October 27, 2012
Jewish-Mormon dialogue: Three wonderful evenings in Los Angeles
It’s been a great month for Jewish-LDS relations in Los Angeles. Readers of this blog know of my firm belief that Mormons have a great deal to say to Jews, and vice versa. Judging from the turnout at three recent events, many other Mormons and Jews feel the same way.
Last Sunday Jewish and Mormon leaders gathered at an LDS chapel in order to hear an inspired presentation on Mormons and the Holy Land given by Joe and Marilyn Bentley, who recently returned from 18 months of service as the Directors of Hosting and Outreach at the BYU Center in Jerusalem. The Bentleys have a great love for Israel and the Jewish people, and clearly enjoyed sharing interesting details of their assignment and of LDS involvement in the Holy Land for over 160 years. Jewish attendees included several rabbis and representatives of the AJC and ADL, both of which have long-standing relationships with the church. The Bentleys have already lectured widely in the LDS community here in Southern California, and I’m sure they’d be willing to speak to Jewish groups as well.
Two weeks ago Rabbi David Wolpe and I had a meaningful public dialogue on LDS-Jewish issues at Sinai Temple (you can listen to it here). Sinai was the first temple in LA (and possibly anywhere) to host a public Jewish-LDS theological dialogue, and Rabbi Wolpe has spoken to LDS missionaries about Judaism. I spoke for 30 minutes on historical, doctrinal, and contemporary issues in LDS-Jewish relations, followed by several questions from the rabbi and a general Q&A from the audience. Answers to two of the rabbi’s questions will become part of my future presentations on this subject.
I deliberately left out any mention of proxy temple ordinances in my speech, which Rabbi Wolpe was quick to note. I took the opportunity, which I will also avail myself of here, to announce that I will no longer discuss the proxy ordinances issue in future presentations. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. A small group of Jewish leaders has blown this issue way out of proportion for 20 years; even they decided last year to move on to agenda items that actually affect living Jews, instead of worrying about what a few disobedient Mormons are doing in their own temples. I’ve blogged several times on this issue, and don’t plan to spend more time or effort explaining it. Instead, I will refer curious Jews to the rabbis at the Simon Wiesenthal Center so that they can tell them by what authority they are authorized to speak on behalf of the dead and explain just why they felt it was necessary to carry on this campaign for two decades with the help of an anti-Mormon researcher.
Rabbi Wolpe also asked whether there was a strong tradition of historical and/or literary criticism in the LDS Church. Truth be told, there isn’t. We don’t have many professional theologians, and those we do have play virtually no role in establishing official doctrines or programs. BYU students may learn in their religion classes about the presence of chiasmus (a Hebrew literary device) in the Book of Mormon, but Mormons generally look to prophets, not higher or textual critics, for help in understanding their scriptural canon. Higher criticism is much more developed in Rabbinic Judaism than in our tradition. However, when I consider cases like Prof. Bart Ehrman (a prominent New Testament scholar who became an agnostic as a result of his studies), I’m not sure how beneficial textual criticism would be to a Mormon seeking to strengthen his testimony (spiritual witness) of Christianity.
This week I had the privilege of delivering Temple Isaiah’s first Limmud comparative religion lecture, which was both a challenge and a pleasure. I have a standard presentation that I usually make on Jewish-LDS relations, but Rabbi Zoë Klein took me out of my comfort zone a bit by asking me to address seven specific theological questions instead. I’m glad she did, since it resulted in a wide-ranging discussion of LDS theology and practice that left everyone in attendance with a greater understanding of the similarities and differences between Mormonism and Rabbinic Judaism.
A married lesbian congregant respectfully brought up the Proposition 8/gay marriage issue, which gave me the opportunity to explain (as I had at Sinai) that LDS theology cannot countenance either homophobia or gay marriage. Not one of our modern books of scripture mentions homosexuality, and we regard gays as fellow children of God who chose in the pre-earth life to follow His plan and come to earth. For some reason the congregant mentioned the separation of church and state, which of course has nothing to do with the issue of gay marriage: After all, Mormons were merely expressing their support for a ballot measure, not advocating that California become a Mormon theocracy. Since the founding of the United States, citizens have been free to express their opinions on the moral issues of the day, regardless of whether those opinions have a religious or secular basis. In the case of Prop 8, opponents raised more money than supporters did, much of it from liberal churches and synagogues.
Other attendees raised issues like excommunication (rare and used only to punish actions), polygamy (discontinued, not renounced, in 1890), reincarnation (which Mormons reject), and the Abrahamic covenant (central to LDS worship).
One of the reasons for my boundless love of Jews is their insatiable curiosity about others, which was on display at each of these events. It is my prayer that similar dialogues will be held around the country in order to promote understanding between two communities that have a rich history of cooperation. I am indebted to Rabbi Wolpe, Rabbi Klein, and the Bentleys for their warmth, erudition and vision.