Last week a Jewish journalist contacted me about Mormon outreach efforts to the Jewish community. His email came just after an LDS leader interested in reaching out to Jews had called for a briefing on the “ABC organizations” that make up the organized Jewish community. Their queries caused me to reflect on the prospects for future LDS-Jewish collaboration, which I believe will ultimately prove to be most fruitful with Orthodox and pro-Israel groups.
Through my professional involvement with the Jewish community, I have seen firsthand the positive results from LDS-Jewish interfaith outreach. Jews are the best coalition builders in the country, and are always willing to work with Christians who love and respect them. Many Mormon leaders have longstanding relationships with prominent Jewish leaders and organizations, Mormons are working and blogging in the Jewish community, and the thorny proxy baptism issue has largely been put to rest.
However, there are many movements and communities in the Jewish world, and they vary greatly in the degree to which they are willing and able to engage in meaningful interfaith collaboration with the LDS Church. The Orthodox community is the most appealing partner because its moral vision is closest to the LDS ideal. Orthodox leaders joined forces with the LDS Church during the Prop 8 battle in California, they oppose abortion in most circumstances, they denounce pornography, and they largely share Mormons’ preference for a society of strong families based on traditional Judeo-Christian values. The Orthodox have also started to echo LDS leaders in stressing the importance of religious freedom in a pluralistic society. I have given the D’var Torah (sermon) from an Orthodox bimah and conducted a public theological dialogue with an Orthodox pulpit rabbi, so I know firsthand that the Orthodox are willing to extend a hand to Mormons who care deeply about Jews and Judaism. There is no limit to how much good the collaboration between our two communities could accomplish.
Generally speaking, LDS dialogue with Reform and Conservative Jews, while wonderful and even inspiring, is on a different level. While more liberal Jews usually more open to interfaith outreach efforts than the Orthodox, it is sometimes difficult for them to overlook differences they may have with the LDS Church on gay marriage, abortion, and other controversial moral issues. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. For example, one Reform rabbi was considering inviting a few Mormon leaders to his synagogue to hold a forum on how to raise good kids, a topic of great interest to his congregation. During the first planning meeting, a Mormon woman presented to the group a pamphlet explaining the LDS Church’s youth program. The reaction from some of the Jewish participants was so negative that the good rabbi had to nix the proposed forum. To them the Mormon ideal for religious youth education was so different from theirs that it precluded dialogue on the issue. With one exception, on the few occasions when I have encountered hostility towards my church in the Jewish community, it has come from secular or Reform Jews over political/moral issues.
What is often missing in the LDS dialogue with more liberal Jewish movements is a Jewish component. When Mormons ask about large Jewish organizations, most of which are liberal, they are usually shocked to learn that many of them support abortion rights (including partial-birth abortions), gay marriage, etc. One LDS local leader in a private conversation called a well-known Jewish organization “the ACLU with a yarmulke.” When it comes to moral issues, liberal Jewish movements are not bound by traditional Jewish law, which does not sanction third-trimester abortions or same-sex couplings.
Don’t get me wrong: I know a lot of wonderful Reform and Conservative Jews, and their dedication to tikkun olam (service to others in an effort to repair the world) is truly inspiring. It’s just that when a Mormon ward and a Reform congregation work together to, say, staff a soup kitchen together, the common bond is a desire to do good and to serve others. As laudable as this is, I fail to see any distinctly Jewish component here. In other words, when Mormons and Orthodox talk about collaboration, the conversation includes words like Torah, Judaism and morality. When Mormons discuss collaboration with Reform Jews, they could just as well be talking with Methodists, Muslims or Episcopalians. Again, I have nothing but praise for interfaith collaboration that involves service and doing good. However, there is nothing distinctly Jewish about these concepts, so the “dialogue” that takes place is not as meaningful as it could otherwise be.
Another promising area of cooperation between Mormons and Jews is Israel. Although the LDS Church doesn’t take sides in the Middle East, most Mormons in this country are solidly pro-Israel and would welcome the chance to work with Jews on Israel advocacy. The only glitch here is that most Jewish organizations seeking to promote Jewish-Christian ties on Israel have already partnered with evangelical organizations that are unwilling to fully accept Mormons into the coalition. The best solution would be for Mormons to create their own version of CUFI (Christians United for Israel) with a distinctly Mormon vision.
With the possible election of a Mormon for president this year, Mormons are anticipating many questions from the public on Mormon beliefs and doctrines. In addition, I believe that as more and more Jews meet more and more Mormons, the former will come to appreciate a philo-Semitic church whose members believe that they are modern-day Israelites. Mormon outreach should be directed to Jews from all movements (and none), but I’m betting that in 20 years the most fruitful efforts will prove to have been those made to bring Mormons and Orthodox and/or Israel-loving Jews together.