Posted by Mark Paredes
Following my recent ordination as a Mormon bishop, many Jewish friends have written to ask me what my new responsibilities are. Although I’ve only been at it for a month, I’ll do my best to outline my duties for my readers.
Like rabbis, LDS bishops are chosen to be leaders of congregations. Unlike rabbis, bishops don’t apply for the job. Instead, they are chosen by the regional leader (stake president) and are expected to serve without pay until they are released. In addition, because Mormons are generally expected to attend the nearest congregation, the authority of a bishop is restricted to a defined geographical area. In my case, the borders of my ward (congregation) in Los Angeles are Fairfax Avenue on the west, Western Avenue on the east, Beverly Boulevard on the north, and Slauson Avenue on the south.
Unlike rabbis, bishops usually have no formal training in theology, homiletics, psychology, etc. We come from all walks of life, and are expected to study and apply the rules and principles contained in church handbooks and manuals. Since we serve in a hierarchical church, we also meet regularly with our regional leaders to receive counsel and direction.
In addition to tithing, Mormons fast once a month and donate offerings to the church to help the poor. Bishops are authorized to draw on these funds (fast offerings) to help needy members who request assistance, including financial help and food orders. The purpose of this help is to assist the recipients to become self-sufficient, so it has to be doled out sparingly and judiciously. I pray a lot before meeting with needy members, and hope to use these resources to change people’s lives for the better.
One rewarding task for bishops and our counselors (assistants) is calling people to serve in various positions in the ward. We have a lay ministry, and every active member is supposed to be given at least one “calling” to carry out. It’s gratifying to see people willingly accept these volunteer positions and attempt to serve their fellow congregants.
Thankfully, bishops rarely have to give sermons. Every week members take turns delivering talks, and I have assigned a counselor to assign talks throughout the year.
Bishops are asked to dedicate a lot of their time to the youth of the church, which is a responsibility that weighs greatly on me. It’s not easy to be a teen in Los Angeles today, and we need to provide them all of the spiritual guidance and support that they can get. In our case there is strength in numbers: Our ward runs a combined youth program with Spanish and Korean wards, so our kids can learn from their leaders as well.
Needless to say, I have already developed a greater appreciation for congregational rabbis. I look forward to consulting with them in the coming weeks and months on challenges that both of our communities face.
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May 4, 2013 | 12:17 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
I read with great interest Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent Forward article, in which she contrasts the low LDS interfaith marriage rate and the relatively high Jewish rate while proffering areas for emulation to her Jewish readers. I believe there are two main reasons why Mormons tend to marry other Mormons, only one of which is mentioned by the author.
The first is our newly-expanded missionary program, which sends tens of thousands of young men and women all over the world to study and spread their faith. As Ms. Riley notes, returned missionaries generally maintain high levels of activity in the church. My wife and I were both sent to foreign countries, where we had to learn a new language and culture, study the doctrines of our faith, and preach to others during the prime of our lives. Given the level of desire and commitment involved, it’s not surprising that most former missionaries choose to continue their church service upon their return.
Jews have the Birthright program, but a 10-day stay in Israel designed to reinforce feelings of Jewish peoplehood and identity is hardly comparable to two years of intense missionary work. It would be unrealistic to expect them to achieve the same results in religious retention.
Although the Forward article was very interesting and insightful, the omission of temple marriage was glaring. The crowning ordinance of our faith is eternal marriage in the Abrahamic covenant, which can only be performed in our temples. In addition, only faithful Mormons can participate in this ceremony, which binds couples together for eternity. Mormons are taught from childhood not to settle for less than a temple marriage, and most active members don’t.
As I see it, there are two obstacles to lowering the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews. One is the claim, which I still struggle to comprehend, that atheism and agnosticism are perfectly acceptable expressions of Jewishness. If they are, then there is not a compelling reason to find a marriage partner who is a member of a particular religious faith.
The second obstacle has to do with Jews’ reluctance to seek to convert non-Jews. Let’s take me as an example. If I were dating a non-Orthodox Jewish woman and agreed to raise our children as Jews, why should she decline my marriage proposal? I’ve lived in Israel, speak Hebrew, love Jews and the Jewish community, and blog for a Jewish website. As long as our kids would be raised as Jews, what difference should it make to her what my religious views are since Jews don’t seek to change others’ beliefs? Mormons can’t have a temple marriage without another Mormon. Non-Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, can live a fulfilling Jewish life with a non-Jewish spouse.
Of course, it’s difficult to compare even the hand-wringing by both communities when their members marry outside the faith. When a Mormon marries a Lutheran, there may be deep disappointment that a temple marriage will not take place. However, there is no concept of a people that is being diminished by this marriage choice.
Ms. Riley has opened up an interesting discussion, one I hope will be held in many cities across the country between Jews and Mormons. The truth is that if non-Orthodox American Jews want to lessen their intermarriage rate without becoming Orthodox, the best thing they can do is to make their faith a proselytizing one. I have no doubt that the results would be astonishing.
April 21, 2013 | 10:49 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
After speaking with a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Montreal a few years ago, I had the distinct impression that great things were going to happen on the Jewish-Mormon front in that beautiful city. One of the stake presidents (regional leaders) is Eric Jarvis, a psychiatrist at Jewish General Hospital, and he and his wife Catherine have engaged the Jewish community in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding that is truly inspiring.
Last weekend President Jarvis’s stake hosted a Yom Hashoah commemoration on behalf of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal. The stake president’s presentation was followed by one made by a female rabbi, who declared herself “a member of the LGBT community and a friend of the Roma.” Unsurprisingly, the Canadian Jewish press focused on President Jarvis’s reiteration of the church’s ban on performing temple ordinances for Holocaust victims unless they were direct descendants of living Mormons. Regular readers know that I have a self-imposed ban on blogging about this manufactured controversy, but I think that it was appropriate for President Jarvis to address the issue in that setting.
Here is a link to the article in The Canadian Jewish News, the largest Jewish newspaper in the country. Yasher koach, Eric and Catherine.
April 14, 2013 | 11:26 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Today I was ordained a Mormon bishop, the equivalent of a volunteer pulpit rabbi. I was as surprised as anyone when the call was extended to me, but I accepted knowing that I would have the support of my lovely wife and our diverse, dynamic Koreatown congregation.
Although a bishop’s position is a volunteer one, you don’t sign up to become a bishop. Instead, regional leaders prayerfully identify a married man whom they feel God has called to lead a congregation and submit his name to the First Presidency, the top three leaders of the church in Salt Lake City. After receiving approval from the First Presidency, the regional leader (stake president) conducts interviews with the prospective bishop and his wife, and then calls the man to serve as bishop. Most bishops serve for about five years.
A former bishop told me this week that this calling is where “the rubber meets the road” in the church. My main responsibilities will include working with youth, helping people who are in need of material assistance, presiding at meetings, preparing members to go to the temple, reviewing numerous reports, and overseeing the congregation’s spiritual life. I will attempt to do all of this while holding down a regular job, blogging for the Jewish Journal, and spending quality time with my pregnant wife. It’s no wonder that bishops frequently ask their congregants to pray for them.
One new responsibility that intrigues me is that of being a “judge in Israel.” If members have committed serious sins and/or are in need of spiritual counseling, they will come to me for help with repenting and reconciling themselves to God.
I look forward to this challenging yet rewarding calling, which will allow me to serve a large congregation in a very meaningful way. If possible, I will look for ways to collaborate with the local Jewish community on tikkun olam and other projects. I thank my readers in advance for their support and prayers during this exciting time of service and sacrifice.
April 6, 2013 | 12:39 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
After taking the time to digest countless editorials, blog posts, and articles on the recent gay marriage cases argued at the Supreme Court, I remain convinced that there are valid religious reasons for opposing gay marriage, but no secular ones. While religious people should certainly be free to vote according to their deeply-held convictions, most anti-gay marriage arguments don’t adequately address the one principle that gay marriage advocates often seek to avoid when discussing marriage: its central role in the bearing and rearing of children.
The overwhelming majority of male-female married couples – I’ve seen figures as high as 80% -- raise children at some point during their relationship. Attempts to deny this come across as rather silly. Yes, we all know elderly couples who marry, couples who choose not to have kids, couples who can’t have kids, etc. However, this doesn’t change the basic fact that the reason secular governments accord marriage pride of place in the hierarchy of relationships is because it is the best way we’ve found to provide stable relationships for the rearing of children.
Not only do I recognize the state’s interest in promoting marriage, but I also believe that a father-mother combination is the best one for children. That said, when it comes to kids we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. While I don’t think that Justice Kennedy was terribly eloquent when raising the issue of children of gays during oral arguments, he brought up a point that I have not seen successfully rebutted with secular arguments: Given that gay parents are raising tens of thousands of children nationwide, is it better for those kids for their parents to be legally bound to each other and legally responsible for the raising of their kids, or for the parents to simply shack up because they’re not allowed to marry? It’s very difficult to argue that it’s better for kids for their straight parents to be legally bound together, while kids of gay parents would be better off if their parents simply live together. In addition, dedicated stepparents and adoptive parents are proof positive that one does not have to be a blood relative of a child in order to love and raise it.
While certain sexual acts are condemned in the Bible, both modern American society and the Supreme Court are of the opinion that the government should stay out of the bedrooms of consenting adults. Moreover, gays are now pretty much fully integrated into society, including the military. In light of this, it becomes an increasingly untenable secular position to say that millions of people and their children should be denied the benefits of a privilege granted to other people in society solely because of their sexual orientation.
Whichever way the Supreme Court rules, I do hope it establishes a national standard for marriage. I’m usually in favor of states’ rights on most issues, but I do think that a national standard is needed here. It seems needlessly confusing and inconsistent for a couple to be married in one state and then lose their status as a legal couple when they cross a state line. Ditto for divorces of married gay couples if they happen to live in a state that doesn’t recognize their relationship. Until recently, marriage in our 50 states was always between men and women. Minimum ages and requirements for marriage may have differed from state to state, but the basic male-female dynamic was the same until Massachusetts legalized gay marriage nine years ago. I think that it should stay that way (again, for religious reasons.) However, if the justices want that arrangement to change, they should issue broad rulings that affect all 50 states. If you’re an adult of legal age, whether you’re married in America shouldn’t depend on where you happen to be living.
How to vote on gay marriage in the privacy of a voting booth is abundantly clear to me as a religious Mormon. However, if I were a judge ruling on the issue, I would be hard pressed to craft a ruling that affirms traditional marriage with a compelling reason that goes beyond the “it’s always been this way” stock answer. Until recently, gay couples were not having and adopting thousands of children on the scale that we see today. Many of them are anxious to have their relationship legally recognized, and I’m fairly certain that they will eventually be granted their wish. Pace Justice Scalia, the secular question is not whether it is constitutional for states to continue their centuries-old promotion of traditional marriage, but whether a compelling argument that does not violate the 14th Amendment can be made for governments to continue to make a legal distinction between straight and gay relationships. Unless a judge wants to incorporate Scripture into his ruling, the Equal Protection Clause will likely trump Leviticus every time.
March 30, 2013 | 9:39 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
As a Mormon blogger on religion, I would be remiss in extremis if I did not use this space to send out kudos to Ryan Rotella, a junior at Florida Atlantic University (and devout Mormon) who was suspended from a class after refusing a request from the vice-chairman of the Palm Beach Democratic Party, an instructor at the university, to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. The purpose of the anti-Christian class exercise was apparently lost on Mr. Rotella, who confronted Dr. Deandre Poole after class, reported the incident to Poole’s supervisor, and was then asked not to return to the class. Thankfully, FAU’s website shows that the instructor has been placed on administrative leave and will not teach classes, hold office hours, or be present on the campus.
According to Poole’s bio, his research focuses on “the role mediated messages play in shaping individual attitudes and beliefs concerning issues of justice and inequality, and examines how leaders, organizations, and other influential authorities dominate and oppress marginalized groups of people.” The offending exercise allegedly came from a book by James W. Neuliep that is supposed to “provide a clear contextual model (visually depicted by a series of concentric circles) for examining communication within cultural, microcultural, environmental, sociorelational, and perceptual contexts.” It’s a wonder to me how Howard University, which educates so many thoughtful undergraduates, can churn out so many brain-dead graduate students. With all due respect to Mr. Rotella, I think it might be time to consider transferring to a BYU campus.
To those who might object to my mentioning Poole’s political office/affiliation (once again, he’s a prominent Democrat), I have one question: Is it remotely possible that a Republican vice-chairman anywhere in the country would ask students to stomp on Jesus?
In the end, I have contempt for the class exercise because it is not only anti-Christian but cowardly to boot. Has Poole ever asked students to stomp on pieces of paper with “Allah,” “Buddha,” “Moses,” or even “Martin Luther King, Jr.” on them? I doubt it. Anti-Christian bigotry remains the only acceptable form of religious prejudice in our society, and I’m as proud as can be that it was a Mormon student who stood up to this bigot. May Ryan's tribe increase.
March 24, 2013 | 10:53 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Mai bine singur decât cu o companie proastă [Better single than with bad company] – Romanian proverb
When I was single, I met lots of people who thought that not being married was the worst thing that could happen to them. They allowed their marital status to define -- and depress -- them, and generally held the view that if they could just get married, their lives would be immeasurably happier. Though I have always wanted to marry, and count it my greatest blessing that I now have a lovely wife, I learned through the experiences of others who married in haste and repented at leisure that there are, in fact, worse things in life than being single. One of them is surely choosing a mate who has repeatedly expressed a desire to kill you.
In the case of Israel and peacemaking with Palestinian leaders, it is much better for Israel to continue occupying Judea and Samaria with little international support than to sign an existential peace agreement with an autocratic mediocrity like Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’s presidential term officially expired more than four years ago, so he currently wields unelected power and has no mandate from his people. In addition, he has no control over what happens in Gaza, which is led by the anti-Semitic terrorist organization Hamas.
When it comes to identifying good and evil in the world, personal relationships can often cause moral myopia. The fact that you and I may know many wonderful Palestinians who desire peace and live exemplary lives means absolutely nothing in the context of Middle East peacemaking. Israel has to negotiate with Abbas and Hamas, not with your Palestinian friends. Truth be told, if your friends really do want to make peace with Israel and live in harmony with Jews, they have no chance at all of leading a Palestinian government. So far, that high honor has gone to an indicted Nazi war criminal who planned a Final Solution for the Jews in Palestine (Amin al-Husseini), an arch-terrorist who led attacks on civilians in Israel, Jordan and Lebanon (Yasser Arafat), our friend Mr. Abbas (who wrote a doctoral thesis in Moscow entitled The Connection between the Nazis and the Leaders of the Zionist Movement 1933 – 1945), and the Hamas terrorist group.
Some of the brightest people I know like to point out that there are extremists in both Israel and “Palestine.” True enough, but they should be honest enough to admit that the extremists in Gaza and Ramallah run the government; Likud jokes aside, that is not the case in Jerusalem. While many of Israel’s leaders have engaged in corrupt, even criminal, behavior, at least they are elected – and arrested when their misdeeds come to light. I don’t know about you, but I would like to live in a country where the president can be accused of rape, forced to resign, and subsequently be convicted and sent to prison for seven years. Such a scenario is unimaginable in today’s Palestine.
Over the past four years I have generally defended President Obama as a friend of Israel in spite of his strained relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, that thankless task is now that much harder following Obama’s speech in Ramallah with a large banner of Arafat’s ugly face serving as a backdrop. No U.S. official has any business honoring Arafat (may his name and memory be erased) at a public or private event. When it came to Jews, the only difference between Arafat’s desires and Hitler’s was their capability. If Arafat & Co. had had their way, the Jewish state, along with millions of its Jewish inhabitants, would have been destroyed.
The greatest monument to anti-Semitism in the world would be the creation of a Palestinian state. I always support whatever peace policies the democratically-elected Israeli government adopts, but I would refuse to support its recognition of the fictional Palestinian “right of return.” Palestinians are refugees because they (or their parents or grandparents) collectively rejected a two-state solution and actively supported the efforts of Arab armies to destroy the Jews in Palestine and their nascent state. Had they not attacked the Jews, they would still be living in Safed, Jaffa, and Haifa. Led by Nazi collaborators and terrorists, Palestinians went on to carry out terror attacks in Jordan, Lebanon, the world’s airports, and the Olympics. They also supported Saddam Hussein in his rape of Kuwait. To add insult to injury, Palestinian leaders deceived President Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and their successors for years in doomed peace negotiations.
No people that is led in part by Hamas deserves a state. No people that celebrated the 9/11 attacks deserves a state. No people that names streets, squares, and schools in honor of suicide bombers deserves a state. No people that has claimed for decades that the world owes them a living deserves a state. No people that believes that it is entitled to a “do-over” because their first few attempts to destroy Israel failed deserves a state. No people that wants to create a state that is free of Jews deserves a state alongside Israel. Israel may eventually choose to acquiesce in the creation of Palestine, but it certainly won’t be because the Palestinians deserve it.
A famous Jew once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If this is true, there is a lot of insanity at the White House and State Department. President Obama missed a golden opportunity during his visit to Ramallah to send a message that might produce the change that Palestinians claim to believe in. Instead of propping up the Abbas cabal, Obama should have told Palestinians in blunt terms that their leadership is unacceptable. Every Palestinian I know in the U.S. is a professional of some kind. It strains credulity to claim that Abbas and Hamas are the best leaders that Palestinians can produce; moreover, it is not a "pro-Palestinian" position to ask Israel to negotiate with them. True supporters of Palestinians would demand better leaders and more democracy in Ramallah and Gaza.
In the end, I do not currently support a Palestinian state because I think that it would attempt to destroy Israel. Nothing that I have seen during Obama’s visit has changed my view. The word needs to tell Palestinians that their suffering is the result of their past choices. If they want their suffering to end, they have to choose different leaders and eschew violence. If Palestinians can rise to the occasion and produce presidents worthy of the name who can transform their society, then they should be allowed to negotiate peace with Israel. If they elect to continue down the same road of disappointment, violence, and hatred, then I wish them many more years of occupation. There are worse things than not negotiating with terrorists, and the premature establishment of “Palestine” is one of them.
Chag sameach to all of my Jewish readers.
March 20, 2013 | 11:26 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
In just over two weeks, Mormons around the world will gather for the church’s semiannual General Conference, broadcast around the world via satellite from Salt Lake City. During five two-hour sessions over two days, top LDS leaders will teach and inspire members with spiritual sermons. On the Saturday prior to the conference, a worldwide broadcast will be made of the general meeting of the Relief Society, the world’s largest women’s organization (all LDS women 18 and over are members). Relief Society leaders will speak on topics of interest to women and families, and they’ll be joined by one of the church’s top three leaders. In addition, leaders in the youth and Sunday School programs hold annual training meetings that are webcast for use by local leaders throughout the world.
These conferences are repeated at the local level, where leaders hold semiannual stake conferences that allow members to hear from and come to know their regional leaders. Bishops (heads of congregations) are also required to hold ward conferences once a year. In this way Mormons become very familiar with their local, regional, and general leaders, and are able to hear from them directly on a regular basis.
I thought of these conferences while reading The Forward’s current list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” I have met only one of the rabbis on the list (Rabbi Lisa Edwards, head of one of the most friendly synagogues in town), and would certainly welcome the opportunity to learn from the others as well. Instead of simply listing names with accompanying testimonials, in the future The Forward may want to provide links to audio clips, video clips, or even the texts of inspiring sermons given by these rabbis so that we could all learn from these gifted teachers.
I think that it’s important for the Jewish community and the world to be exposed on a regular basis to contemporary rabbinic thought. If it were up to me, there would be a website for rabbis and other figures in the Jewish community to upload their speeches, writings and presentations on a regular basis, possibly following publication in other media.
A website devoted to the writings and speeches of contemporary rabbis is long overdue. The Jewish exposition of ethical monotheism is sorely needed in today’s society, and I’m pretty sure that some thoughtful rabbis aren’t getting enough exposure. In addition to the educational benefit of such a website, it would have an important practical one: the relative ease of drafting future lists of influential rabbis.