say the least. Virtually every Mormon in the Utah territory, including Brigham Young, was a Democrat owing to the Republicans’ adamant opposition to statehood for Utah. Before Utah gained statehood in 1896, Church leaders assigned many families to political parties in an effort to show that bipartisanship was alive and well in the territory. Both the New Deal and the Great Society converged with Mormon teachings concerning charity and helping the less fortunate, leading to decisive victories in Utah for FDR (all 4 elections), Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. From what I have been told by erstwhile Mormon Democrats of a certain age, many of them who made the switch did so after the Democratic Party adopted a liberal platform on social issues in the 1970s. Indeed, almost all Mormon Democrats I know disagree with many of their party’s views on controversial social issues.
Be that as it may, most Mormon Republicans in my social circle are complaining not about President Obama’s Supreme Court picks or his views on abortion, but what they perceive as the expanded role of government under his administration. There has always been a libertarian streak in LDS culture (perhaps owing to government persecution in the Church’s first few decades), and Mormons today preach and teach self-reliance. Most active Mormons have a food storage program in their home and an emergency preparedness kit for each family member. In addition, the Church runs an extensive welfare program and staffs employment counseling and placement offices worldwide (both services are available to Mormons and non-Mormons). Most Mormons, like Jews, look first to their own community for help in time of need. It is, of course, somewhat ironic that members of the same religious community that provides leading candidates for the armed forces, FBI, CIA, the State Department and other government agencies are also somewhat reluctant to expand the role of government in their lives.
As much as I would like to see Mormons and Jews collaborate in as many ways as possible, it is unlikely that most non-Orthodox Jews and Mormons will be punching identical ballots on Election Day for the foreseeable future as long as the Democratic Party continues to express liberal views on certain social issues. Mormons have voted in the past for candidates who personified increased government spending (FDR, LBJ), and it is possible that as more LDS families are affected by the current economic troubles, more Church members will be willing to fund and accept government largesse. However, it is unlikely that many Mormons will leave the Republican Party in order to embrace one that advocates support for positions that are contrary to their Church’s moral teaching.
October 27, 2010 | 12:41 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.” – Melkite Catholic Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
“By stating that God’s Covenantal promise of land to the Jewish people, ‘was nullified by Christ’ and that ‘there is no longer a chosen people,’ Archbishop Bustros is effectively stating that Judaism should no longer exist. This represents the worst kind of anti-Judaism, bordering on anti-Semitism.” – ADL National Director Abraham Foxman
My most memorable Christmas Eve was spent underground. I won a drawing at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv for a coveted spot in the grotto in Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born, and at midnight a young priest appeared with several assistants and began conducting a Mass in Arabic, a language that no one in the group spoke. Surprise gave way to collective disappointment as we struggled to follow the Mass in the local language. After the service I discovered that the Syrian priest spoke fluent Italian, so I asked him why he had conducted the service in Arabic. His response was very revealing, and I can still quote it almost verbatim: “Lo faccio perché presto non ci saranno più cristiani arabi qui.” [“I do it because soon there won’t be any more Arab Christians here.”]
This young priest’s fears are apparently shared by Pope Benedict XVI, who convened this month’s “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness,” a special synod of bishops at the Vatican. One of the world’s great rabbis, David Rosen, was invited to address the 185 bishops and the Pope, along with Shiite and Sunni leaders. The plight of Christians in Muslim-majority countries like Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia was analyzed and debated by the attendees. Apart from general expressions of sympathy for the Palestinian people, there was little mention of Israel during the meetings. At the conclusion of the conference the bishops issued a series of 44 “propositions” to the Pope for his consideration. The only one directly addressing Judaism states in part: “Reading the Old Testament and getting to know Jewish traditions lead to a better understanding of the Jewish religion. We reject anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, while distinguishing between religion and politics.” So far, so good.
However, the synod also issued “A Message to the People of God,” which was not as well-received by some Jewish leaders. Section 8, which addresses Catholic-Jewish issues, starts with several great statements: “The same Scriptures unite us; the Old Testament, the Word of God is for both you [the Jews] and us…We believe in the promises of God and his covenant given to Abraham and to you. We believe that the Word of God is eternal.” Unfortunately, any goodwill generated by this reaffirmation of the Abrahamic covenant was considerably lessened by the inclusion of this subsequent statement: “Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.” [Although Jews may feel that they were the main targets of this injunction, I have a sneaking suspicion that Evangelical Christian Zionist theology was also in the bishops’ crosshairs]. After Archbishop Bustros made his above-referenced comments at a press conference announcing the synod’s official message, he was immediately criticized by officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry (“a libel against the Jewish people and the State of Israel”) and several prominent Jewish organizations. An official papal decree responding to the synod’s message will be issued next year, but damage control will need to be done in the coming weeks and months by Catholic and Jewish leaders.
Now for a little perspective – and a few suggestions. I honestly think that outraged Jewish leaders are losing sight of the forest because they’re staring at one big Melkite tree. Let’s not forget that the Pope gathered dozens of mostly Arab Eastern Rite Catholic bishops for two weeks to discuss the Middle East. A prominent rabbi was invited to speak to them, direct criticism of Israel was kept to a minimum during the proceedings, a fairly pro-Jewish proposition made the final list submitted to the Pope, and the official message crafted by the bishops reaffirmed the Abrahamic covenant and acknowledged the needs of Israelis and Palestinians. Why should we expect the bishops’ final document to read as if it had been written by the Israeli Foreign Ministry? Given the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the participants, I’d call the conference an overall victory. Sure, one bishop (out of 185) says something objectionable, but he does not represent the Vatican’s position. I’m sure that the Pope will not reference the archbishop’s statements in his official response next year.
That said, there are several steps that Jews can take to promote genuine understanding among Jews, Catholics, and other Christians. This tachles list has only one goal: to make more friends for Jews and Israel in the world.
1) The first step is not to overreact every time a Christian leader makes a statement that raises Jewish eyebrows. While issuing press releases and public letters may impress donors who expect immediate action from Jewish organizations, they make Jews seem insecure about their faith and their status in the religious world. Had the archbishop gone on to denounce Mormons in his press conference (a group familiar with persecution and criticism), I doubt very much that any Mormon group would have bothered to respond publicly. A few phone calls and meetings might be arranged behind the scenes, but it’s hard to imagine that any Mormon would lose sleep over the remarks of a single bishop of another faith. I realize that the Catholic-Jewish relationship is older and more complex, but the principle is the same. Jews need to look more confident and self-assured when they feel their religion is under attack.
2) In the specific case of the Catholic Church, it is very unwise to hold the Jewish-Catholic relationship hostage to every Catholic misstep, real or perceived. Demanding clarification from the Vatican because a lone bishop speaks at a press confidence seems rather unnecessary. The Vatican made a strategic decision decades ago to create a new relationship with the world’s Jews, and I think that its sincerity at this point should not be questioned. It may not always see things the way that Jews do, but that is the dynamic in any interfaith relationship. I am always disappointed to hear Jews publicly question the Vatican’s motives and sincerity whenever an issue like this arises. Once again, such actions make Jews seem insecure.
3) Catholic theology concerning Jews needs to be put in a greater Christian context. I clearly recall the response of Evangelical Pastor John Hagee, one of Israel’s greatest Christian supporters, to Rabbi David Woznica’s question about the fate of Jews after death. The pastor responded that he didn’t know, but he hoped that some special grace from God would be given to Jews so that they would not be sent to hell for their unbelief. He frankly admitted that this special grace does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. Well, if Jewish leaders can tolerate this belief, they should also welcome the post-Vatican II official Catholic pronouncements concerning Jews, which are more favorable to them than those espoused by many other Christian churches. [I am indebted to a senior Catholic official for taking the time to review these points with me]. Catholics officially believe that the vital Jewish covenantal relationship with God continues and has never been revoked. They also believe that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ. Therefore, baptism is necessary for the salvation of Christians. However, the church is open to the possibility of an “encounter with Christ” at the moment of death or after death for non-Christians, allowing them to receive His grace. There should be nothing objectionable to Jews about a Christian church that that affirms the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant and holds open the possibility of a special dispensation of grace for them in the next life. That certainly sounds like Hageeism to me.
4) While I appreciate the support of Christian Zionists for Israel, their anti-Islam message turns off many people in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is no question in my mind that the archbishop’s comments were aimed squarely at Christian Zionists who hate Islam. I believe that Jews should encourage their Christian supporters to focus on supporting Israel, not denigrating Islam. Bigotry in the defense of Israel is no virtue.
There is one troubling issue that needs to be mentioned. I was disappointed to learn that the Italian edition of the anti-Israel Kairos Palestine Document was presented during the synod (albeit not as an official part of the proceedings) by the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. The current Latin Patriarch wrote the preface to the document. It represents a frontal assault on the legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish people, and educational programs must be created to inoculate both Christians and Jews against its distortions and half-truths. The original Kairos Document was written by anti-apartheid pastors in South Africa, and the Palestinian reincarnation is currently being used to persuade Catholics, mainline Protestants, the World Council of Churches, and liberal Christian groups to oppose Israel’s policies. [The Kairos Document is not endorsed by the Vatican].
I believe that the Jewish focus should always be inward, not outward, when it comes to refuting offensive statements. How many Jews, especially young ones, can articulate why the Abrahamic covenant is valid today or why Jews have a right to settle in Israel? I recall stumping two Jewish college students a few years ago by asking them why Jews had a privileged right to the land, given that Abraham was promised the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, almost all of which is currently occupied by the descendants of Ishmael, not Isaac. I also asked them why Ishmael was circumcised by Abraham if he was not part of the Abrahamic covenant. They had no idea how to respond. One of them finally admitted that he didn’t really believe in biblical stories, but felt that since Jews had always believed them, they had a connection to the Land of Israel. So a belief in fables entitles a people to land? He emitted a nervous laugh and I ended the interrogation. Truth be told, I wonder how many Jews are concerned about the archbishop’s remarks because they aren’t sure how to refute them in a convincing way.
By all informed accounts, the Catholic Church is in the “friend” column of the Jewish people. Nothing that happened at the recent synod should affect the special Jewish-Catholic relationship, a model for the religious world. It is my prayer that people of goodwill of both faiths will be able to address this and any future issues in a meaningful, sincere way that will increase respect for both Jews and the church.
I will be lecturing on Jewish themes in Mormon history and doctrine this Thursday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Monica Stake Center (3400 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles). The lecture is free and the public is invited.
These blog posts are retweeted to my Twitter account, jewsandmormons.
October 24, 2010 | 12:19 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
This week I received the following question from a Jewish teacher who is seeking a greater understanding of the LDS faith: which Jewish movement most closely approximates the Mormon view of obedience to God’s law? In framing my answer, I will avail myself of Professor (and Conservative rabbi) Elliot Dorff’s helpful analysis of the Jewish movements’ views of halacha (religious law). For Orthodox Jews, Jewish law is both binding and fixed. Conservative Jews believe that it is binding but not fixed. The Reform movement believes that each Jew determines for himself how to make Judaism relevant to his life, while Reconstructionist Jews believe that the entire Jewish tradition was created by human beings and can therefore be modified to meet contemporary needs. While there is no LDS counterpart to Judaism’s set of 613 commandments, I believe that the Conservative view of halacha is most consonant with LDS religious practice.
If asked, I believe that most Mormons would reflexively claim that we most closely mirror the Orthodox in our emphasis on obedience to revealed divine law. However, it is the Orthodox rigidity concerning the adaptation of religious practice to modern needs (in our case through living prophets) that leads me to align LDS practice with Conservatism instead. Of course, a “Conservadox” or even Modern Orthodox view might also be just as compatible with LDS practice, depending on the individual (though I did not include these groups in Rabbi Dorff’s analysis). While this point is debatable, it is fairly obvious that the LDS view of halacha is not in agreement with the Reform or Reconstructionist movements, which view religious law as being neither fixed nor binding on individuals.
LDS halacha is divided into doctrines and practices. Official doctrines of the Church are contained in our scriptures and may also be revealed to our modern prophets. They are considered to be fixed and binding (though our leaders themselves make no general claim of infallibility). Unlike the 613 commandments in Judaism, our doctrines are usually expressions of belief (e.g., God is our Heavenly Father and we are his spirit children). However, the practices and programs of the Church can change over time according to the needs of the members. An example of a changeable practice is our three-hour block of Sunday meetings, which used to be broken up into separate meetings that had families spending many hours away from home on Sundays. The change was made 30 years ago, and I don’t know of anyone who wants to revert to the previous schedule. Our doctrine of God’s paternity is fixed, but when we meet to worship Him can change.
A famous (or perhaps infamous) example of a doctrine/practice combination is polygamy. In a nutshell, the doctrine of plural marriage states that a man may marry more than one wife if and when God authorizes the practice (e.g., Abraham, Jacob). We believe that God authorized the practice of polygamy for Church members for about 50 years in the 19th century, then revoked this permission in 1890 (this was revealed to our prophet at the time, Wilford Woodruff). While we did not renounce the doctrine of polygamy, we did discontinue the practice. President Woodruff’s “manifesto” banning polygamy was later canonized, and for many decades it has been the practice to excommunicate Church members who are polygamists. [A practice that could change, of course, if polygamy were ever reinstated].
The Word of Wisdom, our well-known dietary code (no alcohol, tobacco, tea or coffee, moderate meat consumption), is a practice that has become a binding commandment on all members of the Church. It was revealed in 1833 to Joseph Smith and canonized in 1835. However, it was only 18 years later that the revelation was made a commandment by Brigham Young, the second President of the Church. Today Church members who violate the Word of Wisdom cannot receive permission to enter an LDS temple. However, I do not classify these prohibitions as fixed doctrines since some righteous biblical figures (e.g., Noah) drank wine.
Why do Mormons believe they should obey God’s laws as they understand them? Because He has asked us to be obedient. We do not (or at least should not) view God as being harsh and unforgiving. We believe in a merciful God, a loving Father whose work and glory is “to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). While we strive to do good throughout our lives, it is only in and through the grace of God that we are saved [2 Ne. 10:24]. Nevertheless, we don’t believe that mercy can rob divine justice [Alma 42:25]. When we sin, we need to repent and do better. Judaism, of course, also believes in tshuva [repentance] and in doing good works in order to repair the world. While Mormons believe that God is kind and loving, they don’t believe that they can repeatedly and deliberately sin throughout their lives, refuse to repent, and then expect that divine mercy will wipe their slates clean at the Final Judgment. While judgment is God’s, not ours, we are taught that He expects us to obey him to the extent we can ascertain His will here on earth. We can’t enter heaven on our own merits, but we can show our love for God through obedience and seeking to develop God-like qualities. Although their halachic views may diverge, there are a number of godly people in every movement and denomination. A number, thankfully, that is not fixed.
I will be lecturing on Jewish themes in Mormon history and doctrine this Thursday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Monica Stake Center (3400 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles). The lecture is free and the public is invited.
October 20, 2010 | 1:56 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Fifteen Jewish years ago today, I was leaving a Domino’s Pizza one block from Kings of Israel Square (today’s Rabin Square) in the heart of Tel Aviv. The largest peace rally in Israel’s history was in full swing, and someone said that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was speaking. I wanted to return to the rally in time to hear at least some of his remarks. Unfortunately, I would never hear him speak again. With pizza in hand, I arrived at the square just as pandemonium broke out and people started screaming that Rabin had been shot. I distinctly remember two thoughts running through my head: “God, please let him live,” and “If he had to be shot, I pray it was not an Arab who did it.”
I made my way to Ichilov Hospital with a heavy heart and a camcorder. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity with a gathering crowd at the gates of the hospital, I saw a stricken Eitan Haber, Rabin’s aide, make his way towards us and deliver the announcement that no one wanted to hear: “The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin tonight in Tel Aviv. May his memory be blessed.”
Well, almost no one. While wailing and sobs immediately rang out from our group, I will never forget watching in stunned silence as a small group of Orthodox Jews immediately to our right began cheering, singing and dancing. I taped their short-lived celebration of Rabin’s death, which made me sick to my stomach. These idiots were soon set upon by outraged members of our crowd, and the police had to intervene. As I trudged home that night, a very distinct impression settled on my mind that any real opportunity for a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians had died on the operating table with Rabin. I spent the remaining seven months of my diplomatic tour in a country in deep mourning, and regret very much that the intervening years have done little to dispel my pessimistic impression.
Israelis are debating Rabin’s peacemaking legacy this week, but I frankly don’t see much of a legacy to discuss apart from his personal achievements and service to his country. When Rabin originally signed on to the peace process with the Palestinians, he did so after calculating that a signed peace treaty with the Arab states would allow Israel to have a freer hand to focus on its mortal enemy in the region, Iran. Well, Iran is still Israel’s mortal enemy; in fact, it’s even more mortal today. As is Gaza, which is now indirectly controlled by Iran. An unsightly (albeit necessary) security barrier/wall/fence separates most of eastern Israel from the West Bank, which is still under Israeli rule. Relations with the U.S. are strained, and Israel is increasingly isolated in the international arena. Internally, it remains a country riven by deep religious, ethnic, and political divisions. It is not necessary to blame Israel (or Rabin) for failure to make peace in order to realize that a comprehensive peace is far less likely now than it was 15 years ago.
I recall having mixed reactions to Rabin’s peacemaking odyssey. While I admired his personal courage in signing the Oslo Accords and negotiating with Palestinian leaders, I never understood why he thought he could make peace with a Jew-hating terrorist. During my two years in Israel, the peace process served only to provide cover for the horrific bus bombings, kidnappings and shootings that brought terror to Israel’s streets. I was outraged when Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with Rabin and Shimon Peres “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” I was only too pleased to attend a press conference at the Jerusalem Hilton in December of that year called by Kaare Kristiansen, a principled Norwegian mensch who had resigned from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in protest at the ill-considered decision to award the peace prize to a terrorist. I recall that he was accompanied by the father of a soldier who had been kidnapped and murdered by Hamas. Kristiansen apologized to Israelis for the Nobel committee’s decision and heaped abuse on Arafat. It was one of the more memorable speeches I heard in Israel, and it crystallized in my mind why the Rabin approach to peacemaking was ultimately doomed to fail. If there is anything that we can learn from the well-intentioned peacemaking efforts of this courageous man, it’s that peace can only be made between partners who are ready, willing, and able to do so. If anyone sees this happening in the foreseeable future in today’s Middle East, he is a far more visionary person than I.
October 17, 2010 | 11:28 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
This afternoon I joined a group of Mormon singles participating in Open Mosque Day at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, California. I had met the mosque’s leader on several occasions, and was pleased to see young Mormons observing Muslim prayers and asking questions. As I put my shoes back on and prepared to leave, a friendly guide showed me a desk with free literature and invited me to take whatever interested me. I chose an English-language Koran whose cover proclaimed that this “final revelation from God to mankind…attracts toward it Jews, Christians, and Muslims.” It also stated that the book “provides the code of life for mankind.” As I pondered these bold statements, I couldn’t help but wish that Paul Golin had been at the mosque with us.
Golin, a senior official at the Jewish Outreach Institute and a graduate of the great University of Michigan, recently posted an essay on the Huffington Post whose thesis was that the greatest division in the American Jewish community is between “insiders,” who are actively engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community, and “outsiders,” who are not. [The latter group undoubtedly includes many young Jews]. This insider/outsider dynamic is also present in the American LDS community, which encourages “active” members to seek out and befriend the “less active” ones living in their neighborhoods. Notwithstanding the many thousands of disengaged Mormons left to reactivate, our church continues to be one of the fastest-growing, dynamic religious groups in the world. One of the keys to our success was revealed in a recent Pew Group survey: religious education. Mormons knew more than any other religious group polled about the Old Testament, New Testament, Christianity, and Mormonism. Only Jews knew more about Judaism. In my opinion, another key is a practice that American Jews would do well to adopt: turning members into missionaries for the faith.
Unfortunately, Jews tend to focus on the people who are contacted by missionaries rather than on the missionaries themselves. We send tens of thousands of young men and women to every state and to dozens of countries for two years (18 months for women), and they return more mature, more knowledgeable, and more committed to living their faith and sharing it with others. Their missions form the spiritual base for adulthood and often motivate their less-active friends and family members to come back to church. Just imagine what would happen to Jewish communities that actively recruited and trained tens of thousands of educated, committed Jews, young and old, who could go into their communities and promote Judaism and Jewish values to their families, peers, and colleagues. They could invite their friends and neighbors to synagogue events, greet visitors to their shuls, give them Torahs and other religious literature, and share with them why Judaism is relevant to them – and why they believe that it is the best way for human beings to live.
I’ve been assured by several Jewish leaders that there is no theological prohibition against actively seeking converts to Judaism. In fact, Jews were once the most active missionaries in the world, and they only stopped preaching after the Romans made it a capital crime to do so. What would low-key proselytizing do for these Jews? I believe that it would increase their commitment to Judaism. After all, if being Jewish is so wonderful and fulfilling, why shouldn’t others be led to the mikvah? Golin speaks of bringing Judaism into the marketplace of ideas. I believe that more people would crowd Judaism’s stall in the market if it had a sign proclaiming “Judaism: the Best Way to Live” rather than “Judaism: the Best Way for Jews to Live.” I have never understood why anyone would live a Jewish life (or any other religiously-based life, for that matter) unless she believed that it was objectively the best one for humanity. If it’s just another pathway to God, then why not choose a pathway that’s a little easier? For that matter, why not marry someone who is on another pathway to the same destination? There is a Jewish radio host who often states “I don’t know whether Judaism is the ‘true’ faith, but I do know that God wants me to live as a Jew.” Well, why would God want him to do that unless Judaism is the best way for everyone to live? Unless one believes that God only wants the best for some of his children, it’s hard to understand this line of reasoning. If God has chosen the Jewish people to share His moral code with humanity, then all of humanity would do well to adopt the religion of the sharers.
Of course, there are many ways to express one’s attachment to Judaism. My Jewish missionaries would commit to share with non-Jews on a regular basis why Judaism matters to them. For some of them, the celebration of holidays, candle lightings, and other cultural practices are the most meaningful aspects of Jewish religious practice. Others could share their belief in the inspired nature of the Torah and God’s word to humanity. Each congregation and movement could come up with its own guidelines and suggestions. Regardless of the individual emphasis, each missionary’s motivation would be the same: the world would be a better place with more Jews in it, and I’m doing my part to make that happen.
I recall the first time I attended an event sponsored by the Orthodox Union. I was warmly greeted by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who asked about the origin of my surname. When I replied that it was Spanish, and that the name is Andalucian, the good rabbi told me that it was probably a Jewish name (“pardes” means “orchard” in Hebrew). He then asked whether my family had a tradition of lighting candles on Friday nights, circumcising boys, etc. Finally, he encouraged me to investigate my family origins – and Judaism. Not only was I not offended, I was honored that the rabbi would invite me to explore his faith. We remain good friends to this day. He did not say one negative word about my religion, but he suggested that I investigate his. Two other rabbis have suggested that my life would be better if lived Jewishly. People who do this project an image of confidence and assurance regarding their faith. I often hear of Jewish parents who attend anti-missionary lectures and fret about missionaries on college campuses. Not only is Jewish education the best inoculation against unwanted conversion, but their kids should also be trying to interest their friends in Judaism. If the students were informed and committed enough to do this, their parents would have no reason to fear. This role reversal on campuses would be a thousand times more effective than the common method of teaching the kids negative (and often simplistic) arguments to use with aggressive Christians. May we all live to see the day when Christian pastors offer seminars to their college students on how to resist Jewish proselytizing.
Of course, I am not advocating that we ask Jews to wear name tags and knock on doors in search of converts. Instead, congregations could adopt the mosque’s model of holding open houses, distributing literature, and answering questions about the faith. In addition, they could make it a priority to invite non-Jews to join study groups, men’s clubs, etc. The activities are not nearly as important as the message: we love being Jewish – come join us. It is my firm belief that “outsider” Jews who see Jewish organizations confidently advocating Judaism in the public square will desire to see what they’re missing. If fortune indeed befriends the bold, the Jewish community will be greatly enriched (and enlarged) by the efforts of these missionaries.
October 14, 2010 | 4:30 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
When I began working in the Jewish community in 2002, my colleagues at the Israeli Consulate General told me that there were two things that united every Jew in the city: a war involving Israel and the Holocaust. After attending this morning’s public dedication of LA’s relocated Museum of the Holocaust (the nation’s oldest), I’m tempted to scratch that last one off the list. With the exception of Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan and Jewish Federation head Jay Sanderson, I did not see one other member of the organized Jewish community in attendance. No one from the ADL, the AJC, the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, or any of the many other Jewish organizations that fill the pages of the Jewish community directory. Only one rabbi (Rabbi Larry Scheindlin, headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy) was there. A choir from Shalhevet, a modern Orthodox high school, sang the opening song, but no student groups from any of the city’s other Jewish day schools bothered to show up. Their absence was all too evident when LA Schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines was applauded by the crowd. The city’s non-Jewish chief educator apparently found the time to come and honor a Holocaust museum, but Jewish educators couldn’t be bothered. The museum is located within walking distance of a huge Orthodox community with hundreds of families, but I guess they all had more important things to do this morning.
I made a few phone calls afterwards to former colleagues in the Jewish community to find out why they hadn’t come to the dedication of their city’s Holocaust museum. Their uniform responses left me cold. Yes, the Holocaust was very important to them. Yes, they were all for having a Holocaust museum in the city. Yes, they had a great deal of respect for the museum’s backers. Yes, Thursday mornings are usually good for them. However, they all cited the same reason for not coming: they had not received a personal invitation. I don’t know about you, but I find this laughable. I didn’t receive a personal invitation either, but when I saw the ads in Jewish media for the dedication of a Holocaust museum, I made it a point to be there. If the Prime Minister of Israel were coming to speak at a public event in this city, something tells me that Jewish leaders who had not received gilded invitations would somehow manage to be there. We all make time for people and events that are priorities in our lives.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that I have observed this apathy dynamic in the Jewish community. While the community’s size (around 600,000) would appear to be a blessing, in reality it is a community of many smaller communities, movements, organizations and synagogues, many of which have little to do with each other. When I attended the memorial for the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were slain in Mumbai, India, my colleague and I joined the head of the Jewish Federation as the only representatives from the organized Jewish community (we were working for the American Jewish Congress at the time) in attendance at the moving ceremony held at the Chabad house in Westwood. Almost everyone else at the public event was Orthodox. On the other hand, almost everyone who gathered at a public memorial to honor gay Jewish teens who were gunned down in Tel Aviv was gay or lesbian. This time there were no Orthodox Jews to be found.
The hierarchical LDS Church doesn’t have movements and a plethora of organizations to deal with, so the social dynamic is markedly different. Tomorrow night one of our apostles is coming to rededicate the Visitors Center next to our temple, and hundreds of Mormons from around the region are expected to attend the ceremony with their friends. Very few members will have received personal invitations (many of which are earmarked for interfaith leaders and other prominent non-Mormons), but seeing an apostle is important enough to them that they will fight traffic on a Friday evening to be there when he speaks.
I hope that Jewish leaders will prove me wrong on Sunday night, when the Museum of the Holocaust holds its gala dinner in Beverly Hills. For all I know, they may in fact have skipped today’s ceremony because they’re planning to buy tickets to the $500/plate dinner instead. Whatever their plans are, the fact that there were as many Mormon leaders in attendance at the dedication of a Holocaust museum as there were rabbis and executive directors from a 600,000-member Jewish community should give everyone pause for reflection. And shame.
October 11, 2010 | 1:02 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
“Therefore the Almighty commenced the Holy Scriptures with the description of the Creation, that is, with Physical Science…”—Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Introduction
“Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory, and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense.” – 1910 First Presidency Christmas message
The Jewish tradition doesn’t interpret scripture literally, but it sure loves science. Those two principles formed the basis of last week’s “Torah on Tuesdays” lecture delivered by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of Special Projects at the Sephardic Educational Center in Los Angeles. I think that it’s important for everyone to study the Torah with a rabbi whenever possible, and I will be learning from Rabbi Bouskila this semester. Given the erudition and passion on display at Congregation Magen David last Tuesday, it will be time well spent.
Regular readers of my blog know that public programs promoting Jewish knowledge and values are precisely what I believe more Jewish leaders should be offering around the world. Rabbi Bouskila’s free lectures on Jewish interpretations of the great stories in Genesis have the potential to do far more for the promotion of Jews and Judaism than the redundant conferences and lectures on the dangers of radical Islam that somehow manage to capture the attention (and dollars) of many wealthy Jews in this city. In a perfect Jewish community, Rabbi Bouskila would speak before thousands each week and anti-Islam speakers would have trouble paying their rent.
My Orthodox friends always claim to interpret scripture literally, so I was a little surprised to hear the rabbi claim that literal interpretation is incompatible with rabbinic Jewish tradition. I now know that when an Orthodox rabbi is asked to interpret scripture, he doesn’t simply look at the verse and come to a conclusion. Instead, he consults commentaries like the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch before issuing an opinion. In some cases the rabbinic rulings based on these commentaries can run contrary to the original biblical language, as in the well-known case of biblical sanction of eye-for-an-eye punishment being interpreted by rabbis to essentially prohibit such punishment. Knowing how this dynamic works allows me to more easily understand how halachic pluralism (the acceptance of more than one interpretation as valid) is possible in Judaism.
By way of contrast, Mormons have five books of scripture and modern prophets, but no official commentaries. If our non-biblical scriptures and/or prophetic revelations contradict or elaborate on Bible stories, the former are considered authoritative. For this reason, Mormons believe that Moses did not die (Deuteronomy 34:5 says he did), that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (instead of God hardening his heart as stated in Exodus 4:21 and elsewhere), that it repented Noah, not God, that He had made man on the earth (Genesis 6:6), and that Noah spent a great deal of time preaching to his contemporaries and calling them to repentance (no mention of this in the Torah, which depicts Noah as being exclusively concerned with the welfare of his immediate family).
I was happy to learn that all Jewish movements, including Orthodoxy, embrace science. Rabbi Bouskila proudly listed the concepts that his daughter would be studying this year in her biology class at a Modern Orthodox day school, and they included evolution and the scientific method. Jews have always valued learning, both religious and secular. In this they are similar to Mormons, whose church-sponsored universities produce graduates in biology, physics, chemistry and other sciences. Indeed, the church’s second-ranking official is the son of a prominent theoretical chemist who received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Chemistry and headed the Association for the Advancement of Science. Church members are actively encouraged to seek God’s guidance as they learn both secular and religious subjects. As a result, devout Mormons can be found on all sides of the debates surrounding stem cell research, evolution, capital punishment, and many other controversial issues on which the LDS Church has not taken an official position.
This week we will study the story of Adam and Eve, the topic of a recent Jewish-Mormon theological dialogue in Santa Monica. I look forward to reading what the Jewish commentaries have to say about earth’s first couple. I also look forward to learning from a rabbi who believes that Judaism has a relevant religious message for the world today, and who is willing to invite the public to hear it. Shavua tov.