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Why This Site?

September 14, 2007

Welcome to “Two Sticks,” a site for Mormon-Jewish dialogue! My name is Moshe Akiva* and I have felt the need to establish some sort of dialogue between Mormons and Jews for some time. In my experience, which as you will see is pretty extensive, Mormons and Jews really do have a lot of meaningful and interesting issues to discuss but have been somewhat limited by a variety of forces ranging from dissimilar geographic distribution to highly differentiated religious vocabularies to a certain degree of mutual suspicion.

I am a moderately religious Jew. A non-Jewish external observer would probably classify me as “highly religious. ” For example, I go regularly to synagogue, I keep kosher (I eat only permitted foods prepared in permitted ways), I keep Shabbat (the Sabbath, from sundown Friday night to an hour or so past sundown on Saturday night) in what would, externally, be perceived as a rigorous fashion. On the other hand, I’m “merely” a Conservative Jew and within the context of Judaism, the term “Religious” only seems to refer to those of the Orthodox variety. Additionally, I do feel quite free to quibble with the ancient Rabbis, or rather, I actively argue with them from time to time. I personally think they would have liked that, but some would see it as heterodox (or rather “heteroprax” since most of my arguments with them are about practice, not belief…the “dox” part of the term “Orthodox”). There is no question that I am heterodox, as regular readers will discover, however this has historically been less of an issue in Judaism than in Mormonism.

I also speak “Mormon.” In a later post I’ll explain why, but I have an undergraduate degree in history (BA cum laude) from BYU, a large Mormon affiliated college in Utah. I also have another BA in philosophy and a law degree (JD) from Willamette University. Finally, I have an MA in intellectual history from Portland State University. While I was at BYU, I was mentored by a number of people Mormons will recognize. I was taught the Book of Mormon by Hugh Nibley (a Jew, BTW…I’ll explain more in a later post) and Jeffery R Holland (when he was president of the university). I worked for Truman Madsen in the Richard Evans Chair of Religious Understanding office. I was taught Mormon philosophy by David Paulsen, James Faulconer and Dennis Packard. Thomas G Alexander and D. Michael Quinn were my mentors in history (to some of you this will be a minus rather than a plus, but it’s the truth). For a variety of reasons I have spent a great deal of time studying LDS history and theology. Today I teach a community college course in comparative religion and teach a unit on Mormonism.

Though my graduate research focused on the relative impact of Greek philosophy on the separation of Christianity from Judaism, it would be fair to say that Mormonism is my research avocation. Among the academics I work with, I am the resident expert on Mormonism (and this group includes at least two active Latter-day Saints). Further than this however, I actively like Joseph Smith as a religious thinker. Though I would not call myself a “follower” of Joseph, I would have to admit that I believe that he is one of the most underrated religious figures in history, at least among non-Mormon theologians and academics. From an academic and even cosmic perspective, I would be willing to call him a prophet, though I have a very loose definition of the term. For example, though it shows signs of Smiths future religious depth later exhibited in the Doctrine and Covenants, I see the Book of Mormon as an immature religious work and I do not believe in it as a historical account nor, generally speaking, as spiritually valuable.** I would have to admit that, though I am actively and happily Jewish, my personal theological interests and even my understanding of Jewish Theology have been influenced by Smith. More on this later…

Given this background (upon which I intend to elaborate more in subsequent posts), I recently came to the conclusion that if Mormons and Jews were ever going to dialogue informally, I would be as good a candidate as any. As I stated earlier, I’ve felt the need for a respectful, yet informal place for Jewish-Mormon dialogue for some time yet the precipitating cause that led me to establish this blog was a chance encounter with Robert C. Millet on my television set. I happened to be channel surfing my digital cable channels one evening and happened to cross the BYU channel. There I heard Millet state, “Even though Jews control Jerusalem, they don’t have the priesthood. They don’t Even if they built a temple they couldn’t dedicate it. It will be a Latter-day Saint Temple.” I thought he was wrong on three counts from both the Mormon and Jewish perspectives…

Again, more later.

L’Shana Tova!

(To a good year! I’m writing this the day after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish siritual New Year)

Moshe Akiva

*This is my “real” Hebrew name. It’s not a pseudonym, but I also have an “English” name which I use professionally. I’m not using it here mainly because I do teach both Judaism and Mormonism professionally and try to maintain some level of objectivity in my lectures (Yes, I’ve read Kuhn and Novick and I know the objectivity is impossible, but still, I try). I’d like to be free to express my thoughts on this blog while not being goggled by my students. However, if I get into a serious discussion with someone and it seems appropriate, I’d be happy to provide my English name. Also, even based on the limited biography above, a few of you will be able to figure out who I am in the “real” world. -MA

**Obviously, as a Jew, I do not believe that Jesus was the messiah and since much of the Book of Mormon revolves around ancient Jews having precise prophetic knowledge about the ministry of Jesus, I would tend to be skeptical. My interest in Joseph as a religious thinking is mainly in the area of his metaphysics, his conception of God as a finite being and his theology of man. For example, I am a fan of D&C 93 and the King Follet Sermon. I intend to discuss all of these issues in later posts.

8 comments

  1. Mr. Akiva,
    I came across your website today for the first time today. I intend to visit it again. As a Mormon convert and BYU alumni who has for long felt an affinity and affection towards Jewish people (I usually refer to you as “our brothers of Judah”), I think it will be very interesting. I wouldn’t expect you to believe in all we believe, or you would be one of us. But I do appreciate the kind tone of your observations. I will make commentaries and clarifications to dialoges, as they come. I extend a most warm welcome to you.


  2. Thank you Carlos and thank you for your kind feelings toward the Jewish people. I do intend to state my opinions forthrightly but at the same time, wish to remain respectful of LDS believers and beliefs. Fortunately, my experience is that the Mormon people make that rather easy to do.

    All the best,

    Moshe Akiva


  3. Moshe,

    Came across your site today and find it very refreshing and interesting. As an LDS convert with a Protestant Christian background, I found your statement interesting, “…as a Jew, I do not believe that Jesus was the messiah and since much of the Book of Mormon revolves around ancient Jews having precise prophetic knowledge about the ministry of Jesus, I would tend to be skeptical.”

    That fact that you are “skeptical” is natural and appreciated. I surmise that you are not “threatened” by LDS theology because you have discovered purpose and meaning to life within your beliefs as a Jew. I have found similar attitudes from many Jews (devout and otherwise) I have known throughout the years.

    I have book marked your blog and plan to check in from time to time and perhaps even contribute. I think your blog is a great idea.


  4. Shalom, Moshe,

    I am a member of the Silver Spring Moishe House, a combined living situation / Jewish community resource for young (Jewish) adults in the region. I and a Mormon friend are currently in the process of planning a joint Jewish-Mormon event that we are aiming to host in November, with the idea to host subsequent events in the following months.

    I feel I could write more, but a comment does not seem the best place to do this. :) Please feel free to e-mail me and I can tell you more about who we are & what we do as a Moishe House, and about what my Mormon friend and I want to do with this event. I invite you to join us, though I imagine you will be unable to attend our first dialogue event. :)

    Please visit our MySpace page for more information and for our Moishe House links. (You do not need a MySpace account to view our page.)

    http://www.myspace.com/moishehouse

    Shalom, Moshe. I am excited for your blog. Mazal Tov & B’chatzlicha!

    Sukkot Sameach!


  5. Shavua Tov Rachael!

    Sounds like an interesting event! You’ll have to tell me how it goes. Perhaps you and your friend can guest post a report.

    Thanks again,

    Moshe

    PS I added you on myspace. I’m “arden” on your friend list.


  6. I am attending today (November 13, 2007) a presentation by Mark Paredes (invited by The Center For Religious Inquiry) at a Jewish Temple.

    The topic is, “What Makes A Mormon.”

    If you love all things Jewish, like I do, this should be good

    Hope to see you there!

    Details: Link

    -David


  7. Awaiting moderation? I guess I missed that one 8-)


  8. Sorry, I thought it was approved already.



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