Posted by Mark Paredes
It’s been a good night so far. My lovely wife and I met a Mormon couple from Utah for dinner at Factor’s, my favorite LA Jewish deli. The philo-Semitic husband and I have been corresponding for some time after he saw a newspaper article on my blog, and it was nice to finally meet him and his better half and to exchange insights on subjects like the 11th chapter of Isaiah and the remarkable history of the Jewish people. He is planning to attend the upcoming Jerusalem Post conference in New York before making his first visit to Israel, and became very emotional as he described what visiting the Holy Land means to him. It’s always inspiring to hear Mormons express their love for Israel and Jews, and when we parted I had the feeling that his Israel experience would impact the rest of his life.
After arriving home, I read Susan Freudenheim’s interesting article on Ron Wolfson’s latest book in this week’s Jewish Journal. In “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” Dr. Wolfson argues that developing genuine relationships with people should be more important to the Jewish community than programming and meetings. His advice for attracting and retaining unaffiliated Jews? Spend more time listening and talking with people.
I agree completely with Dr. Wolfson’s thesis; I only wish that he had mentioned the LDS Church alongside Chabad and Evangelical churches when citing role models for this kind of engagement. As part of our efforts to foster retention, every new member is supposed to be given some kind of responsibility, or calling, in his congregation. In a church with a lay ministry, this is usually pretty easy to do. One calling that is shared by almost all active Mormon adults is to serve as a home teacher (men) or visiting teacher (women).
Home and visiting teachers are assigned certain individuals and families to befriend and visit in their homes on a regular basis, usually monthly. If the families need fellowshipping and friendship, this is an excellent way for them to make new friends in the church. If they have specific needs that the church can meet, the home teachers convey these needs to the appropriate church officials. Not all members who receive these visits go to church regularly: many inactive or semi-active members (= unaffiliated Mormons) are assigned home teachers. Indeed, I am eternally grateful to two home teachers in Mount Pleasant, Michigan who were assigned to visit a newly-relocated member who had no desire to see them. They persisted, and as a result my mother, siblings and I were baptized.
I have no doubt that this kind of program would be of help to most synagogues in increasing and/or retaining their membership. In fact, home teaching seems to be tailor-made for large groups of Jews. Assign members of the congregation to befriend and visit several other members – or prospective members – on a regular basis and see what happens. In my experience, Jews are great listeners who care deeply about other people and seek to help them wherever possible. A Jewish home teaching program would allow synagogues to channel this empathy into member retention and enrichment. Many lifelong friendships have been created in the Mormon community as a result of these visits, and there is every reason to expect the same result from Jews cementing their friendship with other Jews on a monthly basis.
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February 22, 2013 | 11:00 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
When I arrived in Israel as a young diplomat, Ladino saved me. Although I had studied Hebrew for six months at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington and with a private tutor in Mexico, the rate at which Israelis spoke Hebrew was a little too rapid for me to follow at first. Much to my delight, I discovered that Turkish taxi drivers and some Moroccan and Greek Jews were able to talk with me in a slightly antiquated form of Spanish. During my first few months in Israel, whenever I met a Sephardic Jew, I asked him in Hebrew if he spoke Ladino. If the answer was “sí,” I immediately switched to Spanish. Ladino helped ease the transition to life in Israel for me, and I still listen to Ladino music as often as possible.
Given my affinity for Ladino, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email earlier this month from Bethany, a Mormon graduate student in UCLA’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. The university is planning to host its second annual Judeo-Spanish Symposium next month, and she wanted to enlist my help in promoting it. Of course, I would have immediately agreed no matter who had asked me, but the fact that a Mormon was put in charge of publicity for a conference on Judeo-Spanish made me even more willing to lend a hand.
I did ask Bethany why modern linguists and Spanish speakers should be interested in learning about Ladino. Her response is pretty convincing: “The connections between Spanish and Judeo-Spanish are many, and so it's perhaps natural for those who study Spanish to at least have an awareness of them, and to recognize the influence of Judeo-Spanish in various nations of the Americas, from the U.S. to Argentina. The history of Judeo-Spanish is fascinating and complex. Yet, it's not just a historical language, since it's spoken today in many nations around the world. Internet sites like Ladinokomunita have allowed speakers from all over to connect with one another, and they foster dialogue. The music is also thriving, with performers and audiences appreciating the unique style and lyrics. It's important to recognize the vibrancy and cultural importance of Judeo-Spanish--it's not a ‘dead’ language, and there are many people who want to make sure it never becomes one, lest those cultural elements be lost.”
Hats off to Bethany and the students at ucLADINO for all of their hard work. If you’re interested in attending the conference on March 5-6, here is the link with all of the information you need:
February 18, 2013 | 12:09 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
“While we must practice tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs, including their right to explain and advocate their positions, we are not required to respect and tolerate wrong behavior.” – Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Mormon Apostle
It’s impossible to be a Mormon blogger, especially one who has taken a public position opposing gay marriage, and not weigh in on the Boy Scouts of America’s upcoming decision on whether to lift its ban on “open or avowed” gays, who are currently not allowed to become Scouts or fill leadership positions. The LDS Church has not yet taken a position on the repeal of the ban, though as the largest sponsor of Scouting troops, its voice will undoubtedly be heard at BSA’s highest levels. I would like to share my thoughts on this complex issue, which have evolved over the past few years.
Unfortunately, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to choose between the repeal-the-ban position of people like the activists at Human Rights Campaign, a radical gay rights organization that has been persecuting BSA for years, and the keep-gays-out folks at the Southern Baptist Convention, a leading anti-Mormon religious group. In the interest of full disclosure, I was a Scout for a brief period of time in a small troop. I earned a few merit badges, went on several campouts and jamborees, and generally enjoyed the experience.
First of all, I’m very glad that the Supreme Court has affirmed the right of BSA, as a private organization, to exclude certain groups of people (atheists, agnostics, gays) from its ranks. Whether or not one agrees with the policies themselves, it’s an important principle. By way of analogy, Human Rights Campaign should not have to appoint a known opponent of gay marriage to a leadership position. In effect, this means that devout Mormons, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, etc., need not apply. This freedom to exclude carries over into the religious freedom arena, which is an area of increasing concern to people of faith around the country. After all, if private organizations can have the final say on who joins and leads them, then churches can as well.
That said, I’m having a tough time understanding the reason for the bans, which I’ll deal with separately. First of all, telling gay kids that they can’t go camping, earn merit badges, or learn the principles of the Scout Oath and Law with their straight peers seems rather benighted and mean-spirited to me. The president of our senior class was gay, and we would have counted it an honor to have him as a member of our troop. Of course, if there is any inappropriate behavior by Scouts, gay or straight, that violates the Scout Oath to be morally straight (e.g., drinking, taking illegal drugs, sexual misconduct), then their leaders can and should mete out appropriate discipline. However, Scouting’s ban on gay kids only references sexual orientation, not inappropriate conduct, so I oppose it. There is no good reason why gays who uphold the Scout Oath and Law can’t be Scouts.
Given the new safeguards in place for Scouting volunteers, the arguments against gay leaders are also less than convincing. Let’s take the most obvious objection first: adult men who are attracted to males shouldn’t be leading a group of young men. Yes, there are gay men who abuse kids, although most gay men do not. There are also straight men who abuse kids, although most do not. BSA now thoroughly vets its leaders and has instituted new common-sense rules, including one prohibiting a leader from being alone with a Scout. No system is foolproof, and there will always be perverts who seek positions in Scouting and in schools in order to prey on the vulnerable. However, in my experience being gay doesn’t make a youth leader more likely to engage in this behavior.
I have played soccer since age seven, and one of my favorite coaches was Pat. Every good player in middle school wanted to be on Pat’s regional select team, and she coached us to the gold medal in the Mid-Michigan Olympics. We all understood that the quiet woman who watched silently from the sidelines during our games was more than a friend to Pat, but none of us cared. Pat never discussed her personal life with us, and we never asked. We were there to learn how to score off a corner kick, not to discuss lifestyle choices, and Pat was a superb coach.
Ditto for Mr. K., a transplanted Scotsman whom my father sought out to conduct a summer clinic on passing for some of his best soccer players. I do recall hearing a few locker room jokes about the coach’s limp wrist, but they weren’t any nastier than the jokes we told about our other coaches. Once again, Mr. K. was a wonderful coach who helped me improve my passing speed. We all knew that he “played for the other team,” so to speak, but he was there to teach us a specific skill, and he did it very well. Truth be told, I do recall that a few more dads than usual showed up for Mr. K’s first practice, then left us alone after they saw that he was a serious coach. Come to think of it, one sure way to increase fathers’ involvement in their sons’ troop might be to appoint an openly gay Scoutmaster.
I am opposed to Scouting’s ban on gay leaders because it only specifies orientation, not behavior. I don’t believe that sexual orientation itself should disqualify someone from teaching kids to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, etc. In addition, the ban underestimates the influence of other role models besides Scoutmasters (e.g., parents, teachers, church leaders, coaches) in a Scout’s life.
In the end, the best course of action would be for the BSA to lift the ban on gay Scouts and leaders while allowing local units, primarily in the interest of religious freedom, to retain the right to exclude people whose behavior fails to meet their standards.
The Boy Scouts is the youth program for LDS boys, so one certainly shouldn’t expect the church to appoint a Scoutmaster who has a same-sex partner, lives with his girlfriend, or has another lifestyle that is at odds with the church’s moral teaching. However, this kind of exclusion would be based on behavior, not sexual orientation per se.
At the same time, I’d like to see Human Rights Campaign head Chad Griffin and his radical gay activist colleagues put a halt to the sickening boycott of the Boy Scouts that has gone on for many years. Mr. Griffin & Co. don’t have another youth character-building program to put in its place, mind you: they just want to destroy an organization that has produced tens of thousands of leaders worldwide. When your most significant contribution to society is organizing vulgar gay pride parades around the country (which included NAMBLA members – pedophiles -- in their early years), you lose the moral high ground in this debate. I certainly don’t oppose the Scouting ban because I agree with the radical gay activist agenda. I just feel that it discriminates against a group of people for no good reason.
How can I reconcile my opposition to the BSA ban on gays with my opposition to gay marriage? I view them as two unrelated institutions. For me, marriage between a man and a woman is a divinely-sanctioned relationship that will exist in eternity. I support traditional marriage because I believe that God is married. I do not believe that God is a Boy Scout.
Let us pray for BSA to lift the ban on sexual orientation and for gay rights activists to find another target for their unquenchable wrath.
February 11, 2013 | 10:46 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Like most people around the world, I was rather surprised to hear that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to become former Pope Benedict XVI. He’s the first pope in 600 years to resign, and it will be interesting to see whom the cardinal electors elect to succeed him (let us pray it’s not Cardinal Roger Mahony). They’ve been given a lot more advance notice than usual, and have ample time to discern whether God wants them to select another European pope or venture into new ecclesiastical territory with a Latin American or African pontifex.
Even under normal circumstances, succession in the Catholic Church takes far longer than in the LDS Church, where the passing of the prophetic mantle is instantaneous. Our church is led by 15 apostles, who are also considered to have prophetic authority. The leader of the church is always the senior apostle by date of ordination, and he is usually referred to as “the prophet,” a modern Moses, the only man on earth authorized to receive revelation for the entire church as the presiding high priest in Israel.
When the prophet dies, the authority to lead the church immediately falls upon the most senior apostle (again, by date of ordination, not age). In other words, in order for a newly-ordained apostle to become the head of the church, 14 other apostles have to die first. This ensures that whoever becomes the prophet will be a seasoned leader with decades of experience directing the affairs of the church worldwide. The current prophet, Thomas S. Monson, was ordained an apostle at age 36 and became the president of the church when he was 80.
On a personal note, I was elated when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, and I certainly hope that the cardinals will elect another charisma-challenged European pope. The Catholic Church is in decline in Europe, and electing yet another pope from that continent will change little. From my LDS perspective, the last thing that Mormons should want is for a charismatic African or Latin American cardinal to take up residence at the Vatican. Africa and Latin America are the areas of highest growth for the Mormon Church, and having a German theologian as pope for the past eight years has allowed our missionary work to flourish in many Catholic countries around the world. I believe that our missionaries will continue to enjoy success regardless of who heads other churches, but they might have a harder time knocking on doors in Abidjan or Accra if a personable, eloquent African were heading the Catholic Church.
I wish Pope Benedict well, and hope that his successor will continue to uphold traditional Catholic moral teachings in a world that sorely needs them.
January 28, 2013 | 12:26 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
"Martin Luther and other reformers were inspired to create a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority” – LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard, quoted in the current LDS Sunday School manual
“Even if they [the Jews] were punished in the most gruesome manner that the streets ran with their blood, that their dead would be counted, not in the hundred thousands, but in the millions… they are the devil's children, damned to Hell...” – Martin Luther
I am indebted to one of my regular Mormon readers for providing the inspiration for today’s post. He is welcome to identify himself in the comments section below, but will remain anonymous in this essay. Our friend objected to a Sunday School teacher’s praise of Martin Luther last week, and took the extraordinary step of emailing a church department in Salt Lake City to urge them to rethink their positive views of a vicious anti-Semite. Although I had nothing to do with the letter, he copied me on it. This is not the first time that I have encountered anti-Luther sentiment in the LDS community (though it pales when compared to anti-Mormon sentiment among some Lutherans), and I think that a brief public discussion of this topic would be useful.
According to LDS theology, the original, “true” Christian church lost its priesthood and accompanying divine authority shortly after the deaths of the original apostles. A restoration of God’s priesthood, along with prophets, apostles, and revelation, became necessary. However, only God, not man, could restore this authority, and it is an axiom of our faith that this happened when the restored Church of Jesus Christ was organized in 1830 by a modern prophet, Joseph Smith.
That said, we have great admiration for those Protestant reformers who rebelled centuries earlier against the excesses of the dominant church in Europe and attempted to restore original Christianity on their own. We don’t believe that they were authorized by God to organize their churches, but we do believe that some of them were inspired to create what became Protestantism, which ultimately led to the founding of a mostly Protestant country in the Americas where God’s true church could be restored. Given that Martin Luther was the first great Protestant leader, it is understandable that he is often praised in LDS literature for his boldness and determination.
That said, I agree with the LDS Luther-haters on a basic level. After all, if Luther had had the power to implement his publicly expressed policies vis-à-vis the Jews, there would have been no need for Hitler and his Final Solution: all of Germany’s Jews would have been exterminated or expelled centuries ago. Not only do I find Luther’s anti-Semitic rants deplorable, but his religious legacy supports my thesis that those who hate Jews almost always hate Mormons as well. Having grown up in Frankenlust Township in a small Michigan city that was half-German, I am well aware of lingering anti-Mormon feelings among Lutherans. In high school I befriended the son of a Lutheran pastor who hated the LDS Church: after a few arguments, we agreed to discuss everything but religion.
In the end, viewing this controversy through a Jewish prism yields valuable insights that allow me to support Mormon praise for one of the Nazis’ heroes. First of all, neither Jews nor Mormons expect perfection from religious leaders, and believe that deeply flawed people can nevertheless receive divine inspiration to further God’s purposes. Solomon, the great Israelite king who built the First Temple in Jerusalem, later turned to idolatry and incurred God’s wrath. Moses killed a man, the Apostle Peter publicly denied on three occasions that he had known Jesus, and the Apostle Paul persecuted Christians before his miraculous conversion. None of these actions prevent Mormons from praising these men for the positive things that they did while under God’s inspiration. If Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg as a result of God’s influence, then he deserves to be honored for it, regardless of his subsequent descent into hatred and bigotry.
When considering LDS leaders’ praise of Luther, it’s helpful to compare it to Jewish leaders’ praise for some pro-Israel Christian leaders who also happen to be anti-Mormon. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest, because I know that Jews are praising those Christians for their support of Israel, not their anti-Mormon activities. In a similar vein, Mormons who aren’t too keen on Luther (like yours truly) would do well to remember that LDS leaders have never praised his anti-Semitism, only his role in establishing Protestantism.
I always mention Luther’s anti-Semitism when he is brought up in a Mormon setting, and encourage my fellow anti-Luther Mormons to do likewise. However, we can’t let our opposition to one feature of his ministry blind us to his significant religious contributions. Martin Luther was an inspired man for a period of time, and we do no harm to Jews by acknowledging this.
January 16, 2013 | 10:37 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Tomorrow marks the Day of Judaism (Giorno del Giudaismo) for the Catholic Church in Italy, an annual occasion for reflection and the promotion of Catholic-Jewish ties. It has been held since 1990, and the Italian Jewish community has participated for more than a decade. This is a tradition that philo-Semitic Mormons can and should make a part of their outreach efforts to the Jewish community. How about a Day of Judaism for Mormons worldwide?
As this blog has repeatedly argued, Judaism and covenant Israel hold a special place in LDS theology. Mormons believe that they are members of the House of Israel, the Abrahamic covenant is central to our worship, the Israelite priesthood governs our church, etc. There is no other religion whose history and scriptures are so fundamental to the LDS faith.
October 24th of each year would be an appropriate day on which to celebrate Jewish-Mormon ties. On that day in 1841, Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde knelt on the Mount of Olives and dedicated the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jewish people. Elder Hyde is the favorite Mormon of many Jews, and there is a garden named for him at Netanya Academic College in Israel. The public reading of his prayer could be a part of the day’s events, to which local Jews could be invited.
Unlike the Catholic Church, the LDS Church does not have a history of anti-Semitism. Consequently, it does not feel the same moral obligation to publicly celebrate Mormon-Jewish ties on an annual basis. However, Mormons on a local level would do well to follow their Italian Catholic brethren by publicly acknowledging their respect and affection for the Jewish people. I’m sure that Orson Hyde would approve.
January 11, 2013 | 10:09 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
After reading Welshman Tom Doran’s essay on his intellectual journey from the anti-Zionist left to mainstream Zionism in this week’s Jewish Journal, I couldn’t help but wonder what else Jews could do to combat ant-Zionism and/or anti-Semitism in Europe. I happened to pose this question to my lovely European wife, who immediately came up with an inspired idea: “Why not create a Jewish version of ‘I’m a Mormon?’” The more I think about it, the more I wonder why a similar campaign hasn’t been launched before.
In 2010 the LDS Church launched the “I’m a Mormon” media campaign, which has been very successful in introducing people all around the world to their Mormon neighbors. In its current incarnation, non-Mormons can go to the mormon.org website and click on the “People” tab, where they can explore several features. The “I’m a Mormon” link allows viewers to watch videos of famous and not-so-famous Mormons sharing moments from their lives and introducing themselves as Mormons. The “Meet Mormons” link allows viewers to scroll through tens of thousands of online profiles of church members, searchable by gender, age, ethnicity, and location. Finally, interested viewers can chat live with Mormons if they’re interested in learning more about their faith.
Think of what an “I’m a Jew” campaign would look like for, say, Hungary. Interesting, down-to-earth Magyar-speaking Jews from Hungary and other countries, including Israel, would have a video photographer visit their homes for a day or two and record candid moments in their lives, including closing scenes where they identify themselves as Jews and give a 30-second explanation of what Judaism means to them. Hungarians would also be free to look at profiles of Hungarian Jews around the world, and could chat with them if they wanted to learn more. Conversion from stereotypes and prejudice, not religious conversion, is the ultimate goal here.
It’s hard to see how an “I’m a Jew” campaign would do any harm, and easy to see how it could break down barriers to understanding created by unfamiliarity. Having lived in Europe four times, I know many Europeans who do not have any Jewish friends or acquaintances. I’m sure that Jewish communities in the U.S., Europe, and Israel have the resources – human, technological, and financial – to launch a professional pilot campaign in one or two countries. As with any PR campaign, the target audience is not the fanatics but the fair-minded. I have said for many years that the best ambassadors for Judaism and Israel are Jews, and this would be a great chance for them to demonstrate this. I can’t wait to see the first videos.
January 5, 2013 | 10:28 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
In a Gallup poll released on Christmas Eve, Mormons were the “most religious” of any faith group surveyed by far – 87% of us said that our religion was important to our daily lives, and 81% of us attend worship services at least monthly. At the other end of the spectrum, Jews were the least likely to profess a daily attachment to their faith (41%) or attend worship services (32%).
Before I started working in the Jewish community, I would have been surprised by these figures. However, I know now that while a lot of Jews avoid praying in synagogues or engaging in daily Torah study, almost all of the Jews I know respect, honor and live the wonderful Jewish values that have enriched and enlightened the world. They value education, family, tradition, and tolerance, and are often leaders in their community. Mormons are increasingly known for espousing similar values. How, then, to explain the great disparity in religious observance? Several differences between the two communities immediately come to mind.
First, a far higher percentage of Mormons are converts. Both my wife and I are converts, as are many of our friends and acquaintances in the church. There is no zeal quite like a convert’s enthusiasm for his new faith, which is also very infectious. By way of contrast, the overwhelming majority of Jews were born into their faith, one that does not actively seek converts.
Second, Mormonism is strictly a religious identity, and the way to express that identity is to go to church and participate in the community’s religious rites and rituals. Jews, of course, are members of both a religion and a people with a distinctive culture and history. Consequently, there are many ways of expressing one’s Jewishness that have nothing to do with religion. In fact, Jews can be atheists and still be considered as Jewish as Orthodox rabbis. There may well be Mormon atheists, but I have yet to meet one.
Third, on a related note, the percentage of all Mormons attending at least one meeting a month seems a bit too high. This is probably because the Mormons in the survey self-identified as members of the LDS Church. While active Mormons are likely to share their religious identity with strangers, “less active” Mormons who don’t attend church are probably more likely to choose another religious label, including “none.” In my experience, even Jews who never see the inside of a synagogue are quick to identify themselves as Jewish.
Fourth, Mormons do not have professional clergy members or staff in their congregations. This puts the burden of running the church at the local level on lay members, who are called to lead congregations, teach Sunday School, deliver sermons, keep records, serve and visit other members, etc. Most members have at least one such calling, making it easier for their religion to become important to their daily lives.
Finally, our missionary program makes a big difference. Every year we send tens of thousands of missionaries all over the world to share our beliefs with others. We tend to love what we sacrifice for, and our missionaries come home with increased discipline, knowledge, love for their area of service, and dedication to their faith. I have publicly stated many times my desire for Judaism to become a proselytizing faith once again, which I have no doubt would raise the level of religious observance throughout the Jewish community to historic levels.
Best wishes for a successful, memorable 2013 to all of my readers.