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Similarities and Discord

September 16, 2007

Part 1: A Survey of Literature

First of a Multi-part series exploring the similarities and differences between Mormonism and Judaism. To some extent, the conclusions of this series will set the agenda for this blog.

Over the past few years, a number of Jewish Commentators have attempted to analyze the similarities between Mormonism and Judaism. For example, Rabbi Eric Silver at the 1983 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake delivered a paper entitled, “Mormonism and Judaism: Some Points of Tangency.” In 2000 Rabbi William Leffler and Frank Johnson (LDS) published “Jews and Mormons: Two Houses of Israel” via the Jewish publishing house KTAV. Both of these Rabbi, however, came from the liberal side of the Jewish spectrum and, though sensitive and sympathetic to Mormons, frankly had an interest in emphasizing differences. Further, there presentations were limited by a superficial understanding of Mormon theology, history and practice.

From the Mormon Side, Steven Epperson’s, “Mormons and Jews: Early Mormon Theologies of Israel as well as Steve’s follow up Sunstone Symposia sessions in 1993 and again in 1996 were fascinating tours de force on Joseph Smiths early and evolving views of Judaism but lack perspective on Modern Judaism and, again, suffer from some unfamiliarity with Jewish belief and practice.

Epperson argues that though Joseph Smith came from a general frontier Christian mileu and early Mormonism emphasized that environment, Joseph evolved toward a more Hebraic understanding of the Bible, the Kindom of God and the universe in general. Thus, throughout the prophet’s life, Mormonism became less Christian and more “Jewish” each succeeding year. For Epperson, this was at least in part due to the influence of two Jews on Joseph’s thought: His Hebrew instructor, Rabbi Joshua Seixas and his friend, Mormon Convert, Alexander Neibauer (Hugh Nibley’s Maternal grandfather). Further, Epperson maintains that Joseph saw God’s Covenant with Israel as fully in force, as active yet separate from Mormonism. I generally agree with Epperson. It is precisely these views that allow me to be so confortable with Mormonism yet still faithful to my Jewish heritage and faith.

Finally, Herold Bloom’s American Religion is, in my humble opinion the best work on Mormonism by a Jewish Author, bar none. Bloom is an amazingly intuitive reader of religious literature. I have noticed that even when he writes on topic that I have specialized in (and he hasn’t) such as Mormonism or the separation of Christianity and Judaism, though he makes technical errors and misses important details, he still penetrates the essence of the subject . Bloom “gets” Mormonisms appeal and , I believe, “gets” Joseph Smith. I would absolutely recommend this book to my Jewish readers. However, though Bloom is Jewish, there is only very little comparison between Mormonism and Judaism within his work. The exception to this is that Bloom sees Joseph Smith and Moses (and essentially all founder of major religions) as prophets by Charisma. His later submissions to Sunstone Magazine would indicated that by the same standard, he view the Modern LDS hierarchy as utterly un-prophetic. Rather, he sees them as barely religious, emphasizing their role as corporate spokesmen rather than retaining the chrism of prophethood. I would have to agree on all counts.

A recent academic work dealing with a single aspect of the Jewish-Mormon divide was “Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism” edited by, among others, my former employer, Truman Madsen. Truman holds the Richard Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU, but the book is published by the University of Denver. That it is a collection of papers delivered at an academic symposium is not remarkable. The Evans chair has held a variety of symposia over the years that dealt with the relationship of Mormonism to other religions (For example, “The Glory of God Is Intelligence: Four Lectures on the Role of Intellect in Judaism” is a collection of papers at such a conference, but it focuses mainly on Judaism, with little correlation to Mormonism except in the introduction). What is remarkable is that this symposium was sponsored by the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies. Even more remarkable is that the faculty of the UD Jewish Studies department were even aware that Mormons feel “chosen” and, not only that, took it seriously. I consider myself somewhat of a rarity among Jews because I value Mormonism as a theological system and take it very seriously. It is indeed unusual that a Jewish studies department at a non-Mormon university initiated this study. I am highly encouraged. That said, the work still suffers from the general problem noted above. Neither “side” seems to know the other well or speak the “other’s” religious language. Thus the book has a “back and forth” feel to it that seems rather disjointed. However, this is somewhat understandable in the initial stages of a dialogue (though I am personally somewhat impatient with it). I still recommend the work to the student of Jewish-Mormon relations.

historyofthejewsofutah.jpgJuanita Books, famous author of “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” also published a wonderful, but out-dated, book entitled, “The History of the Jews of Utah and Idaho.” It has a well written chapter specifically on Jewish-Mormon relations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but there are anecdotes on the subject peppered throughout the work. Who knew that there were Jews in Nephi? There was also apparently a NY Jewish family that built one of the fine houses along University Ave. in Provo, consulted on educational issues with Karl Maser, sent their kids to the Brigham Young Academy yet remained Jewish all their lives. They were apparently loved by all. Again, who knew?

Yet, like most other works mentioned above, Brooks was impeded by her obvious lack of knowledge of “the other” and a great deal of information that would be of interest to Jewish readers was simply ignored. While there is a great deal on Jewish businesses and the politics of synagogue building, there is basically no information on such things as levels of Jewish observance or holidays and festivals. Brooks, when it came to Judaism, was simply “the child who did not know how to ask.” (For Mormon readers: This is an allusion to one of four symbolic children who appear in the passover ritual).

I regard these works as the “major” contributions to Jewish-Mormon studies. (I’m familiar with a large number of minor or obscure works — I’ll review them if asked).

All of them suffer to a greater or lesser degree from the lack of fluency in the religious language and worldview of the “other.”* It is this issue that I want to remedy with this blog. For better or worse, I believe myself to be in a unique position to mediate and answer the sort of questions both Mormons an Jews might ask about one another. My next post will cover a list of similarities and differences between Mormonism and Judaism that hopefully will provide a basis for future posts and discussion.

So far, I have not widely publicized this blog. After the next post, I will try to gain some additional readership at which point hopefully some readers can give me some feedback on what additional issues they might want to explore.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Moshe Akiva

*One exception to this rule is the Wikipedia article on “Mormonism and Judaism.” This is probably due to the collaborative nature of Wikipedia. Though the articles do have the possibility of changing rapidly, as of this post, the article was excellent. I have it listed prominently in the “Helpful links” section to the right and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

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