Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jews and Mormons: Similarities and Differences

(Above is the Latter-day Saint Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City, Temple Square featuring the hexagram, a sign of the Jewish faith)





Introduction
        To a large extent, Jewish awareness of Mormonism, however minimal, remains negative, due mainly to Latter-day Saint practices widely regarded as offensive in the Jewish community: Missionary work(or proselytizing) and baptism for the dead (namely, posthumous baptism by proxy of non-Mormons, usually ancestors of someone who is LDS). Most Jews are unlikely to be aware, however, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has attempted to respect Jewish sensitivities on both these issues, which are, after all, fundamental practices of Mormonism. In an agreement submitted to Israeli authorities when the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was opened, the president of the church (President Ezra Taft Benson) and the president of Brigham Young University (Elder Jeffery R. Holland) signed a solemn commitment forbidding Latter-day Saints proselyting in Israel, and threatened any student, member of the faculty, or staff violating that commitment with immediate expulsion from the Jerusalem Center and from the country. Similarly, respecting Jewish sensitivity, especially after the Shoah (holocaust), the church agreed in 1995 to stop the practice of baptism for the dead applied in a wholesale manner to Jews (although reaffirming the right of individual Latter-day Saints to baptize their own direct ancestors).

        Therefore, given that Mormonism in not a significant factor in the concerns of most Jews. why do I believe that Jewish-Mormon dialogue is important for both sides? My answer is given on three levels: general, Jewish, and Mormon.


        First, in general, many people of diverse backgrounds today increasingly recognize the urgent need for increased inter religious dialogue and understanding, all the more so in our era of the 'global village' and at a time when the whole world is threatened by fanatical and fundamentalist religiopolitical terror. as radical Catholic theologian Hans Hung has said, without peace among the world's religions, there will be no peace among the nations. In my part of the world in particular, it is an unfortunate fact that religion is rarely a force for peace and is usually used (or abused) to exacerbate conflicts that are basically national and political, and not theological, in nature. we need, therefore, to encourage inter religious dialogue wherever possible, and with whomever possible.

        Second, looking at inter religious, specifically Jewish-Mormon relations, from a Jewish perspective, the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel in particular do not have many friends in the world. Some of the decades-old Jewish alliances with mainline and liberal Christian churches over domestic American agendas such as civil rights and civil liberties are now increasingly strained due to some of these churches' involvement with overt criticism of Israel, support for Palestine's, and calls for divestiture and even boycotts of Israel, of Israeli universities and academicians, or of companies doing business in Israel. Moreover, given the resurgence of European anti-semitism, it seems to me an obvious Jewish interest to foster relations with Churches, like the Church of Jesus Christ, that have extended their hands in friendship to the Jewish people and the state of Israel and that have no history of consistent anti-semitism. Various Christian churches are struggling with, or overtly repudiating, the supersessionist theology that typified so much of their historical attitudes toward the Jewish people and Judaism. The Latter-day Saint record is far more positive. For Example:
        Ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn (3 Nephi 29:8)
        Specifically, given the diminishing numbers of Jews in America (in absolute terms, and all the more as a proportion of the American population ), and in light of the fact that-contrary to Arab propaganda-the Jewish-Israeli lobby does not control the American congress and has never been able to stop sales of advanced weapons to Arab countries (like Saudi Arabia) hostile to Israel, it seems clear that the only true power the American Jews posses is the power of moral persuasion. Persuasion, however, requires reaching out in dialogue to a broad spectrum of communities with whom the Jews have not previously had extensive dialogue, including the Latter-day Saints, who are growing in numbers and influence.


        Third, though of course i cannot speak for the church officially, it seems to me from my encounters as a member of the church and a Jew, that there is a growing interest among the church for a duologue with Jewish people, who occupy a special place in Mormon thought. Latter-day Saints, seeing themselves as physically descended from ancient Israel (primarily from the house of Ephraim), often feel a special kinship Jewish whom they sometimes refer to as "cousins" of "the house of Israel" of the tribe of Judah, leading them to regard themselves and Jews as "two houses of Israel". In many respects this sense of kinship is reinforced when latter-day Saints portray themselves as a new Israel, suffering persecution and wandering on the "great trek" in the wilderness until they came to an American Zion. we shall return later to this LDS topic of physical lineage. But what is no less important for Jewish-Mormon dialogue is growing :LDS effort to relate to Jews, not as an Old Testament tribe but as a living religious community.


        So for different and legitimate reasons, Latter-day Saints and Jews can recognize not only the general need for religious encounter, but also a specific common interest in a special dialogue with each other, a dialogue that will not eliminate the fundamental differences between them, but will, rather, enhance those differences with greater mutual understanding and respect.


        That special dialogue suffered a setback some years ago, when the security situation in Israel led to the closing, for the time being, of the Jerusalem Center for near Eastern Studies, despite valiant efforts of the BYU administration in Jerusalem and Provo to keep it open under difficult circumstances. The center was a major focus for Jewish-Mormon dialogue. To the best of my knowledge, no other university in the world brought some 850 young people annually to study in Jerusalem over of years. Indeed, few, if any, Israeli universities have programs for oversees students coming from all over the world that can approach that number. In fact, few colleagues in Jewish studies around the world, who are often lucky to teach a few dozen students a year, taught, as I did, 850 students every year, all of whom were potential ambassadors of goodwill in the relationship between Jews and Latter-day Saints.


        Having explained why I think Jews and Latter-day Saints need to engage each other in dialogue, I would now like to describe some examples of the similarities and differences, on a general level, and then deal with two specific issues, each exemplifying both similarities and differences between the two communities. Understand each other's terminology and frame of reference in an obvious requirement for effective communication.
(Above is the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem)

3 comments:

  1. Oh how very happy I am to see this blog!

    I am an LDS grandmother, and we also believe that not only are we identified in patriarchal blessings as being of Ephraim, but tradition or family legend is that we have at least one of my great grandmothers being Jewish.

    So along with my much study of religion, I have been especially interested from feelings of kinship with Israel. I even ADDED (to usual LDS meetings) attending a neighbors Messianic Jewish gatherings and I started a Hebrew language class, but had to drop out as we were doing foster care at the time and I didn't have the time to do it right.

    I have also had some time with Marlena Muchnick (sp?) and a few others.

    I hope to get some of my Jewish friends to check out your site. Gramajane

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  2. Well thanks for your feed back, my main blog is elderbesse.blogspot.com when i received my Patriarchal Blessing it was a real treat! I not only learned of all the great blessings that were to come, but i learned that i was from the Tribe of Levi. Although i already knew this, it was a testimony to the trust of the Gospel and the Church.

    Have you ever been to Israel? I always wanted to plan a group trip, i think it would be awesome. How was the Messanic group? What was your impression of the group?

    Hebrew is actually my first language surprisingly. But dont know many people in Utah that speak it. What a bummer. Im not to familiar with Marlena Muchnick, who is she? My Rabbi was Dov Muchnick. Wonder if there is any relation...

    I thank you so much Jane for visiting and i hope you continue to follow and your friends are always welcome to follow as well.

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  3. I grew up on Long Island,New York as what felt like the only "Mormon". Many of my neighbors and friends were either Jewish or Catholic. I remember a tassel or "Tzitzit" worn by my Jewish brothers. They said each knot represented a commandment and there were a lot more than 10!

    I was so impressed by the symbolism of the Tzitzit and its purpose to remind us to keep the commandments of G-d. In addition, it hung from the garment that covered the breast or heart. I remember Jesus saying the greatest commandment is to love G-d with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two laws hang all the laws of the Prophets. I reflect that the Tzitzit visually illustrates this doctrine!

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