Did you hear the one about the Jew who moved to Salt Lake City because he wanted to feel what it was like to be a Gentile? Actually, Mormons don’t regard Jews as Gentiles, but they are fascinated with Israel. In fact, more than one rabbi has remarked that Mormons seem more interested in the Hebrew Bible than most Jews.
For Jews, the concept of Israel as a covenant people began with Moses and Sinai. For Mormons, it began in the premortal existence when we lived together as spirits and will continue after death into the eternities. The concept of Israel is central to LDS theology, and Mormons believe they are members of the House of Israel either by blood or adoption (through baptism). Moreover, they believe that Ephraim became the birthright tribe in Israel after Reuben’s misdeeds (1 Chr. 5: 1-2; Jer. 31: 9), and claim that there are two gatherings of Israelites going on today: the physical gathering of Judah to Israel and the United States, and the spiritual gathering, beginning with Ephraim, the firstborn tribe. Special blessings given to Church members by men called as patriarchs reveal in which tribe of Israel the recipient will claim his spiritual blessings. [FYI, an Ephraimite is authoring this column].
I don’t know of any patriarch in the Church who has thought more about this subject than Dellas Lee, a retired law professor who currently serves as a volunteer ordinance worker at the LDS Temple in Lubbock, Texas. His 1,792-page book “Israel The Lord’s Chosen People,” a comprehensive treatment of covenant Israel, was published last year and is currently available at Deseret Book and Barbes & Noble. Mr. Lee was kind enough to respond to a few questions about the book, and I know that his answers will be of interest to many readers.
1) Writing a 1792-page book was obviously a labor of love. Was there a particular person or event that sparked your interest in this topic, or was it a process of discovery?
Yes, there was a combination of seminal circumstances and events that led to the creation of “Israel The Lord’s Chosen People.” Without multiplying too many words I will simply say that I had an interest in the children of Israel before serving a mission to Australia (1954-1956). However, when I was called as patriarch of the Lubbock Texas Stake in June, 1981, a sense of the almost overwhelming love the God of Abraham has for Israel, his chosen people, began to settle upon me. This fired my soul, stirred my spirit, and filled my heart with a great desire to learn more about his chosen people. At the same time I was filled with an irrepressible desire to convey a sense of that love to all people. This urged me to research, make notes, and to write my thoughts and feelings – without knowing where it would lead. Also shortly after my call I felt motivated to organize a seminar on Jewish Law at the Texas Tech School of Law, which I then conducted for more than twenty years. I soon came to understand that Israel are the Lord’s eternal inheritance. (See Deut 32:9-10, and ILCP, Chs 6-9, & 44.) This combination of circumstances over a period of some twenty-five years led to the publication of Israel The Lord’s Chosen People.
2) Would you say that Mormons are generally interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish history?
Because Latter-day Saints understand that the Jewish people are one of the tribes of the Lord’s chosen people, we do have a natural interest in Judaism and Jewish history. But our interest in the people themselves is greater. By this I mean we feel a kinship to you. We are very sensitive to the fact that we have common grandfathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Judah and Joseph were brothers, so we feel a brotherly friendship toward the Jews as cousins, and we pray for the good of their spiritual and temporal welfare.
3) What are the book’s main themes?
Specific themes might best be described by listing some of what I call the objectives or missions of the book. I point them out here, because a glance at the table of contents (as enlightening as that is: see IsraelTheLordsChosenPeople.com) might miss the mark:
a) The first and foremost mission of the book is to convey to the children of Israel a sense of the God of Abraham’s great love for them and for all mankind – the same sweet spirit of love I felt as I was writing the book.
b) A second overriding mission of the book is to help prepare Israel and all mankind for the Second Coming of the Savior. [Or the First Coming of the Messiah, if you prefer - MP].
c) Third: to connect latter-day Israel with ancient Israel and the fathers. It establishes a sense of kinship and identity between latter-day Israel and ancient Israel and the fathers.
d) Fourth: to define the house of Israel and who the children of Israel are, their opportunities and responsibilities, and the power that comes into the lives of latter-day Israelites who come to know their true identity.
e) A fifth and important mission of the book is to communicate an awareness of the love and the yearnings of the ancient patriarchs (“ the fathers” – our forefathers and mothers) for their children – the house of Israel.
f) A sixth and exceedingly important mission of the book is that it contains the keys to greater knowledge, greater peace, greater happiness, greater prosperity, greater fidelity between husband and wife, and greater hope for heart-broken wives and mothers and despairing fathers.
4) How did you come to teach Jewish law? Is there a principle of Jewish law that especially resonates with you?
After being ordained stake patriarch, the mantle of that calling turned my attention to all things related to the children of Israel. Although I had been teaching various law courses for almost twenty years, I suddenly noticed that Jewish Law was being taught in various law schools around the country. I could hardly contain myself as I contemplated the possibility of being paid to ponder and discuss matters that were of such great interest to me. I was familiar with the Old Testament, but knew very little about Jewish Law per se. So I obtained various teaching materials from professors who were teaching the subject. I chose the materials compiled by Rabbi Elliot Dorff & Arthur Rosett (Prof. U.C.L.A.), which later evolved into the book: A Living Tree, The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law (1988). This became the basic readings for the class.
Yes, there is a body of Jewish Law that especially resonates with me. I had been teaching Torts for many years. As I ventured into conducting a seminar on Jewish Law I was fascinated to note the similarity of some aspects of Anglo-American personal injury tort law, and the Rabbinic Jurisprudence on the same subject. It became obvious to me that much of our tort law (as well as a number of other areas of law) has its roots in Rabbinical exegesis. I was also fascinated by the careful logic used by the Rabbis to resolve legal problems, and with the techniques of interpretation developed by the Rabbis to interpret the Torah – hermeneutics.
5) What are the responsibilities of a patriarch?
The major responsibility of a patriarch is to give patriarchal blessings. We have precedent for this in the case of father Jacob, who blessed his children. (Gen. 49.) An important element of such blessings is the declaration of lineage of the recipient, along with such other words of counsel, comfort and guidance the patriarch may be inspired to give. Of course father Jacob did not have to declare the lineage of his sons to whom he gave blessings, that was already clear enough. However, after the scattering of Israel and of Judah and Benjamin, today the lineage of latter-day Israel is not obvious and must be revealed through the power of the Holy Ghost. The lineage of all people is explained by their premortal life, and is dependent upon the covenants they entered and honored there. The patriarch will state that lineage in the course of the blessing.
A few Gentiles are also coming into the Church. Through baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost a Gentile becomes a son or daughter of Abraham by adoption through divine decree, and thus is no longer a Gentile. Through the power of the Holy Ghost he/she is transformed into the seed and lineage of Abraham. (See Galatians 3:26-29; Abraham. 2:10.) In this case the patriarch will be impressed to declare that the recipient’s blessings will come through Abraham or Israel, but a particular tribe will not be designated. Thus we see that the Lord is no respecter of persons, and that our Father in Heaven truly does love all his children with infinite love.
6) Have you been to Israel?
No, not physically. But sort of by proxy. My wife and I have wanted to go. So last year (as a birthday present for my wife) I obtained reservations to Israel through the Mormon Heritage Touring Association – for two weeks in November/December. Then we discovered that our daughter-in-law appeared to have fallen terminally ill. She had always wanted to go to Israel, so my wife suggested that we give our reservations to our daughter-in-law and son, which we did. They had a glorious time, and reported on their journey verbally and with pictures in such detail that we almost feel like we have been there ourselves.
Let us all pray that this patriarch will be able to visit Israel soon, possibly on a group trip organized by a Jewish organization. My guess is that he’ll have even more to write about upon his return.