Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Torah Scroll Saved from Desecration in Provo

January 23, 2008

After a difficult journey, one of Judaism’s holiest objects finds a home

By Jessica Ravitz

Earlier this year, Rabbi Benny Zippel strolled into a Provo store on a rescue mission.  He’d gotten word about a Torah scroll, Judaism’s holiest object, that was in the hands of an antiques dealer. He needed to check it out himself.

Sofer
“I went to see it and became horrified when I found out that the Scroll [sic], originally from Holocaust-ridden Europe, was getting cut up in single columns, framed and then sold to individual collectors in the area,” the rabbi wrote in a recent statement. That treatment, he described in a phone call, proved “the ultimate sign of desecration.”


Evoking a commandment he called pidyon
Shvuyim, or redeeming captives, Zippel offered on the spot to buy what was there. A Torah scroll, which contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is considered a living document by the most observant of Jews. This one, he thought, needed saving.


About nine months later, in a Thursday evening dedication ceremony at Chabad Lubavitch of
Utah, the ultra-Orthodox organization Zippel heads, the restored scroll was reborn.


From
Poland to Provo


Seventy-six-year-old Alvin Segelman of
Orem tipped off Zippel. About a year ago, the retired Rutgers University professor went to visit Brent Ashworth, an attorney who, for 46 years, has been collecting rare books, manuscripts and art. While he was poking around Ashworth’s store, something caught Segelman’s eye.


“I noticed, hanging on his wall, what to me was obviously part of a Torah scroll. It struck my attention because the damn thing was hanging upside-down,” Segelman recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Where the hell did you get this thing?’ ”


Ashworth, who counts among his collectibles a first edition King James Bible from 1611, had been in the market for old Torah scrolls. He’d purchased a fragment from a 500-year-old Moroccan deerskin scroll from a
Jerusalem dealer. And along with the piece framed on the wall, he had bought a larger section that is from Eastern Europe and believed to have predated the Holocaust. That one spoke to Segelman, who says Nazis killed 67 of his relatives.


“I said to Brent, ‘I think perhaps someone else should look at this thing.’ “


Purchasing what Ashworth had was a no-brainer for Zippel, who spoke of the Nazis’ efforts to destroy all things Jewish. On the back of Ashworth’s scroll section – which included part of the book of Exodus, all of Leviticus and part of Numbers, or about one-third of an entire Torah scroll – was a handwritten message, indicating it had belonged to a man in Poland, Zippel said. The rabbi told the store owner it belonged in a Jewish sanctuary.


Ashworth agreed and sold the scroll portion to the rabbi for half of what he’d initially paid.


To be clear and fair, Ashworth had never taken scissors to the sacred item. Zippel knows this. But the guy Ashworth got it from three or four years ago did. Enter Jim Young, owner of
Provo‘s Brigham Book & Copy, whom Zippel called on next.
Young had framed cut pieces of the scroll that he intended to sell. Zippel purchased what Young still had and said he’ll likely bury those pieces in a Jewish cemetery, a practice observed when sacred text is damaged beyond repair.
Although he repeatedly hung up on a Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Young admitted he “cut a couple pieces” and said he got the scroll from Reid Moon, “a Bible guy and Torah guy in
Texas.”


From Turkey (or Turkow) to Texas


Moon, owner of Moon’s LDS Bookstore and the Antiquarian Bible Shoppe in north Dallas, has been working with religious books and antiquities for about 20 years. He said he remembered this scroll well because he bought it from a
New York dealer, whose name he couldn’t remember, the week before 9/11. When he made the purchase, the scroll was in six separate sections. Moon said he knew it was incomplete and therefore not kosher for use. Its history was unknown to him, until a Holocaust survivor came in one day and noticed Hebrew writing on the back of the scroll. The writing, she told Moon, was the signature of a Torah scribe, or sofer, and beside it was the name of the country where it originated: Turkey. At least this is what he remembered hearing.


That section never made it to
Utah. Young only purchased one section, in early 2002, Moon said. Selling sections or fragments is nothing unusual, he added. A quick search on eBay earlier this week showed about 50 Torah scroll fragments being hawked to would-be Web buyers.
Rabbi Moshe Klein, a fourth-generation sofer living in Brooklyn who became Zippel’s contact in restoring Utah’s newest Torah, knows his scrolls and was unruffled by the Turkey suggestion. Based on its style of writing, he has no doubt this original full Torah scroll came from
Poland about 90 years ago. He speculated that perhaps it had been commissioned by someone living in Turkey. When a portion, even a letter, of a Torah scroll is damaged, a sofer is tasked to fix it. Perhaps a piece of parchment had been repaired in Turkey.
More likely, he said the scribe was from Turkow, in
Poland. The spelling of this town and Turkey, in Hebrew, only differs by one letter.
So what happened to the five sections Moon still had? He said he wrapped them around wooden staves, dressed them with a Torah covering, and used it when he spoke in Dallas-area schools about the origins of the Bible. At least, this is what he did until Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum caught wind of it.


The Orthodox rabbi of
Dallas‘ Congregation Ohr HaTorah reacted much as Utah‘s Zippel did when he learned about this scroll two summers ago.


“My feeling was at one point it had been a complete scroll, the property of the Jewish community,” he said. “It somehow ended up outside the Jewish community, and we needed to bring it back.”


Though he hasn’t done it yet, Feigenbaum plans to hire a sofer to make his five sections part of a complete scroll. He was shocked to learn that any portion had made its way to
Utah and said he wished Moon, who at the time didn’t seem to understand the scroll was incomplete, had told him as much.


“If what you’re telling me is the truth, I feel I was lied to,” he said. “I kind of thought it was a finished story, and now you’re telling me a lot more I didn’t know about.”


From one
Zion to another


The story, at least for
Utah‘s portion of the original scroll, is now complete. Thanks to a $36,000 gift from Utah real estate developer, former U.S. Ambassador and Jewish philanthropist John Price and his family foundation, Zippel said the scroll has been redeemed, made whole and kosher again. Not without additional obstacles, though.


A sofer in
Jerusalem had been enlisted, by Klein in Brooklyn, to write that which was missing. But a man traveling by taxi across Jerusalem with the newly completed portion (two-thirds of Zippel’s new Torah), as well as other scrolls, somehow left Utah‘s piece behind. It was lost in transit, the Jerusalem sofer had to start over, and the originally planned November dedication had to be scrapped. And the man hired to create the ornate wooden staves around which the scroll is wrapped suffered a stroke before fininshing the job.


Klein, who often sends scrolls by UPS, wouldn’t take any more chances on this one. He flew out of
New York Wednesday night not just to participate in Thursday’s ceremony but because he would only hand deliver it.


“I have to schlep it around,” he said by phone the day before his flight, which ended up taking 17 hours. “It’s not leaving my sight for one second.”


Now, with its final letters written amid ceremony, the scroll, one that has been through so much, can finally rest.
“All things that come your way difficult,” Zippel said, “are a sign from above that they’re definitely meant to be.”

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Jewish Reponse to Van Hale

January 17, 2008

Response to the Van Hale radio program, “Mormon Miscellaneous” episode entitled “God as a Close and Personal Father”

Dear Van,

First of all, thank you for hosting such an interesting show! I am not a Mormon myself and am in fact Jewish by both religion and heritage, but I do teach a community college course in comparative religion and have an academic interest in Mormonism. I was an employee of the Richard Evan Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU under Truman Madsen during the 1984-1985 school year and have maintained a number of relationships with Mormon academics as well. Thus my interest in Mormonism is also personal. Let me add that I have the highest regard for the Mormon faith and wish you all the greatest success.

That said, I did take issue with a few of your comments. in the “God as Close Personal Father” segment. You quoted a number of Christian writers who claimed that the Aramaic term “abba” was so intimate that no Jew would use it in reference to God. You further quotes these writers (particularly someone named “Barkley” I believe) that the Targums never use this term in reference to God nor do any Jewish “devotional literature” As someone who actually reads Aramaic and Hebrew (and Greek for that matter) and as a Jew I can assure you that this is simply untrue.

These assertions apparently came from a Jewish scholar, Joachim Jeremias, who made a statement at an inter-religious conference that “the term “abba” has a very familiar ring to it.” This is true. Many Jewish children use the term today. My own son occasionally calls me “abba.” However, this statement was used and extended by a number of Christian writers who apparently saw it as homiletically useful. This entire issue was discussed in an article that appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies some time ago (see James Barr, “‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’ Journal of Theological Studies, 1988 as well as Geza Vermes, Jesus in the World of Judaism [1983], pp. 41, 2).

The targums in fact use “abba” in reference to God a number of times in their rather free translation of the Hebrew bible. For example:

JPS Psalm 103:13 Like as a father hath compassion upon his children, so hath the LORD compassion upon them that fear Him.

KJV Psalm 103:13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.


Targum1

and

KJV Psalm 89:26 He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

TNK Psalm 89:27 He shall say to Me, ‘You are my father, my God, the rock of my deliverance.’

Targum2


Further, the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic “Abba,” “Av,” usually in the plural possessive “our father” or “Avinu” appears a number of times. It is a prominent and oft repeated element of the High Holiday services particularly in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer:

Avinu Malkeinu, Chaneinu V’aneinu,

ki ein banu ma’asim.

Assei imanu ts’dakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.

OUR FATHER, Our King Hear our voice, Lord our God, pity and be compassionate to us, and accept – with compassion and favour – our prayer.

The word “avinu” is repeated numerous times at the beginning of the prayer. Sometimes in chant-like form.

The Talmud itself talks about the child learning to say ’abba’ and ’imma’ (B. Ber. 40a). The words the child was to learn are the normal words of the language–correct and grammatical adult language. The word did not have one sense of “daddy” when children said it, and another for “father” when adults said it.

Finally, the Greek word used in the New Testament to translate our word is always the normal word pater, and never a diminutive such as papas, pappas, or pappias, all of which existed at the time. Words that expressed “daddy” were available, but they are not found in biblical Greek–because they were not suitable for biblical style. They used ’abba’ because it meant “father” and not “daddy.”

To call God “Father” is to use covenant language. In all of God’s covenants, the people are “sons” or “children” by their adoption into the covenant. Even in the secular world this was so; one of Israel’s kings became a “son” of Pul (Tiglathpileser) when he became his vassal. But in the biblical covenants we find this most clearly expressed. In Exodus 4:22, 23 Israel is called God’s son because Israel has a covenant with God (the Abrahamic Covenant was in place, and the Sinaitic Covenant was about to be built on it). Playing on the word “son,” God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his son (Israel) go, or he would kill Pharaoh’s son. Later, Hosea repeats this usage when he records how God called his son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). Israel was God’s “son.”

In 2 Samuel 7:13, 14 we have the use of the word “son” for the king of Israel. This chapter is about the Davidic Covenant. And in that covenant God will be a father to the king, and the king will be his son. Thus, when the king was coroneted, he would publicly declare by what right he ruled by quoting this covenant: “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’” (Ps. 2:7). Every anointed son of David could claim this title, “God’s Son.”

Finally, you mention that it is your view, again relying on non-Mormon, non-Jewish writers that the Judaism of Jesus day was distancing itself away from the idea of God as a person (with or without a body). I think this is also (mostly) untrue. This is an extremely complex topic and I am actually writing an academic paper on it at the moment. However, I believe the evidence is overwhelming that, while there was a strain of Hellenistic anti-materialism present in Judaism at that time, the majority of Jews continued to believe in an anthropomorphic finite God. This was, I can demonstrate, the majority view up to the 11th century and a minority view that continues to appear in Jewish writing up until the 1750’s!

Though this research would tend to support the Mormon understanding of God, most Mormons, including Mormon scholars, seem to be unaware of this research. I think that this is because Mormons have a tendency to gravitate toward Christian scholars who are notoriously unreliable when it comes to Jewish sources, to their detriment. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most Mormon apologetic work is directed against fellow Christians, rather than any antipathy to Jewish sources, but it does weaken the general Mormon argument, in my opinion.

I have to say that, while I enjoy much of your material and generally agree with you when you are dealing general Christian or Mormon sources, this same limitation seems to be true of you as well. I think you would be well served by an examination of post-Biblical Jewish source material and a survey of recent Jewish scholarship. (And even some modern Jewish practice. Occasionally I hear you saying things like “The Jews Used to do X…” When, of course we never stopped doing X. For example, I recall you saying that “The Jews” once built “booths” or “tabernacles” as part of a holiday celebration. This was at a time in which I had just built my family’s sukkah and had gone on a “tour of sukkot” throughout our community similar to the way in which Christian families seems to “tour” Christmas lights).

I hope this makes sense. I’m typing this in the remaining minutes before the beginning of the Sabbath. * I really do wish you and your show well. I only wish you would become acquainted with the vast and rich body of knowledge that Judaism has preserved and continues to generate.

All the best,

Moshe Akiva

 

* I never quite finished it Friday afternoon and didn’t get around to posting it until today, Thursday Jan 17th.

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What Is It About Mormonism?

January 8, 2008

What Is It About Mormonism?

By NOAH FELDMAN

January 6, 2008

 
Our post-denominational age should be the perfect time for a Mormon to become president, or at least the Republican nominee. Mormons share nearly all the conservative commitments so beloved of the evangelicals who wield disproportionate influence in primary elections. Mormons also embody, in their efficient organizational style, the managerial competence that the party’s pro-business wing considers attractive. For the last half-century, Mormons have been so committed to the Republican Party that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once felt the need to clarify that Republican affiliation is not an actual condition of church membership.

Yet the Mormons’ political loyalty is not fully reciprocated by their fellow Republicans. Twenty-nine percent of Republicans told the Harris Poll last year that they probably or definitely would not vote for a Mormon for president. Among evangelicals, some of the discomfort is narrowly religious: Mormon theology is sometimes understood as non-Christian and heretical. Elsewhere, the reasons for the aversion to Mormons are harder to pin down — bigotry can be funny that way — but they are certainly not theological. A majority of Americans have no idea what Mormons believe.

Mormonism’s political problem arises, in large part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces. The church’s most inviting public symbols — pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts — evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living. Yet at the same time, secret, sacred temple rites and garments call to mind the church’s murky past, including its embrace of polygamy, which has not been the doctrine or practice of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, for a century. Mormonism, it seems, is extreme in both respects: in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity. The marriage of these opposites leaves outsiders uncomfortable, wondering what Mormonism really is.

For Mitt Romney, the complex question of anti-Mormon bias boils down to the practical matter of how he can make it go away. Facing a traditional American anti-Catholicism, John F. Kennedy gave a speech during the 1960 presidential campaign declaring his private religion irrelevant to his qualifications for public office. For Romney, a Republican who would risk alienating “values voters” if he denied faith a central role in politics, emphasizing the separation of church and state is not an option. In his own religion speech, he coupled his promise to govern independently of the hierarchy of his own church with a profession of faith: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.” Although this formulation is unlikely to satisfy those evangelicals who deny that the LDS church is Christian, Romney presumably calculated that speaking about Jesus Christ in terms that sound consistent with ordinary American Protestantism would reassure voters that there was in the end nothing especially unusual about Mormonism.

Something troubling is afoot here. From a constitutional standpoint, the religion of a candidate is supposed to make no difference. Even before the founding fathers dreamed up the First Amendment, they inserted a provision in the Constitution expressly prohibiting any religious test for office. The framers recognized, of course, that a candidate’s religion (or lack thereof) would enter political debate, and they were prohibiting only a formal test for taking office. But they were also giving their imprimatur to Jefferson’s appealing notion that a person’s beliefs about religion were no more relevant to his politics than his beliefs about geometry. Romney, by contrast, was staking his character and values on his religious beliefs while insisting that no one ask what those beliefs are.

It is easy to see why Romney would see some aspects of his Mormon identity as an asset. In the elite East Coast worlds where Romney has made his career, Mormonism signifies personal rectitude, professional competence and an idiosyncratic-but-impressive rejection of alcohol and caffeine. If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeople and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller.

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt.  Objectively, it’s even more plausible than the existence of a God/man who became a human sacrifice for sin in first century Jerusalem.  But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

For some, then, the objection to Romney may be that Mormonism is religiously false and that voters should choose a president who belongs to the true faith. If many Americans felt this way, that would be bad news for Romney but worse news for the country, since it would mean that we had abandoned the values that underlay the constitutional ban on religious tests. But most Mormonism-related discomfort with Romney may, in fact, reflect less a view of religious truth than a sense that there is something vaguely troubling or unfamiliar in the Mormon manner or worldview. This latter possibility presents Romney with an especially tricky political problem. For such reservations are not simple prejudice; they are a complicated outgrowth of the tortured history of the faith’s relationship to mainstream American political life over the nearly two centuries since God first spoke to Joseph Smith.

Persecution and the Art of Secrecy

Mormonism was born amid secrecy, and throughout its existence as a religion it has sustained a close yet complex relationship to the arts of silence. From the start, the Mormon penchant for secrecy came from two different sources. The first was internal and theological. Like many great world faiths, Mormonism has an important strand of sacred mystery. Mormon temples have traditionally been closed to outsiders and designed with opaque windows. Marriage and other key rituals take place in this hallowed space — a manifestation of religious secrecy familiar to students of world religion but associated in the United States more with Freemasonry than with mainstream Protestantism.

Like Mormon ritual, much of Mormon theology remains relatively inaccessible to outsiders. The text of the Book of Mormon has always been spread to a broad audience, but the text is not a sufficient guide to understanding the details of Mormon teaching. Joseph Smith received extensive further revelation in the nature of sacred secrets to be shared with only a handful of close associates and initiates within the newly forming church.

The most famous such revelation was the doctrine of celestial — which was to say plural — marriage, revealed to Smith as early as 1833 but never publicized during his lifetime and formally announced to the world only in 1852, eight years after his death. And there were other doctrines of similar secrecy revealed to Smith, especially in the years just before his death. “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret,” he is reported to have said in one of his last communications with his followers.

The connections between the sacred and the secret in early Mormonism did not come out of nowhere. Believers, of course, consider the source to be divine inspiration — although over the course of the last century Mormon teaching has moved away from many of Smith’s more radical ideas, which are often not accepted by contemporary LDS members. Academic students of early Mormonism have traced the mysteries expounded by Smith to the hermetic tradition of secret magic dating back to the Renaissance and beyond. If this account is accurate, then Mormonism’s theological secrets actually have more than a little in common with religious mysteries that can be found in medieval Islamic esotericism, kabbalistic mysticism and ancient Christian Gnosticism. Successive generations have rediscovered these secrets and reasserted their antiquity in ways very similar to Smith’s discovery of ancient tablets. For example, the most important work of the kabbalah, the Zohar, presents itself as a lost manuscript written by the 2nd-century mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, though scholars maintain that it was composed in the 13th century by the man who “discovered” it.

The greatest difference between the esoteric tradition and Smith’s version of it is that Smith’s faith has grown into an organized religion rather than remaining the preserve of a select few. Almost from the start of his career, Smith was denounced as a charlatan, an impostor and worse. Such criticisms sometimes pointed to his early pre-revelation career as a treasure seeker who used techniques like the seer stone (similar in function to a crystal ball) and the divining rod to seek treasure in the countryside of upstate New York. Notwithstanding these attacks, Mormonism grew steadily. Growth brought publicity — and with it came not merely prejudice but outright persecution. This external persecution created a second, externally driven source for secrecy: protection.

Not content with polemics, Mormonism’s opponents turned to violence. In 1838, after skirmishes between armed Mormons and state militia left several people dead, Gov. Lilburn Boggs of Missouri issued a military order declaring that the Mormons had made open war on the state and that therefore they “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good.” Later, at Nauvoo, Ill., the Mormon community under Smith’s leadership came under constant pressure from skeptical and sometimes violent neighbors. In response, Smith sought and received a measure of home rule for Nauvoo, including the authority to establish his own municipal militia. Though the militia grew until it was a substantial fighting force, Smith was nevertheless gunned down by a kind of quasi-organized lynch mob after having been arrested and jailed in nearby Carthage.

Unhindered by Smith’s death, the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young, went out to Utah to establish their own kingdom. In what felt like the relative safety of the intermountain West, Mormons began to practice plural marriage in the open — and ended up paying dearly for this lapse in secrecy. In 1856 the Republican Party made the defeat of polygamy a key plank in its first national platform, characterizing it alongside slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” The federal government soon criminalized the practice and then in effect outlawed membership in the Mormon Church until it would agree to give up polygamy. The Mormons appealed this persecution to the Supreme Court, which turned them down flat, holding that religious belief was protected by the First Amendment but that religious conduct was not. After the Civil War, federal prosecutors in the Utah territory and in neighboring areas convicted and jailed thousands of Mormons in the most coordinated campaign of religious repression in U.S. history.

The reaction of the Mormon Church to this new wave of persecution was, initially, to take refuge in secrecy once again. In 1890, the president of the church, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto in which he gave his “advice” to members of the Mormon Church not to enter into any marital relationships that would violate the laws of the land. Publicly this declaration had its desired effect of placating the federal government; in 1896, Utah was allowed to become a state. But like Jewish rituals under the Spanish Inquisition, plural marriage continued, secretly in Utah and also among refugees (like several of Mitt Romney’s ancestors), who fled to Mexico or other places the law could not reach.

This period of resisting persecution by living outside the law taught Mormons that secrecy can be a necessary tool for survival. As one apostle (there are 12 who guide the church) later put it in a speech recounted by the historian Kathleen Flake, “I am not dishonest and not a liar . . . [but] we have always been taught that when the brethren were in a tight place that it would not be amiss to lie to help them out.” Yet such secrecy, reminiscent of the taqiyya or dissimulation sanctioned by Shiite Islam under the threat of persecution, could be difficult to maintain. Matters came to a head when another apostle, Reed Smoot, was elected in 1903 to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Utah, despite political opposition from President Theodore Roosevelt. Opponents of Mormonism, mostly Protestants, sought to block Smoot from taking his seat.

Over several years, the Senate engaged in a series of hearings that put Mormonism on trial. The president of the church, Joseph F. Smith, a nephew of the founding Smith, was called to testify and sought somewhat unsuccessfully to conceal both the continuing practice of plural marriage as well as his own status as seer and revelator. After returning to Utah, Smith issued a manifesto of his own, in 1904, this one somewhat stronger, aimed at ending plural marriage. After that, plural marriage gradually disappeared from the mainstream Mormon scene, until it remained only among peripheral fundamentalist or sectarian Mormons who defied the church authorities and claimed a more authentic line of succession to the first prophet. In 1907, the Senate finally voted to seat Smoot. The course was set for the Mormon religious practice of the 20th century: a process of mainstreaming, both political and theological, and would set the stage for Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency.

The Mormon path to normalization over the course of the 20th century depended heavily on this avoidance of public discussion of its religious tenets. Now that plural marriage was out of the picture, the less said the better about the particular teachings of the church, including such practices as the baptism of the dead and the doctrine of the perfectibility of mankind into divine form. Where religious or theological conversation could not be avoided, Mormons depicted themselves as yet another Christian denomination alongside various other Protestant denominations that prevailed throughout the United States.

Another part of the Mormon assimilationist strategy was to participate actively in politics at the state and national levels. The condition for political success was that nobody asked about the precise content of Mormon religious beliefs and the Mormons themselves made no particular effort to tell. If 19th-century Mormon secrecy was a matter of survival, 20th-century Mormon reticence was a form of soft secrecy, designed to avoid soft bigotry. Revealing Mormon teachings would no longer have led to lynch mobs or federal arrest, but it certainly would have fueled the kind of bias that keeps politicians out of office.

What helped Mormons in maintaining theological radio silence was the way that American political norms until the late 1970s made religion a taboo subject in polite civil and political society. Probably the high point of the Mormon mainstreaming process took place when Ezra Taft Benson, like Smoot an apostle of the church, became secretary of agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In just a century, the leaders of the Latter-day Saints had gone from being murdered outcasts to being appointed to the cabinet. Mormons began to succeed in national business and came to be seen as exemplars of the patriotic American ethos. George Romney, Mitt’s father, became chairman of the American Motors Corporation in 1954 and was elected governor of Michigan in 1962. Soft secrecy was holding soft bigotry at bay.

Romney and Mormon Politics

In politics, Joseph Smith was something of a radical. He preached, instead of democracy, a version of theocratic rule within a framework given by his own prophetic leadership. At Nauvoo, Smith affected a Napoleonic uniform and made himself into a general and quasi king of the polity he had constituted. He claimed that the home-rule permission given to the town by the State Legislature rendered him the equivalent of a governor or perhaps even president of a little republic on a par with the state of Illinois in which it resided. At the time he was assassinated, he was running for the presidency of the United States in a quixotic campaign that only a true person of faith could have believed in.

Ensconced in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young modified this initial political vision somewhat. Yet he still governed in an essentially autocratic fashion, constrained by only the federal requirement that Utah take on a republican form of government in order to be organized into a territory. In the territorial period, the Utah State Legislature remained very much under the control of the leadership of the church, and the democratic trappings of elections did not ensure real competitive politics. Mormons belonged to a single party, the People’s Party, which was not disbanded until 1891, when the LDS leadership determined it would need Republicans and Democrats in order to persuade Congress to grant statehood. Even then local LDS leaders apparently assigned church members almost at random to join one of the two parties in roughly equal numbers.

As of the 20th century, through engagement with the federal political sphere, Mormons came to embrace fully the American ideals of multi-party governance and electoral democracy. They also gradually embraced the Republican Party itself — a fact that would not seem so remarkable today were it not for the G.O.P.’s history of condemning Mormonism.

The Mormons’ passage from bugbears of the Republican Party to its stalwarts may be analogized to a similar move among middle-class white Southerners, to whom the Republican Party was anathema until the 1970s and ’80s, after which it became almost the sole representative. In the case of Southern whites, a particular event shifted party allegiance, namely the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as promoted and passed by President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson knew he would be alienating Southern whites with the act, yet he went forward with it anyway.

In the case of the Mormons, however, no single event pushed them in the direction of Republicanism. To the extent that 19th-century Mormons sided with any national political force, it was the Democratic Party, the party of states’ rights — of great interest to Utah Mormons trying to buck federal control. What made the Mormons Republican was simply their move toward the conservative center of American public opinion. With Eisenhower especially, the Mormons found a leader they could admire and with whom they could work. Ike himself was famously indifferent toward the particularities of religious doctrine. Moderate Republicanism was therefore the perfect conduit for bringing Mormons into the American political mainstream.

According to Jan Shipps, a renowned scholar of Mormon history, anticommunism also played an important role in making Mormons Republican — Ezra Taft Benson, the apostle who became secretary of agriculture under Eisenhower, had ties to the John Birch Society. In the 1960s, as the Democratic Party increasingly began to embrace an agenda of civil and cultural liberties, the Mormon allegiance to Republicanism was cemented further still. Gone was the political radicalism and the concern for minority rights that accompanied plural marriage and other unusual Mormon behavior. Now the Mormons could look at the counterculture as a threat. The most prominent Mormon national politician in the 1980s and ’90s was Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, now in his 31st year in the Senate, who on the Judiciary Committee has maintained a consistently conservative position, favoring judges who are simultaneously favored by the religious right.

The rise of the religious right posed a tricky political quandary for the LDS church. On the one hand, a vocal movement pressing for conservatism and moral values must have seemed to them like a natural home. After all, they, too, were religious believers who drew upon their faith for their political conservatism. Yet there was a strand of the religious right that could potentially put it at odds with Mormonism — its barely concealed commitment to evangelical Protestant theology.

Evangelical ideology was certainly flexible. Before Roe v. Wade, for example, abortion was not a major issue for most Protestant evangelicals in the United States, and it took the active efforts of the Catholic Church to bring evangelicals on board. Yet despite being pliant on some substantive issues, Protestant evangelicals nonetheless did share a commitment to biblical inerrancy and to a rather strict definition of salvation by faith alone. Their worldview certainly relied upon some basic and nonnegotiable propositions, like the acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity and of Jesus Christ as a personal lord and savior.

Mormons were able to argue that they, too, believed in salvation and in the literal accuracy of the Bible. The difficulty was that in addition to the Bible in its King James Version, the Latter-day Saints had further scriptures with which to contend — the Book of Mormon, translated by Smith from “reformed Egyptian” and styled as “another Testament of Jesus Christ”; and supplements to various biblical texts known collectively as the Pearl of Great Price.

Whatever the variances among the four synoptic gospels, contemporary evangelicals, like their forebears, have long been committed to the exclusivity of these texts. Newly unearthed gospels or pseudo-gospels (like the so-called Gospel of Thomas, written in the Egyptian language Coptic and found at Nag Hammadi in 1945) have posed few theological doubts for these Protestant evangelicals, who have dismissed them as foreign heretical works, despite their antiquity. Against this backdrop, the rejection of the Mormon Bible is simple and formulaic. Coupled with concerns about what they consider Mormonism’s nontrinitarian theology, it has led ineluctably to an unwillingness to recognize Mormons as full participants in the category “Christian.”

In theory, the evangelical political movement says that it is prepared to embrace Jews and even Muslims so long as they share the same common values of the religious right. In the case of a Mormon candidate, though, many evangelicals are not prepared to say that common values are enough. The reason seems to be the view among evangelicals that the substantive theological beliefs of Mormons are so radically different from their own as to constitute not a sect of Christianity but a Christian heresy, which would be worse than a different monotheistic faith like Judaism or Islam. One prominent evangelical, the Southern Baptist Richard Land, has proposed that Mormonism be considered a fourth Abrahamic religion — a compromise view that has found few takers in the evangelical camp and privately infuriates Mormons who insist on their Christianity.

Faced with the allegation that they do not believe in the same God as ordinary Protestants, or that their beliefs are not truly Christian, Mormons find themselves in an extraordinarily awkward position. They cannot defend themselves by expressly explaining their own theology, because, taken from the standpoint of orthodox Protestantism in America today, it is in fact heterodox.

What is more, what began as a strategy of secrecy to avoid persecution has become over the course of the 20th century a strategy of minimizing discussion of the content of theology in order to avoid being treated as religious pariahs. As a result, Mormons have not developed a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs.

Assimilation, Culture And Compromise

The general pattern of Mormon history is one of growth leading to external pressure being brought to bear on the church. Internal resistance eventually gives way to change sanctioned by new revelation, followed in turn by new growth and success. This was the pattern not only for the abolition of polygamy but also for the extension in 1978 of the Mormon priesthood to black men. Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency is the occasion for the latest round in this cycle, with cultural and religious skepticism representing the vector for outside pressure. What will Romney — or the church — do in response?

One option is for Romney to try to devise a new language for talking about his religious beliefs that will make them seem accessible and familiar without compromising them. Romney has expressly said that he will not take this tack — but inevitably he has done so, and if he is chosen as the Republican candidate or elected to the presidency, he will have to do more. This could prove a tricky undertaking, full of pitfalls to the believer. Thus Romney has felt the need to minimize the centrality of Mormon scripture by saying that he reads the Gideon Bible when he is alone in his hotel room on the campaign trail.

The formulation may be seen as a clever hedge: to the ordinary Protestant listener, it sounds as if Romney is saying that he reads the same Bible that they do. To the Mormon insider, however, Romney is simply saying that when he travels to the hotel and finds himself, presumably, without a handy copy of the Book of Mormon, he reads the text of the Bible that can be found in the drawer beside the bed. Some LDS insiders have been heard to wonder quietly how Romney could come to be traveling without his own copy of the Mormon scriptures — or why he isn’t staying in Marriott hotels, where the Book of Mormon can be found in the nightstand drawer alongside the bible.

This is a perfect example of esoteric public speaking: the attempt to convey multiple messages to different audiences through the careful use of words. Something similar is perhaps contained in Romney’s outspoken admiration for Rick Warren, the megachurch pastor and best-selling author. To the general audience, the message is the embrace of an evangelical who is as mainstream as it gets. To a Mormon audience, however, the praise is presumably intended at most as a suggestion that it is possible to learn from the remarkable organizational and evangelizing effects of a well-known public figure.

Speaking esoterically about faith has a firm basis in LDS tradition — but history suggests it may not be enough for the church to overcome the strand of soft bigotry that it is now facing. And from the church’s perspective, facing up to the reality of such prejudice is not a trivial matter. Precisely because Romney is so accomplished, so telegenic, in short such an impressive candidate, it may be a slap in Mormons’ faces if he finds that he cannot garner the support of conservative values voters. If such voters prefer, say, a pro-choice Roman Catholic of questionable conservative credentials like Rudy Giuliani, the result may look like a public repudiation of Mormonism — from the very party to which Mormons have given their allegiance for the last half-century. (Even if the charge against Romney were that he failed because he was a dissimulating phony, that would hardly be an improvement for the church, given the similarity of that charge with the historical bias against Mormon secrecy.)

If the reality of soft bigotry does not today pose an existential threat to Mormons as explicit oppression once did, it would nevertheless undercut the hard-won public face of Mormonism as a distinctively American religion characterized by worldly accomplishment. For conservatives to reject a Mormon because he is a Mormon would be an especially harsh setback for a faith that has accomplished such extraordinary public success in overcoming a history of painful discrimination.

If Mormonism were to keep Romney from the nomination, the Mormon Church hierarchy may through continuing revelation and guidance respond by shifting its theology and practices even further in the direction of mainstream Christianity and thereby minimizing its outlier status in the culture. Voices within the LDS fold have for some time sought to minimize the authority of some of Joseph Smith’s more creative and surprising theological messages, like the teaching that God and Jesus were once men. You could imagine Mormonism coming to look more like mainline Protestantism with the additional belief not in principle incompatible with Protestant Scripture that some of the lost tribes of Israel ended up in the Americas, where a few had a vision of Christ’s appearance to them. If this hypothetical picture of a future Mormonism seems unimaginable to the contemporary LDS faithful, as it may, today’s Mormon theology would look almost as different to Brigham Young.

Religious development, driven by turns from within and without, is, after all, the mark of a vital faith. Today we do not think of the Catholic pope as the occupant of the pagan Roman office of pontifex maximus, but of course the pontiff is precisely that: the living exemplar of how Christianity met, conquered and was changed by the very empire that presided over the crucifixion. All religions assimilate and change, even as they claim to hew to the old truths.

America changes, too. Today the soft bigotry of cultural discomfort may stand in the way of a candidate whose faith exemplifies values of charity, self-discipline and community that we as Americans claim to hold dear. Surely, though, the day will come when we are ready to put prejudice aside and choose a president without regard to what we think of his religion.

Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes frequently on religion and public life.

 

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Another Jewish Voice in Defense of Mormons

December 18, 2007

[Note: I am a democrat and will probably not vote for Mitt Romney (for purely political reasons), however, I have been appalled at the way he has been treated in media. I found Lawrence O'Connel's recent rant on the McLaughlin group particularly outrageous. In any case, I have been pleased that a number of my fellow Jews have been writing in defense of Mitt and Mormonism and, as far as I know, none have been against him. Here is the second in a series of two...or three if I decide to say more personally...]

What Iowans Should Know About Mormons

Mitt Romney’s speech and American tolerance.


BY NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
Friday, December 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

Yesterday, at the end of Mitt Romney’s speech, he told a story from the early days of the First Continental Congress, whose members were meeting in Philadelphia in 1774: “With Boston occupied by British troops . . . and fears of an impending war . . . someone suggested they pray.” But because of the variety of religious denominations represented, there were objections. “Then Sam Adams rose and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.”

Were Adams alive today, he most certainly would hear a prayer from a Mormon. It is hard to imagine a group more patriotic than the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But there is reason to believe that voters in Iowa and elsewhere will not accept Mr. Romney’s invitation–put forward implicitly in his remarks yesterday at the George Bush Library–to ignore religious differences and embrace him simply as a man of character who loves his country.

A recent Pew poll shows that only 53% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mormons. That’s roughly the same percentage who feel that way toward Muslims. By contrast, more than three-quarters of Americans have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics. Whatever the validity of such judgments, one has to wonder: Why does a faith professed by the 9/11 hijackers rank alongside that of a peaceful, productive, highly educated religious group founded within our own borders?

Many evangelicals in the GOP view Mormonism as “a cult,” or at least not a Christian faith. One Southern Baptist leader recently called it the “fourth Abrahamic religion.” I remember, a couple of years ago, sitting in on an apologetics class at a Christian high school in Colorado Springs, Colo., and hearing the teacher describe a critical moment in the history of the Muslim faith, when the rock that now sits under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem tried to fly to heaven and had to be restrained by Mohammad. Acknowledging that it sounded a little wacky, the teacher added: “Well, it’s no stranger than that guy who found golden tablets in upstate New York.” The students laughed uproariously at the reference to the Mormons’ founding father, Joseph Smith.

Six years ago, I probably could have counted on one finger the number of Mormons I had met. Having lived most my life in the Northeast, my situation was hardly unique. Then, while researching a book on religious colleges, I decided to spend some time at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In preparation, I picked up “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” by religion reporters Richard and Joan Ostling. The Ostlings offer a comprehensive account of the church’s history and theology, as well as helpful descriptions of the Mormons’ cultural and political outlook. “The onetime believers in plural marriage, considered a dire threat to Victorian probity and the entire nation,” the authors write, “have become the exemplars of conservative monogamous family values.” It is hard to disagree. Mormons marry young and have large families. They don’t drink, smoke or gamble. The church does not condone homosexuality. Members give at least 10% of their income to the church and often volunteer more than 20 hours a week in some religious capacity. With no professional clergy, the survival of congregations (or “stakes”) is entirely dependent on lay participation. All young Mormon men and many women spend two years as missionaries, their travels funded by their own families. The church stocks soup kitchens across the country and internationally (both its own and those of other faiths) with food from its farms and warehouses.

Rather than behaving like an insular cult, members are integrated into the society around them, sending their kids to public schools and assuming leadership positions locally and nationally. Once Mormons complete their missionary service, they are not obliged to proselytize, so having Mormons as neighbors doesn’t mean a constant bombardment with invitations to join up.

But many Americans, unless they’ve actually had a Mormon neighbor, might find all these rosy facts meaningless, feeling deeply uneasy with some of Mormonism’s tenets. A lot of what we call religious tolerance depends on social contact, not theological understanding, and there are only about six million LDS members in the U.S., mostly concentrated in the Western states (though increasingly less so). If you press Baptists, they will acknowledge finding Catholics’ belief in transubstantiation implausible at best; Jews like me have a little trouble getting over the virgin birth. But we all get along, for the most part, because we know each other and live similar lives as Americans, whatever faith we profess.

But most Iowans will not meet a Mormon in the next six weeks unless Mr. Romney comes to call–Mormons make up less than one half of 1% of the state’s population. So let me offer a brief snapshot, not in the hope that Iowans will vote for Mr. Romney but in the hope that, if they don’t vote for him, their decision won’t have anything to do with his religion.

The young men and women at Brigham Young University are among the smartest, hardest-working and most pleasant college kids you will find anywhere. (For better or worse, I have visited dozens of college campuses.) The student body lives by the Mormon principle: “The glory of God is intelligence.” Most reside off campus without adult supervision, yet they adhere strictly to curfews, rules about contact with the opposite sex and every other church directive. They are purposeful but seem to enjoy themselves, spending their free time hiking in the sprawling desert. And BYU has America’s largest ROTC program outside of our military schools. This last fact is one I had occasion to think about on my trip. I left for BYU on Sept. 7, 2001, and returned home a week later. On 9/11, the students gathered for a campuswide devotional. The university president tried to comfort the students with “the eternal perspective.” My eternal perspective is not the same as theirs, of course. But hearing more than 20,000 young people around me reciting the Pledge of Allegiance made me realize that our temporal perspective is the same. I’m sure Sam Adams would have agreed.

Ms. Riley is The Wall Street Journal’s deputy Taste editor.

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NY Boy Makes Good (In defense of Mitt)

December 18, 2007

Religion in the Presidential Race: A Troubling New Precedent

By Abraham H. Foxman

National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

The full article originally appeared in Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s speech to the American people about his Mormonism and faith in America was an important contribution to our ongoing national dialogue regarding the appropriate role of religion in politics.

We agree there is no place in our society for bigotry and that one’s religion should never be a test for political office. We also realize that Governor Romney is fighting an unacceptable prejudice against him because of his faith and understand his need to proclaim himself a Christian.

Yet the speech was also a reminder that it has become part of our political culture for candidates to be forced into asserting their religiosity. The creeping emphasis on religion in our political culture, with some candidates openly professing their beliefs on the campaign trail — at times even hawking them — is something that should deeply concern all Americans.

Forty-seven years have passed since then-presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy found it necessary to openly declare he was “not the Catholic candidate for president” but “the Democratic Party’s candidate who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Who would have thought the same nagging questions raised about Kennedy’s fitness for office would surface again in the 2007 presidential campaign, especially after the 2000 campaign when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut proved that an observant Jew could run for the office of vice president without his religious faith being a factor in determining the outcome.

Fast forward to the 2007 campaign, and there are more ominous signs that we haven’t quite reached the point when one’s religious beliefs are less important than his or her qualifications. It is disturbing that any candidate should feel compelled or even pressured to explain his religious views to voters. It is outrageous that a candidate should face religious bigotry and questions about his fitness for office because of his faith. And it is disconcerting that some candidates are now engaged in a dangerous game of political one-upmanship in an effort to win over the “religious vote.”

In his address, Governor Romney made four points that should resonate with every candidate and with all Americans. First, our nation has a “grand tradition” of religious tolerance and liberty.
Second, we separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason — “no religion should dictate the state, nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion.”

Third, “a person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” And finally, no president should put the doctrine of any church above “the sovereign authority of the law.”

We welcome these four points, but there was a subtext to the speech that provided some cause for concern. The speech was not truly a reaffirmation of the importance of the separation of church and state. Rather it reflected an effort we have seen in the current campaign — indeed on the part of many of the candidates — to appeal to religious voters on the basis of shared religiosity.

The Anti-Defamation League has previously called on Americans to judge candidates on the basis of their views on issues and their qualifications, and not the nature or depth of their religious commitment. Appealing to voters along religious lines can be divisive, contrary to the American ideal of including all in the political process, and can open the door to promises that violate the separation of government and religion.

As we said during the 2000 campaign with regard to Senator Lieberman, candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters. At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.

Anyone who legitimately aspires to the presidency of the United States must be prepared to set an example and be a leader for all Americans, of all faiths and of no faith.

_____

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.” ADL, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, neither supports nor opposes any candidate for political office.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.


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LDS, Jewish ties are strong…

October 7, 2007

Mormons show ‘a continuous record of support,’ expert says

By Elaine Jarvik
You don’t have to look very far (Zions Bank, for example, or the Jordan River) to see the affinity that early Mormon settlers felt for Judaism. A century and a half later, it’s still “a unique and special relationship,” says Mark Paredes, who is both director of Jewish relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Southern California and outreach director for the American Jewish Congress.Paredes, a lawyer who speaks seven languages, has served as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is also the former press attache of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.

“This is the gospel truth,” says Paredes, “there is no church that’s been around for as long as our church has that has the record we have with the Jewish people. We have a continuous record of support.”

The LDS Church has no history of anti-Semitism, he says. “A lot of churches who now are supportive of Israel are apologizing for past anti-Semitism, as well they should, but we don’t have anything to apologize for.”

Paredes was in Salt Lake City this week to speak to B’Nai Shalom (Children of Peace), a group made up mostly of Jewish converts to Mormonism. His advice to B’Nai Shalom members: Use respect and discretion when talking about Mormonism with members of the Jewish religion. Paredes cites anecdotes in which well-meaning converts have told Jews, “I used to be Jewish, but now I’m a convert. You should try it.”

The LDS Church has raised the ire of some Jews because of its history of doing posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims. But that wasn’t church policy, Paredes insists. “There were only nine people responsible” for those baptisms, he says.

The LDS affinity for Judaism stems in part, he says, from the belief that Mormons are members of the house of Israel, a belief that “causes us to regard the Jews as more our brothers than other Christians do.”

Jews have flourished in Salt Lake City, says Paredes, who notes that the city elected a Jewish mayor in 1932 — years before New York City did — and that the first two Jewish governors in America were from Utah and Idaho, states with large LDS populations.

These days, the LDS Church’s public affairs office in Southern California conducts outreach efforts to the Chinese, Korean, African-American and Muslim communities, in addition to the 600,000 Jews who live in the Los Angeles area, Paredes says.

LDS Church members serve on the speakers bureaus of the Anti-Defamation League and the Consulate General of Israel, for example, and the Los Angeles Jewish Genealogical Society has a library in the LDS Church’s Family History Center there. Last year the LDS Church and the American Jewish Congress co-sponsored an interfaith panel on Israel and Judaism, and a member of the LDS Church was master of ceremonies for the annual Israel Festival in Encino, the largest Jewish festival in the West, he says.

But the LDS Church, for all its “philosemitism,” Paredes says, makes it a point not to take political positions or make political statements about the Middle East.

“The church is in 170 countries,” he says. “If it started making political statements on issue X in the Middle East, I have no doubt that the next day the in box of the president of the church would be filled with queries in, let’s say, Spain, asking ‘how do you feel about Basques,’ or from the members in India, ‘how about the Kashmir problem.’ … It’s just a dead-end when you head down that road.”

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We Jews Have our “Peoplehood” Issues too…

October 3, 2007

 

I know I promised a series dealing with Yom Kippur…  As it turns out, what started as an introductory article on Jewish conceptions of priesthood and authority is turning into something close to a full-blown academic paper.  It’s about half done but will take some time.  It may not be interesting to the rest of you but it’s fascinating to me and I’m having a great time with it.

 That said, I’ve been trying to keep the blog active with some general commentary on whatever interesting issues I hear about.  In the last post I discussed Jan Shipps’ recent Sunstone symposium lecture on the gradual loss of an LDS sense of “peoplehood” over the past couple of decades.

 As it turns out, I came across this article dealing with precisely the same issue with American Judaism.  Sometimes I find it easier to see such issues when I’m not so close to them so I offer this as an illustrative example that might be of interest to my Mormon readers.

Enjoy!

Judaism is a nation, not just a faith community

The historic bargain linking American Jewry and Israel since the founding of the state is coming to an end. The terms of the deal were unspoken, but clear: Israel would provide American Jews with a sense of pride and identity as Jews, and they, in turn, would shower upon Israel their financial and political support. But Israel is no longer a source of pride for non-Orthodox Jews, and the identity it provides is not one which they wish to share.

That conclusion emerges from a recent study published byJonathan Rosenblum sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman. They found that, among American Jews, indifference to Israel is “giving way to downright alienation.”

More than half of Jews under 35 said that they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy. The death and expulsion of millions is something they could live with. By those standards, they probably would not see the Holocaust as a “personal” tragedy either.

What young Jews under 35 feel toward Israel goes beyond apathy to outright resentment. Israel complicates their social lives and muddies their political identity. Only 54 percent profess to be comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state at all. In Europe and on elite American campuses, internationalism and a world without borders are the rage. The Jews of Israel, with their stubborn insistence on protecting their nation-state, are, as always, out of sync.

Young American Jews do not wish to be tarred with their atavisms. On campus and where enlightened folk meet, Israel is scorned as a colonial oppressor. Who wants to be identified as a sympathizer with apartheid? Once Reform Judaism disavowed Zionism for fear of being thought disloyal to their host countries; young American Jews today share similar fears of being out of step with their enlightened peers.

The trend lines were pointing in this direction 40 years ago. In a 1965 Commentary symposium of younger Jewish intellectuals — the least religiously identified segment of American Jewry — only one, Eliahu, expressed complete comfort with Israel’s creation and pride in its accomplishments, and he eventually made aliya. The rest expressed various degrees of discomfort with Israel’s militarism (and this was before 1967 and the “occupation”). The only Jewish identity they acknowledged at all was that of the “Jew” as the perpetually alienated critic of those in power — not exactly one upon which to base a connection to other Jews. Now the rest of American Jewry is catching up to those once young intellectuals.

Jewish Agency chair Zeev Bielski labeled the results “very distressing,” and then proceeded to give a ridiculous explanation for those numbers: the comfortable life of most American Jews.

Cohen and Kelman know better. And their answer is summed up in the demographic they did not interview for their study: Orthodox Jews. For a survey of young Orthodox Jews would have yielded a diametrically opposite result.

Among younger Jews, those for whom their Judaism is important — primarily the Orthodox — will remain connected to the fate of their fellow Jews in Israel. Most Orthodox American youths will study in Israel after high school, some for many years. And almost all will visit Israel many times. Eretz Yisrael is not a mere abstraction for them, but the center of the spiritual life of the Jewish people.

Even an anti-Zionist Satmar hasid living in the secluded village of Monroe, NY, will intensify his prayers when Israel is at war and follow the action closely. Why? Because for him the name “Jew” means something.

The majority of young American Jews and the majority of young Israelis share a lack of interest in their Judaism. But that shared negativity provides little basis for a relationship. Shared gene pools won’t do it, either — that smacks of racism. And ethnic identity, it turns out, cannot be passed down, or survive the breakup of ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods.

But the survey signals something else as well: a declining understanding on the part of American Jews of Judaism as a national identity that imposes obligations.

Cohen and Kelman are wrong to argue that ethnic identity is being replaced by religious identity. For when young American Jews say that they view their Judaism as a religious, not national, identity, the religion they refer to is a pretty tepid affair. It fails to provide them a sense of connection to their fellow Jews, whether in America or abroad. It is a religion largely lacking connection to the Land of Israel, and even more importantly to the defining event in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Absent the latter, there is no common mission to link the descendants of those who stood at Sinai.

Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, described the new Reform prayer book as emphasizing Reform Jews’ increased interest in spirituality over national identity. However, the Torah defines us as a nation, not just a faith community. Any religion that downplays the common national identity of Jews is not Torah Judaism but some new creation.

The impact of the declining sense of responsibility to one’s fellow Jews is being felt within American Jewry itself, not just in attitudes toward Israel. Already, only 6 percent of giving by mega-Jewish foundations goes to remotely Jewish causes. In time, funding the institutions of American Jewry will become ever more difficult. And the Orthodox will be left to donate to Israel.

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“Peoplehood” Rocks…

September 25, 2007

…But Churches are a Dime a Dozen.

Part 2: Second Reaction to the talk by Jan Shipps, “No Mormon Church? – What’s Going on Here?” in “Sunstone Classic Podcasts”

As a Jew, one of the things that I identify with when interacting with Mormons is that we both (at least some of us apparently) have a sense of “Peoplehood.” No matter how disparate we might be on a variety of issues we still identify with other members of the tribe, for better or worse. For example, Mormons cringe when the news media discusses radical polygamists like Warren Jeffs and identifies them with the Mormon Church. Mormons routinely disavow any association with these groups (While simultaneously identifying with Jews, to general Jewish amazement!). It was painful for some of my Mormon friends when, a few years ago, a Salt Lake LDS stake president who was also a church attorney was arrested under a bridge with a prostitute.

Similarly, in the mid 1990’s when New York physician Baruch Goldstein, shot two dozen Muslim worshipers at the tomb of Abraham in Hebron, the Jewish community in my town (about 30,000) collectively took out a full page ad in our largest newspaper condemning the act.

On the other, I don’t get similar reactions from my Evangelical friends. When Ted Haggard, president of the American Association of Evangelicals and the pastor of a mega-church in Colorado was exposed as soliciting gay prostitutes and taking meth, the reaction was, “Well, he’s just another false Christian.” Oh, they distanced themselves certainly. But there was no personal pain — It was more of, well, he got what was coming to him.

Why is this?

I believe it is because both Mormons and Jews are “peoples.” While Evangelicals are merely members of “churches.” “Peoples” have a cultural interconnectedness that transcends matters of doctrine or official association. Argue if you will but there is a “Home” for Mormons and it is Utah. Phrases like “cultural Mormon” or “Ethnic Mormon” are symptomatic of this. These folks may not go to church. They may not keep the word of wisdom. They may not believe in the Book of Mormon. Yet, they are “Mormons” of a sort. It’s in the DNA. They may well be willing to give their lives for the church while simultaneously criticizing it. Perhaps this is only a feature of the Mormon core region in the intermountain west (and probably west coast), but it is certainly a phenomenon I’m aware of.

Jews are similar.

We all know we have a “home” and for better or worse, it’s Israel.  This “homing sense” is so great that even after two thousand year at what was seemingly our low point in the days immediately after the Holocaust, we reestablished the state at tremendous cost.  Incidentally, I think it is precisely the power of the Jewish sense of “home” that has inspired the Jewish-Mormon connection.  Joseph and Brigham tapped into our energy and created a people with a home.  Interestingly, I’ve taught the first verse of “Israel Israel God is Calling” to a class of Jewish kids.  It works without translation, as do a surprising number of Mormon Hymns, in a purely Jewish context.  Anyway, this sense of home creates deep roots.

We vary according to “activity level.” (We call it “observance” — Mormons are “active” but Jews “Observe”). My synagogue has 3000 members on the books. On a regular Shabbat, we are lucky to have 600 show up. On holidays however, all 3000 show and our facility is strained to the maximum. I suspect that of the 2400 who are no-shows, at least half wonder if they personally believe in God (Recent Jewish history has taken it’s toll on Jewish faith). Still, they support the synagogue, send their kids to Hebrew school and show up on holidays. We have bitter inter-Jewish debates on issues of “observance” (In this case how to keep the commandments — we argue less on actual theology, but that’s changing lately). There’s a joke that on any subject two Jews will have at least three contradictory opinions. Yet, where the rubber hits the road, we’re all related and will sacrifice to help each other when in need. We feel each other’s achievements and pains personally and viscerally.

Do people in mere “churches” feel this way? Somehow, I don’t think so.

“Churches” are more convenient and more adapted to modern life to be sure.  However, they feel less rooted, more atomistic and kind of superficial to me.  To me, as an outside observer, it seems as though, for most Americans today, “Church shopping” is a  lot like clothes shopping.  Jan Shipps believes that the LDS “Bretheren” want to make Mormonism less like a “people” and more like a “church.”

For your sake, I hope she’s wrong.

Moshe Akiva

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Are you sure you want to be Christians?

September 24, 2007

 Part 1: First Reaction to Jan Shipps talk, “No Mormon Church? – What’s Going on Here?” …a “Sunstone Classics” podcast.

I know that I said I would post some detail on Yom Kippur that would be of interest to Mormons, but it’s going to take a lot of background info, some of which I started writing today, before most LDS folks will make sense of what I want to explain. Today I started writing a piece comparing the Mormon and Jewish conceptions of Aaronic priesthood, for example. However, on my way home I started listening to a piece from “Sunstone classic podcasts” from Jan Shipps entitled, “No Mormon Church – What’s Going on Here?” It deals with the then (2001) church directive that it no longer wants to be referred to as the “Mormon Church” and would prefer the appellation “The Church of Jesus Christ” as a contraction if one is necessary.

Shipps asserts that this serves the duel functions of placing Mormonism squarely in the realm of (somewhat eccentric) protestant movements like Mennonites and Quakers (Which she calls “perhaps, marketing”) and as a proclamation to the world that it is THE legitimate church of Jesus on the earth. That is to say, it simultaneously places it withing the national mainstream yet makes an exclusive claim.

OK, so I’m a Jew and therefore being thought of as “truly Christian” is no big advantage. To me it’s just “ho-hum, yet another one.” But really, is it to your advantage to be thought of that way??

I wonder…

From the outside, it looks like the LDS church (excuse me, “The Church of Jesus Christ”) has a bit of “Stockholm Syndrome.” That is to say, you have started to identify with your persecutors. There is no question that Mormonism in it’s very early period sought to be a restored New Testament church and emphasized Jesus. However, speaking as an informed outsider with no stake in you being Christians or not, it seems that Joseph Smith dropped that line pretty quickly and, if anything, wanted to become a restored kingdom of Israel. Most of the doctrinal innovations and political moves relate to the Hebrew Bible (aka “Old Testament”).

I’ll go into that more later, but from here, it seems pretty obvious. Jesus as a theological figure, is rarely a serious issue in Mormon writing until the 1980’s! Even “Jesus the Christ” is mostly about his life as an example. It reads like any of the other “lives of the prophets” genre. When the atonement was mentioned, it was almost exclusively in discussing the need to overcome death. Personal sins were repaired through repentance and “eternal man” could make “progress” toward fulfilling his destiny as a perfected being in the Celestial Kingdom. Yes, you had the sacrament every week. But wasn’t it a quick run-through to get on to talk after talk about anything but Jesus? Honestly, did you feel “Christian” back in the day?

But those pesky Evangelicals have hammered you for years. I personally find their critiques to be generally rather unsophisticated. The run the gambit from insipid to abysmal to (only recently) “superficially sophisticated yet still wanting.” As an intellectual exercise in the mid 90’s, I actively argued against Evangelical critiques of Mormonism on the Usenet list alt.religion.mormon. Their positions were easy to critique. Yet is seems that year after year more and more Mormons want to become like them? You seem desperate to be accepted by them (yet at the same time, criticizing them as apostate).

You have really truly beautiful, not to mention intellectually, sophisticated theology within the unique Mormon canon. Yes, you have some issues to resolve, but no more than they do. Yet it seems like the Mormons have come to identify with their persecutors. They are not your friends.

Honestly, why do you care so much what they think of you?

Sincerely, I want to know?

Moshe Akiva

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