Jewish Journal


September 22, 2011

Can believing Mormons become Jews?



In recent months I have corresponded with members of the LDS Church on two continents who are planning to convert to Judaism while remaining active Latter-day Saints (one has already begun the process). They in turn have told me of others who have completed the conversion process while remaining LDS. At first I was incredulous that anyone would attempt to do this, and I must admit that I’m even more baffled after our exchanges. While I certainly applaud their desire to draw closer to Jews and to identify with the Jewish people, I fear that they are trying to square a theological circle in a way that mocks the sacred beliefs of both faiths.

Some of the most interesting gospel conversations I’ve had have been with Jews who have converted to the LDS Church. I’m always fascinated to learn how they came to accept Jesus as their Savior, how their families reacted to their baptisms, and how they define themselves in terms of Jewishness. I think that they’re some of the bravest converts out there, and the ones that I know are very strong members of their adopted faith. I have also met a few Mormons who have become very religious Jews. I doubt very much that members of either group believe that it is possible to be a practicing Mormon and a practicing Jew at the same time, for a number of reasons.

The most obvious barrier, which to me is an insurmountable one, is the centrality of Jesus Christ in our theology. One of my correspondents maintains that “[Jewish] rejection of Jesus is incidental,” but it clearly is not: our church bears His name. Contemporary Jews do not accept the divinity of Jesus, and their belief is certainly worthy of respect. It’s not clear to me how one shows respect for this bedrock Jewish belief by pretending that one shares it while secretly harboring a belief in the divinity of Jesus.

For that is clearly what would have to happen during the conversion process. I spoke with rabbis from all three major Jewish movements, and each one said that he would not consider participating in a conversion ceremony for a candidate who professed a belief in the Christian Savior. Moreover, they would not recognize that person as Jewish even if he successfully completed the conversion process, and would report any rabbi who knowingly performed such a ceremony. For rabbis, there is a term for someone who accepts Jesus as the Son of God: a Christian, not a Jew. Whether or not individual Mormons agree with the rabbis’ criteria for becoming Jewish, it’s the height of chutzpah to come up with their own standards and then expect the rabbis to accept them.

From an LDS perspective, another barrier to conversion for active members of the church is that rabbis do not have the priesthood and the corresponding authority from God to bring people into the Abrahamic Covenant or the covenant House of Israel. I hope that this statement is not offensive to Jews, but for Mormons there is a huge difference between the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible and modern Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is not the Mosaic Judaism of prophets, temples, and priesthood. According to LDS scriptures, Adam was the first “Mormon,” or covenant Israelite, on earth, and Jesus observed the Law of Moses (which He gave) when it still needed to be observed. However, rabbinic Judaism doesn’t recognize Him and His Atonement. For Mormons, if Moses were to walk the streets once again, he would not be worshipping in an Orthodox synagogue but in LDS chapels and temples.

For Mormons, an authorized baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost is the only way that people on earth today can be made heirs to the eternal promises made to Abraham. If a Mormon submits to the authority of a rabbinic conversion court (called a beth din), which is acting without priesthood authority, then he is saying in effect that LDS priesthood and baptism don’t matter, since one can obtain the same blessings and privileges from a rabbinic court. My respect and admiration for rabbis are boundless, but my theology limits their ability to act in God’s name.

A Jewish conversion has two parts: a religious act and a public affirmation of the desire to associate with the Jewish people. For a believing Mormon who “converts” to Judaism, the ceremony can only be a kind of initiation into a club or bestowal of citizenship by a nation.  Since he is already a member of the House of Israel and an heir to Abraham’s promises, the conversion cannot have any religious significance for him.

One of the more interesting statements came from a European Latter-day Saint who is of Jewish descent. According to him, “Mormonism in its forms is for Gentiles outside Israel.” This is an elegant theory, but there is nothing in LDS theology that supports it. While Mormons have no obligation to target Jews (or any other group, for that matter) for conversion, we don’t have a separate gospel for Jews. We also don’t have a way in our belief system to recognize the co-equal authority of other faith leaders to act in God’s name while performing ordinances, ceremonies and sacraments. No one else can perform eternal marriages, sealings, posthumous baptisms, etc. Our gospel is for everyone on earth, regardless of race, creed, or color. All are free to accept or reject it, but the Gentile/Jew distinction in Christianity was erased following Peter’s vision in the tenth chapter of Acts.
Most confusing to me was the assertion made by two correspondents that Jewish religious law (halacha) is a “national law” that Mormons need to sustain according to our Twelfth Article of Faith (“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”). This is clearly a secular argument, since LDS Church doctrine does not recognize Jewish law as being binding on its members.

To begin with, halacha is not the “national law” of Israel, which is a secular Jewish democracy. Even if it were, only Mormons living in Israel would need to recognize and/or be subject to it. It’s not at all clear to me how respecting halacha as a “national law” (even though it’s not one) would inspire a Mormon to convert to Judaism while retaining Christian beliefs.

Righteous Gentiles are people who adopt Jewish beliefs and practices without converting to Judaism. In my opinion, this is the best option for Mormons who feel a strong affinity and love for Jews and wish to identify with them. It allows these church members to become “Jewish” while respecting the theological integrity of both faith traditions.

Indeed, integrity and honesty are values that both faiths embrace. I know of one Jewish convert to the LDS Church who received Israeli citizenship after fully disclosing his current religious affiliation. However, he did not undergo a religious conversion, probably because he still considers himself to be fully Jewish. 
The only way that Mormons can engage with Jews is in a spirit of honesty and openness. LDS Christianity is a universal faith, and is not only for Gentiles. In fact, there are no Gentile members of the Church; in our belief system, they’ve all become (or remained) Israelites. There is no legitimate reason for a believing Mormon to contemplate conversion to Judaism. Truth be told, if he is 100% honest with the rabbinic court, they will not allow him to convert.  Indeed, the most revealing confession in my correspondence was the admission of one man that “I hide much of my Mormonism” when dealing with Jews. My correspondents want to be fully accepted by Jews, and feel that conversion is the way to accomplish that. They are mistaken. They express admiration for the outreach efforts of Jews for Jesus
and Messianic Jews, but these groups are rejected by Jews from every movement. 

I am in complete agreement with one statement made by a European member:  “We do not know many things about what God is doing among the Jews.”  However, it’s probably a safe bet that He is not inspiring Mormons to hide their faith while becoming Jews, even if they want to ingratiate themselves with their fellow Israelites. In the end, one can’t believe that Jesus is the Savior and that He isn’t, that the Law of Moses was fulfilled by the Atonement and that it remains valid today, that the LDS Church is the only institution authorized by God to administer His ordinances on earth—and that it isn’t, that LDS temple ordinances are necessary and that they aren’t. One can only reconcile the two by watering down and distorting both LDS and Jewish doctrines, and it won’t work. When we try to build bridges between the two faiths, we can’t do it by trying to create a hybrid religion. Both Judaism and LDS Christianity deserve better.

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