Two Important Sources for Mormons and Jews

August 22, 2022

I’d like to introduce two Jewish authors that I think might be of special interest to Latter-day Saints, especially Jewish Latter-day Saints. I’ve never heard them mentioned in LDS setting and I think they really should be.  The first is Benjamin Sommer, who is a professor of Bible and ancient Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NY. His major book, _The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel_ comes to the same conclusion that Joseph Smith proclaimed, namely that in ancient Israel God was seen as having a glorified body of flesh and bone. Now that does not seem momentous once one reads the Tanak with an open mind, but for a major professor at the flagship seminary of the Conservative movement to actively argue for it (with more evidence than I have seen in any LDS book) is fairly remarkable.  Even more remarkable is that in the second half of the book, he argues that we lost something by moving to an only spiritual understanding of God grounded in Greek philosophy. He makes a plea for Jews to envision God with a finite body existing in Space and time.

I agree, which leads me to the next work, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice,” by the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas.  In his view, after the Holocaust, the only legitimate way to view God is as a limited being, being omnipotent only in the sense of being able to do anything that can be done, rather than the traditional view of omnipotence since Maimonides, being able to do anything logically possible (i.e. the only limitation being unable to create things like ‘perfectly round squares” that contradict the attributes of a definition). Further, unlike other believing Jewish philosophers, Jonas believes that there must be other substances (he gets somewhat close to identifying things like human intelligences) that are equally uncreated along with God creating a universe in which the best God can do is to organize worlds in which free beings can learn through experience. In his opinion, this view is necessitated by the Holocaust, if nothing else, because he could not conceive of a perfectly good, truly omnipotent God allowing it to happen without intervention if he could have.  At least that is how I read him quite a long time ago now, acknowledging that I came to it with both Jewish and LDS perspectives as most of you will. Someone with different influences might describe it differently but the above is my take-away.

Anyway, IMO both these sources are well worth your time.

Moshe Akiva


Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana

December 9, 2009
Hassidic Rabbi Help Montanta Police Speak Hebrew…To their Israeli-Trained Dog!

HELENA, Mont. — In Montana, a rabbi is an unusual sight. So when a Hasidic one walked into the State Capitol last December, with his long beard, black hat and long black coat, a police officer grabbed his bomb-sniffing German shepherd and went to ask the exotic visitor a few questions.

Though there are few Jews in Montana today, there once were many. In the late 19th century, there were thriving Jewish populations in the mining towns, where Jews emigrated to work as butchers, clothiers, jewelers, tailors and the like.

The city of Butte had kosher markets, a Jewish mayor, a B’nai B’rith lodge and three synagogues. Helena, the capital city, had Temple Emanu-El, built in 1891 with a seating capacity of 500. The elegant original facade still stands, but the building was sold and converted to offices in the 1930s, when the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the Jewish population having mostly assimilated or moved on to bigger cities.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Helena, too, with tombstones dating to 1866. But more Jews are buried in Helena than currently live here.

And yet, in a minor revival, Montana now has three rabbis, two in Bozeman and one (appropriately) in Whitefish. They were all at the Capitol on the first night of Hannukah last year to light a menorah in the ornate Capitol rotunda, amid 100-year-old murals depicting Sacajawea meeting Lewis and Clark, the Indians beating Custer, and the railway being built. The security officer and the dog followed the rabbi into the rotunda, to size him up.

Hanukkah has a special significance in Montana these days. In Billings in 1993, vandals broke windows in homes that were displaying menorahs. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than 10,000 of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their own windows, to protect the city’s three dozen or so Jewish families. The vandalism stopped.

Lately, the only commotion about Hanukkah has been the annual haggling among the rabbis over who gets to light the menorah at the Capitol. (It has since been resolved — at this year’s lighting, on Dec. 16, they will each light a candle; in the future they will take turns going first.)

Last year, the rabbinic debate resumed as the hour of lighting neared and 20 or so Jewish Montanans filed into the Capitol.

One woman could be heard reporting, excitedly, that a supermarket in Great Falls would be carrying matzo next Passover; a guy from Missoula was telling everyone that he had just gotten a shipment of pastrami from Katz’s Deli in New York.

The menorah was lighted and Hebrew prayers chanted, while the officer watched from a distance with his dog. He figured he would let it all go down and then move in when the ceremony was done. The dog sat at attention, watching the ceremony with a peculiar expression on its face, a look of intense interest. When the ceremony was over, the officer approached the Hasidic rabbi.

“I’m Officer John Fosket of the Helena Police,” he said. “This is Miky, our security dog. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Miky, pronounced Mikey, is in a Diaspora of his own. He was born in an animal shelter in Holland and shipped as a puppy to Israel, where he was trained by the Israeli Defense Forces to sniff out explosives. Then one day, Miky got a plane ticket to America. Rather than spend the standard $20,000 on a bomb dog, the Helena Police Department had shopped around and discovered that it could import a surplus bomb dog from the Israeli forces for the price of the flight. So Miky came to his new home in Helena, to join the police force.

The problem, the officer explained, was that Miky had been trained entirely in Hebrew.

When Officer Fosket got Miky, he was handed a list of a dozen Hebrew commands and expressions, like “Hi’ sha’ er” (stay!), Ch’pess (search!), and “Kelev tov” (good doggy). He made flashcards and tried practicing with Miky. But poor Miky didn’t respond.

Officer Fosket (who is not Jewish) suspected he wasn’t pronouncing the words properly. He tried a Hebrew instructional audio-book from the local library, but no luck. The dog didn’t always understand what he was being ordered to do. Or maybe Miky was just using his owner’s bad pronunciation as an excuse to ignore him. Either way, the policeman needed a rabbi.

And now he had found one. They worked through a few pronunciations, and the rabbi, Chaim Bruk, is now on call to work with Miky and his owner as needed. Officer Fosket has since learned to pronounce the tricky Israeli “ch” sound, and Miky has become a new star on the police force. The two were even brought in by the Secret Service to work a recent presidential visit.

So all is well in the Jewish community here because the Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue.

But the big winner is the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn who is working hard (against tough odds) to bring his Lubavitch movement to Montana. He has been scouring the state for anyone who can speak Hebrew, and is elated to have found a German shepherd he can talk to.

Eric A. Stern lives in Helena, Mont., and is senior counselor to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The Beliefs column by Peter Steinfels will return on Dec. 19.


A Mormon Senator’s Gift to the Jews

December 9, 2009

A Mormon Senator’s Gift to the Jews, Nonreturnable


WASHINGTON — The canon of Hanukkah songs written by Mormon senators from Utah just got a little bigger.

‘Eight Days of Hanukkah’ (TabletMag.com) – Music Video

‘Eight Days of Hanukkah’ – “How the song came to be written – with comentary” (TabletMag.com)

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a solemn-faced Republican with a soft spot for Jews and a love of Barbra Streisand, has penned a catchy holiday tune, “Eight Days of Hanukkah.”

The video was posted Tuesday night on Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish lifestyle and culture, just in time for Hanukkah.

Known around the Senate as a prolific writer of Christian hymns and patriotic melodies, Mr. Hatch, 75, said this was his first venture into Jewish music. It will not be his last.

“Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do,” Mr. Hatch said in an interview before heading to the Senate floor to debate an abortion amendment. “Mormons believe the Jewish people are the chosen people, just like the Old Testament says.”

In short, he loves the Jews. And based on an early sampling of listeners, the feeling could be mutual.

“Watching Orrin Hatch in the studio, I said to myself that nothing this great will ever happen to me again,” said Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet.

Set against a bouncy synthesizer beat, the song begins:

“Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah,

The festival of light/

In Jerusalem,

The oil burned bright.”

Adding to the project’s only-in-America mishmash is that the song is performed by Rasheeda Azar, a Syrian-American vocalist from Indiana. But Mr. Hatch is the song’s unquestioned prime mover, or macher. He is featured in the video, sitting stoic in the studio, head bobbing slightly, donning earphones and contributing backup vocals.

The song’s contagious refrain goes:

“Eight days of Hanukkah,

Come let’s celebrate.

Eight days of Hanukkah,

Let’s celebrate tonight, Hey!”

At one point, Mr. Hatch unbuttons his white dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace he wears every day. Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah. Mr. Hatch keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” he said. “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes.”

The genesis of “Eight Days of Hanukkah” came a decade ago. Mr. Hatch was considering a run for the presidency in the campaign eventually won by George W. Bush (Mr. Hatch wound up writing a song for Mr. Bush’s second inaugural, titled “Heal Our Land”). He was discussing his love of songwriting with the writer Jeffrey Goldberg, a well-known mensch-about-town in Washington with a longtime grievance against “the general lameness of Hanukkah music.” (As a columnist for The Jerusalem Post years earlier, Mr. Goldberg had organized a “write-a-new-song-for-Hanukkah contest” that attracted 200 entries, most of them — in his estimation — “dreck.”)

He asked Mr. Hatch if he would write a Hanukkah song. The senator said he would, but never did.

Mr. Goldberg, who now writes for The Atlantic, mentioned the decade-old promise in his blog last year a few days before Christmas. A day later, Mr. Hatch sent him an apologetic e-mail message that included the first five stanzas of “Eight Days of Hanukkah.”

“I am willing to serve as a Semitic song muse for any United States senator,” Mr. Goldberg said. “God forbid any of the Jewish senators write a Hanukkah song.”

Mr. Hatch enlisted his collaborator, Madeline Stone, a Jewish songwriter from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who specializes in Christian music. “I’m a pretty liberal Democrat,” Ms. Stone said. “But it became more about the music and the friendship for me and Orrin.”

The song was recorded in October at a studio in Manhattan.

Mr. Hatch speaks of “Eight Days of Hanukkah” as a gift to the Jewish people. “This song means more to me than most of the songs I have ever written,” he said. “People need to know the story of Hanukkah. It was a miracle.”

He said his ultimate goal would be for his idol, Ms. Streisand, to perform one of his songs. “It would be good for her and good for me,” Mr. Hatch said, while acknowledging that given her outspoken liberalism, that union might require another miracle.


Utah’s New Synagogue Opens to Acclaim

December 19, 2008

Temple Har Shalom Combines Art, Architecture, Judaism and Skiing

PARK CITY, Utah, Dec 18, 2008
Put together a world-renown Japanese ceramic artist, a world-class German architect, 35 acres of pristine land in the mountains of Utah, a quest for spirituality, and the result is probably not what you would expect.
After 14 years of rented office space converted into sanctuaries and classrooms, the Jewish community of Park City, Utah has opened the doors to its first synagogue, Temple Har Shalom, literally Mountain of Peace. Not only is it located in the last place you might expect to find a thriving and growing Jewish community, but it is also a center for spirituality that uses international influences to integrate art and architecture with the area’s intrinsic beauty, bound with a love for Jewish life, a passion for learning, and skiing.
“We have a building that exudes the feelings and concepts and mission of what our synagogue stands for,” said Adam Bronfman, who sits on the Temple Har Shalom Board of Directors and is a founding member of the congregation. “The architecture of this space is very open with lots of light, high ceilings, an expansive sacred space, and classrooms that speak to Judaism’s traditions of exploration and learning. And those are our values as an open, welcoming community that says to everybody, ‘Come, celebrate life with us.”
As the congregation began to take root, the desire for a building grew. But Bronfman, who is managing director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, was passionate in his belief that the first step must be to hire a permanent rabbi who could unify the fledgling congregation. Previously, traveling rabbis would come for special occasions and holidays and then leave. Bronfman contended that the right spiritual leader would set the tone for the community and the rest would follow.
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Josh Aaronson was hired and in 2003, he pulled together a core group of synagogue members and began to float the idea of a permanent home for the congregation.
“We had rented space that inhibited our growth and programming. We had been nomads and now we needed a home. And we wanted a place that could meet our spiritual needs but also could sit appropriately in our surroundings, but not look like a ski lodge,” Aaronson said.
Fundraising was a critical next step, as was selecting an architect, who could create a building that would be identifiable as a religious institution, but also meet a wide variety of needs as a center for learning, culture and inclusion, Aaronson said. Naming noted German synagogue-architect Alfred Jacoby set the stage for what would become the centerpiece for the congregation.
Described as accessible, elegant and non-confrontational, Jacoby’s design of Temple Har Shalom is recognized as a community-based synagogue that conforms to its surroundings with its high ceilings and abundant use of wood, and a fireplace set against a brick background. Its magnificent floor to ceiling windows provides a captivating view of the mountains from which Temple Har Shalom derives its name.
“The building tries at all points to connect to the outside very much and give you an impression of a connection between you and that shelter and nature,” Jacoby said. “It’s a place for spirituality and it is also a space for identity where Jews can congregate and have festivals and to really have joy in that building.” harshalom1
The final touch was the fused glass windows located in the Temple’s main sanctuary. Celebrated artist Jun Kaneko was tapped to create the windows, although he was working in two completely new fields. The first was the concerns of a Judaic temple and the second was working with glass in Jacoby’s architectural space.
“This was my first big architecturally integrated window, so I studied quite a bit about the space and the relationship of natural light coming through the inside of the windows and outside,” Kaneko said. “Then the temple members in Park City had to teach me what is important [for the artwork to reflect] about Judaism. Very early I had an idea about using lot of color, but because people come together at the Temple with a purpose, color would be distracting. I picked blue and white as the major colors because those are spiritual and mysterious colors to me and it just happens to be the colors of the flag of Israel.” harshalom4
The windows have been likened to a tallis – the Jewish prayer shawl – that wraps around the ark which holds the Torah, Judaism’s most sacred text, while the 12 stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary are like the fringes of the tallis, enveloping the congregation in spirituality, warmth, and community, Aaronson said.
“After much hard work, we now have a building that brings the outside in, so that every public space has a stunning view of our natural surroundings, while still being intimate and warm,” he said. “People love being in our building.”

On sale now in Jerusalem: Priestly garments

July 8, 2008

JERUSALEM (AP) — In a stuffy basement off an Old City alleyway in Jerusalem, tailors using ancient texts as a blueprint have begun making a curious line of clothing they hope will be worn by priests in a reconstructed Jewish Temple.

The project, run by a Jerusalem group called the Temple Institute, is part of an ideology that advocates making practical preparations for the rebuilding of the ancient temple on a disputed rectangle in Jerusalem sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

Jews call the site the Temple Mount and venerate it as their holiest place. The temple itself was destroyed by Roman legions two millennia ago. For the past 1,300 years, the site has been home to Islam’s third-holiest shrine, the Noble Sanctuary, including the golden Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

These conflicting claims lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and past efforts to upset the status quo have erupted into violence.

The Temple Institute has made priestly garments in the past for display in the small museum it runs in the Jewish Quarter, but those were hand-sewn and cost upward of $10,000 each. The institute recently received rabbinic permission to begin using sewing machines for the first time, bringing the cost down and allowing them to produce dozens or hundreds of garments, depending on how many orders come in.

If you are a descendant of the Jewish priestly class, a full outfit, including an embroidered belt 32 cubits (48 feet) long, can be yours for about $800.

“Before, the clothes we made were to go on display. Now we’re engaged in the practical fulfillment of the divine commandment,” said Yehuda Glick, the Temple Institute’s director, at a ceremony marking the workshop’s opening last week.

The thread, six-ply flax, was purchased in India, and the diamond-patterned fabric was woven in Israel. The blue dye, which the Bible calls “tchelet,” is made from the secretions of a snail found in the Mediterranean Sea, and the red color comes from an aphid found on local trees.

The priests, made up of descendants of the Biblical figure Aaron, were an elite group entrusted with the temple and its rituals, such as sacrificing animals and making other offerings to God. The memory of belonging to that class has been preserved by Jews through the centuries. Their most common family name is “Cohen,” meaning priest.

The Temple Institute and similarly minded believers think those modern priests will soon have to resume the rituals of their ancestors in a rebuilt temple, and that by preparing their garments they are bringing that day closer.

“The light of God is coming back, and it’s happening before our eyes,” Glick said. By sewing garments for the temple priests, his institute is “continuing a process that was neglected for 2,000 years,” he said.

The Temple Institute does not advocate violent action and says its activities are purely educational. But groups like the institute, however marginal, have played on Muslim fears that Jews plan to destroy their holy sites to pave the way for rebuilding the temple.

Adnan Husseini, formerly the top Muslim official at the site and now an adviser on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the work of such groups a “provocation.”

“If they talk about building the third temple, what does it mean? It means they will destroy the Islamic mosques,” Husseini said. “And if they do, they will make 1.5 billion enemies. It is God’s will that this is a place for Muslims to pray, and they must respect that.”

The first Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians 2,500 years ago, and the second was leveled by the Romans in the year 70. Since then, the focus of the religion has changed drastically, from a temple-centered ritual of animal sacrifice led by priests to a faith revolving around individual study and piety taught by rabbis.

Most Orthodox Jews see the rebuilding of the temple as a theoretical event to be undertaken by God when the Jewish people are deemed to deserve it and Judaism has traditionally forbidden making practical preparations of this kind.

But the small group in this basement, members of a hardline fringe among Israel’s religious nationalists, see that thinking as an excuse for inaction.

“From the moment we see we’re ready here, the clothes will be ready and the priests can get to work when the time comes,” said Hagai Barashi, an assistant tailor. He wore a Biblical-looking robe, long sidelocks, and a pair of Nike flip-flops.

The first member of the priestly class who came to be measured was Nachman Kahana, a local rabbi. He removed his black jacket, and tailor Aviad Jarufi, a small man in a white robe and horn-rimmed glasses, took out his green measuring tape. The priestly garments can’t be sold off the rack — Jewish law specifies that they must be made to measure.

Yisrael Ariel, the rabbi who founded the Temple Institute, recited a traditional blessing, thanking God for “keeping us alive, and sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this time.”

Ariel, an expert on temple ritual who was present as a soldier when Israel captured the Old City from Jordan in 1967, is associated with the extreme flank of Israel’s religious settlement movement. In the 1980s, he was the No. 2 man on a virulently anti-Arab parliamentary list that was eventually outlawed for racism.

His institute is dedicated to recreating the implements used in the temple not only as a historical exercise but as a way to prepare for its reconstruction and, if possible, to speed up the process. In its 20 years of existence, the institute has recreated a golden seven-branched candelabra that cost $3 million, as well as harps, altars and containers for incense.

Many of the objects are on display in the institute’s museum, which also has a gift shop selling temple-themed souvenirs like puzzles, balsa-wood models and board games. There are also posters depicting the temple in Jerusalem, standing where the Dome of the Rock does now.

Many see the agenda as explosive.

“The more awareness you raise, and the more you stress that Judaism isn’t real without the temple, the more you’re encouraging conflict over holy space in Jerusalem,” said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist who wrote, “The End of Days,” a book about the struggle over the Temple Mount.


Court Rules in Favor of FLDS

May 23, 2008

As many of you know by now, the 3rd District Texas Court of Appeals has ruled Texas Child Protective Services acted improperly in Raiding the FLDS YFZ compound and taking custody of their children.  As an enthusiastic supporter of religious freedom, I was heartened by this ruling. The idea that was stated in the original petition by child services and argued for by the state before the Court of Appeals, namely that the FLDS belief system inherently endorsed child abuse and that the  entire  community constituted a “household,” should send chills down the spine of anyone in a religious minority.

I certainly don’t endorse child abuse or underage sexual activity (particularly involving older men) whether it is called marriage or not.  However, the idea that these cases were not investigated individually and the the justification for treating the group as a corporate entity was specifically it’s system of religious belief is utterly inimical to the first amendment and is downright frightening.  These Texas  appellate judges are to be commended for introducing a measure of legal sanity into the debate.

Further, it is my personal belief that polygamy between legal adults, particularly as a purely spiritual affair in which plural wives receive no legal recognition, as is the case with the FLDS, should be regarded as protected under the first amendment as well.  The legal justification for my position is rather complicated and I don’t have time to comment on it now but perhaps I will soon.  (My work as a union president has kept me swamped through most of the spring but is finally lightening up….  In other words, the blog is not dead!)

Since this blog is devoted to Jewish Mormon dialogue, let me add that as a Jew, I have no religious issues with polygamy per se.  Perhaps I will revisit the  position of polygamy under Jewish law in a new post in the near future.



Shalom TV – Now in Western US, Including SLC!

February 15, 2008

I, along with a number of other people, have been involved in an effort to bring Shalom TV, an eclectic Jewish television station based in New Jersey, to the Western Comcast cable line up.  Shalom TV has Jewish news programing from a variety of perspectives, Jewish Oriented film (including modern Israeli and classic Yiddish films), Hebrew instruction, Jewish children’s programing, a variety of Torah and academic Jewish studies programs and the entire 92nd street YMHA speaker series in its line up.  Shalom TV has been available only to Comcast subscribers in the NY, NJ and Philadelphia area since it’s inception, but due to petitioning from subscribers across the country, Comcast has agreed to add Shalom TV to it’s “on demand” line-up nationwide, including Salt Lake City!

To access Shalom TV, one must:

1) Be a Comcast Cable Digital subscriber
2) Go to Channel 01 for the “On Demand” menu
3) Go to the “Entertainment” Submenu
4) Find “Shalom TV” and enter
5) Choose a sub-category from the Shalom TV menu
6) Pick the program desire
7) Enjoy the show!

Shalom TV is currently available (outside the NY, NJ PA region) only via “on demand” but if there is enough usage, Comcast will assign it a channel number to provide real-time  access.


Mormons Dismayed by Harsh Spotlight

February 13, 2008

February 8, 2008;

[Note: The justification for the inclusion of this article on the blog is the comparison, made by Arman Mauss in paragraph five, between anti-Mormonism and anti-Semitism. While I don’t think that they are precisely the same phenomenon, even I, as a Jew, have seen enough parallels that the same thought has crossed my mind. This really speaks volumes because I think that, on the basis of both evidence and emotional proclivity, I see anti-Semitism as virtually unique. Even though I do see some connection between anti-Mormonism and anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism is, in the end, less virulent because, in the worst of times, Mormons at least have the luxury of an escape hatch — they can become ex-Mormons. Those of us who are are Jewish will always be Jewish regardless of whether or not we convert out. Case in point, Edith Stein, who was taken by the Nazis from the convent, where she lived as a nun, to Awschwitz because she was a Jew.]

Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency brought more attention to the Mormon Church than it has had in years. What the church discovered was not heartening.

Critics of its doctrines and culture launched frequent public attacks. Polling data showed that far more Americans say they’d never vote for a Mormon than those who admitted they wouldn’t choose a woman or an African-American.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late January revealed that 50% of Americans said they would have reservations or be “very uncomfortable” about a Mormon as president. That same poll found that 81% would be “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with an African-American and 76% with a woman.

The Mormon religion “was the silent factor in a lot of the decision making by evangelicals and others,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the poll. The Romney campaign ran into “a religious bias head wind,” Mr. Hart and his Republican polling partner, Bill McInurff, wrote late last month.

“I don’t think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there,” said Armand Mauss, a Mormon sociologist who has written extensively about church culture, in an interview last week. “The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there.”

Yesterday, the former Massachusetts governor said he was suspending his quest for the Republican nomination, following a poor showing in the “Super Tuesday” contests. Mr. Romney made no mention of his religion when he withdrew.

There were many other factors that may have contributed to his failed campaign. He didn’t gain sufficient traction among the social conservatives influential to his party. Opponents attacked him, saying he changed his moderate stances to more conservative ones to attract votes, including his position on abortion.

Some observers play down religious bias as a factor. Ken Jennings, a Mormon who was a “Jeopardy!” champion, says anti-Mormon attacks “contributed” to Mr. Romney’s problems, but weren’t the only obstacle. “I suspect there were bigger forces in play than the religion,” such as perceptions that Mr. Romney had shifted his positions, says Mr. Jennings, of Seattle. “There were principled reasons to say, ‘I like McCain over Romney.'”

Religion “wasn’t a factor in the governor’s decision to step aside,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign spokesman. “There was a lot more focus on religion early on in the race, but as people learned more about Gov. Romney, his success as a businessman and as leader of the Olympics, it receded as an issue into the background.”


Nevertheless, Mr. Romney’s campaign exposed a surprisingly virulent strain of anti-Mormonism that had been largely hidden to the general public.

In December, political pundit and actor Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. unleashed a tirade on the “McLaughlin Group” television talk show, tearing into the Mormon Church and Mr. Romney’s faith. “Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist. And he comes from that lineage and says, ‘I respect this religion fully.’…He’s got to answer.”

Mormons were outraged. Hundreds complained to the show and on radio talk shows and the Internet, protesting that the remarks about church founder Joseph Smith were bigoted and unfounded.

Mr. O’Donnell, a former MSNBC commentator who plays a lawyer for polygamists on the HBO drama “Big Love,” says he has nothing to apologize for. “Everything I said was true,” he says. Although the McLaughlin Group says it will keep Mr. O’Donnell off the air for now, neither MSNBC nor HBO plans to take action against him, spokespeople say.

“The vast majority of Americans recognize that one of our strengths as a nation is our tolerance for religions that are different than our own,” says Mr. Fehrnstrom, the campaign spokesman. “Sadly, not every person thinks that way, but there’s nothing that can be said or done to change their small minds.”

For Mormons, Mr. O’Donnell’s comments were a rallying cry. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught not to argue with outsiders over faith. But as criticism of their church rose to new heights during the campaign, they took on their antagonists like never before, in a wave of activism encouraged by church leadership.

Mormon leaders and church members say they were initially unprepared for the intensity of attacks, which many say were unprecedented in modern times. The attacks, they say, are a sign that their long struggle for wide acceptance in America is far from over, despite global church expansion and prosperity.

On the Internet, the Romney bid prompted an outpouring of broadsides against Mormonism from both the secular and religious worlds. Evangelical Christian speakers who consider it their mission to criticize Mormon beliefs lectured to church congregations across the country. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, wrote that a Mormon presidency would threaten Christian faiths. Atheist author Christopher Hitchens called Mormonism “a mad cult” on Slate.com, and Bill Keller, a former convict who runs an online ministry in Florida, told a national radio audience that a vote for Mr. Romney was a vote for Satan.

“It seems like it’s been open season on Mormons,” says Marvin Perkins, a Los Angeles Mormon Church member who lectures about the history of blacks in the church.

Mr. Romney was reluctant to speak publicly about his religion. Eventually, senior advisers persuaded him to do so to allay voter concerns about how it might affect his decision-making as president. Comparisons were made to a campaign speech that John Kennedy, who became America’s first Roman Catholic president, delivered to an audience of Baptists. Although Mr. Romney’s December speech was well-received by political pundits, it did little to move his polling numbers.


That same month, M. Russell Ballard, one of the church’s 12 apostles, or governors, urged students at a graduation at Church-owned Brigham Young University to use the Internet and “new media” to defend the faith. At least 150 new Mormon sites were created and registered with the site mormon-blogs.com. “People were haranguing us on the Internet,” Mr. Ballard said in an interview. “I just felt we needed to unleash our own people.”

Normally insular church leaders, with help from Washington-based consultant Apco Worldwide, began a public-relations campaign last fall, visiting 11 editorial boards of newspapers across the country. In another first, the church posted a series of videos, some featuring Mr. Ballard, on YouTube to counter a wave of anti-Mormon footage on the site.

‘Member of the Tribe’

Many Mormons were excited by Mr. Romney’s candidacy. “There’s a member of the tribe that’s up there,” Nathan Oman, an assistant professor at William and Mary School of Law, said last month, adding that he had not yet decided whom to vote for. “What happens to him is a test of whether or not our tribe gets included in the political universe.”

Mormonism began in 1830 after Joseph Smith, a farmer in upstate New York, said an angel led him to some golden plates that contained a “New World gospel” — the Book of Mormon. Mormons regard themselves as Christians, but some Christian denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, do not. They regard as heresy the Mormon belief that Mr. Smith was a prophet and that the Bible was not the final word of God.

The faith’s early history was marked by tension and brutal forced exiles, sparked in part by the practice of polygamy by some church members. After Mr. Smith was arrested in Nauvoo, Ill., a mob killed him and drove off his followers. The Mormons fled to Utah. Polygamy fed repeated conflicts with the federal government until the church banned the practice world-wide in 1904. The church has flourished in recent years, and claims 13 million members world-wide.

Old Lines of Attack

Mr. Romney’s candidacy revived old lines of attack and mockery of some of the church’s unusual practices, such as secret ceremonies, the wearing of special undergarments, and the baptizing the dead in the belief that it will help them join family members in heaven.

Among the most active critics were practitioners of evangelical Christian “apologetics” — speakers and writers who make their mission to actively defend their faith. For some of them, that involves criticizing Mormonism.

At the Life Point Bible Church in Quincy, Ill., last month, evangelical apologist Rocky Hulse told 35 members that Mr. Romney should not be considered a Christian. Mr. Hulse, a former Mormon, told the group that Mormons believe in more than one god and that they believe God impregnated Mary in the normal fashion, not by granting her a virgin birth. The audience sat rapt.

Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, a Mormon group, says Mr. Hulse is wrong on the facts. Mormons pray to one God, he says, and believe, like most Christians, that Mary was a virgin. Mr. Gordon went on talk-radio shows to rebut claims of other apologists.

In December, while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses, former Baptist preacher and Republican candidate Mike Huckabee asked a magazine reporter: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” The Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Huckabee’s denomination, posts essays on its Web site saying Mormonism is a non-Christian cult.

Mormon church leaders, who repeatedly asserted the church’s neutrality in elections, had tried to keep out of the political fray. Church spokesman Michael Otterson says they couldn’t ignore Mr. Huckabee’s comment. Members said it implied that they were devil worshipers. Phones were ringing off the hook at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

“Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers” from a pre-existing world, the church said in a statement. “Christ was the only begotten in the flesh.”

“I’m not impugning the motives of a political candidate,” Mr. Otterson said. “But the result of the question was to confuse the situation, not to enlighten.” Mr. Huckabee swiftly apologized to Mr. Romney for the comment. He handily won the Iowa caucuses, helped by huge numbers of evangelicals.

(Mr. Huckabee himself may face voter opposition for his religious views. The January Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 45% of Americans have concerns about an evangelical Christian as president.)

Soon, the Mormon Church began posting its videos on YouTube — 22 so far. One clip, for example, showed Mr. Ballard, the church apostle, answering the question “Are Mormons Christian?” It has drawn 26,000 views. By contrast, a cartoon clip from “The God Makers,” a 1980s film that mocks Mormon beliefs, has been viewed 945,000 times.

Mr. Ballard’s call for more new-media activism inspired dozens of new Web sites. On Politicalds.com, several Mormons of different political views write about the presidential race. Founder Mike Rogan, of Chandler, Ariz., says he started the blog “to combat some specific misconceptions about Mormons,” including that all Mormons are “conservatives with a mindless ‘sheep’ mentality.”

Mr. Hitchens, the best-selling author of “God is Not Great,” wrote last fall that Mr. Romney owed voters a discussion about “the mad cult” of his church. Similar commentaries inspired Ryan Bell, a Salt Lake City attorney, to start a Web site, Romney Experience.com last summer. “Every faith has wacky doctrines,” he says, adding that the press seems fixated on his faith’s more sensational side.

Mormon fury boiled over after Mr. O’Donnell’s appearance on the “McLaughlin Group,” when he called Mr. Smith a proslavery criminal and rapist. He said Mr. Romney “was” a racist because he was a member of a church that discriminated against blacks until 1978.

Mr. Bell and others responded on their Web sites that church founder Mr. Smith, who faced many charges in his turbulent life, including treason, was never convicted of any crimes. (At least one Mormon historian says he was found guilty of a misdemeanor as a minor for fraud, but others say incomplete court records make it impossible to determine.)

The allegations about blacks stung the most. Many Mormon historians say Mr. Smith welcomed blacks from the church’s inception, had ordained some blacks, and ran on an abolitionist platform for president in 1844. Blacks were barred from being church leaders, they say, by his successor, Brigham Young. Many Protestant churches, Mr. Bell pointed out, were segregated well into the 20th century. In 1978, the church lifted the ban on blacks becoming leaders.

Taking Action

Mormons called on the “McLaughlin Group” to take action against Mr. O’Donnell. Host John McLaughlin decided that Mr. O’Donnell, who appeared seven times last year, will be kept off the air for now, says Allison Butler, the show’s managing director. Any apology to Mormons must come from him, Ms. Butler says.

Although Mr. Romney’s withdrawal from the race is likely to quiet the controversy for now, many church members believe the turmoil of the past year will have lasting effects.

“There will be a long-term consequence in the Mormon church,” says Mr. Mauss, the Mormon sociologist. “I think there is going to be a wholesale reconsideration with how Mormons should deal with the latent and overt anti-Mormon propaganda. I don’t think the Mormons are ever again going to sorrowfully turn away and close the door and just keep out of the fray.”

–Jackie Calmes and Elizabeth Holmes contributed to this article.


Why I Don’t Convert – Essay on a Wash. Post Article

February 6, 2008

The Washington Post has an interesting article on the challenges that await the new LDS president, Thomas S. Monson. The short version is that the main issues facing the LDS church are a declining growth rate and a very high attrition rate.

As a non-Mormon who finds many LDS beliefs attractive, finds LDS history fascinating, personally impressed with Joseph Smith and has attended many LDS meetings, people often ask me why I don’t simply convert. In addition to a general loyalty to my Jewish heritage and the fact that I don’t believe in Jesus as anything other than an early Reform Jew (If I had to choose between Jesus and Joseph Smith, I would choose Joseph), there are a few other reasons that might have some general application to the questions raised by the above article.

1) LDS services and classes are exceedingly dull.

Going once or twice, particularly in an older, architecturally interesting chapel in Utah is an interesting cultural experience. More than that, particularly in one of the newer, corporate, branded cookie cutter chapels is, to me a possible substitute for chemical anesthesia. Mormons sometimes say that they have a superior form of worship because other than the sacrament prayers, they have no “set prayers.” I can assure you that this is not true. I can easily give “classic” Mormon prayers for any occasion. I used to illustrate the effect of cultural prayer to my students by having them call out a church or religion and I would give a prayer in that cultural “language” (I stopped doing this, even though it made a great point, because it seemed disrespectful). Mormon students would give me 100% accuracy. It true that in Judaism, our services have mostly set prayers, but there are hundreds of them and they are very complex with rich theological content (there are volumes of commentary on them). Mormons also have set prayers, but only have a few – Maybe a half a dozen or dozen at most.

It’s my impression that adult classes and materials are geared to about the sixth grade level. It seems as though there are well informed and interesting individuals in most classes, but it also seems that their input is not welcomed. Most people seem to know less about Mormonism than I do. Perhaps this is arrogant or unfair of me (I have an MA in the history or religion and teach a unit on Mormonism at the undergraduate level), but I am not, after all, a Mormon.

2) The level of centralized control seems oppressive

Attending a Mormon church reminds me of going to a McDonald’s or shopping at Target. It’s “branded” and standardized building regulated service standard lessons and “General Handbook of Instructions” are the same from place to place. I realize that this is a comfort to some. I suppose that shopping at Target or eating at McDonald’s in a new city is also comforting to some. I’m not one of those people. I don’t eat at McDonald’s and I rarely shop at Target. I like new out of the way restaurants and small owner-run shops.

I have to say that the best experience I ever had in a Mormon church occurred when I was on a Motorcycle trip that crossed Utah from North to South. It was in the late summer and I was unprepared for the rapid temperature drop up in the mountains. I had a great dinner at the “Bakery” (which included a restaurant) in Manti. I struck up a conversation with a local rancher who turned out to be a Mormon bishop in which I complained about the unexpected cold. He offered to put me up for the night and I slept in a room filled with genealogical information and diaries of his polygamous ancestors. I spent most of the night reading them (with his permission) and then went to church with his family in a quirky old chapel filled with equally quirky personalities who went way off the lesson manuals. The classes were filled with theological debate and local history. I suppose that these people were too close to the the Mormon core to be worrisome to Salt Lake, but they were way off the reservation… In any case this was, by far, the best experience I had in a Mormon service and it was, by far, the most independent.

In Judaism, we of course, believe in revelation. For those who accept Kabbalah, there is a belief in continuing revelation or at least inspiration (particularly in Chabad, also known as Lubavitch Hassidism, pronounced Lu-BAH-vitch. They are the largest, most geographically diverse of all the hassidic sects. The Salt Lake Chabad Rabbi, Benny Zippel was a good friend of Gordon B Hinckley, met with him regularly and had a direct line to his desk).

That said, we consider study of and debate on religion a way to honor God. It does not, in the big picture, seem to make us less “unified” on the big issues. We have vigorous (REALLY vigorous) internal debates yet when there is an issue of common concern, we seem to do a fairly good job of putting that aside and work together. At the local level, we have Jewish “Federations” which send representatives from each Jewish institution (not just synagogues) in a local region. It works like congress (only better, hopefully). I was once the representative from my synagogue to the “Community Relations Council” which govered how the Jewish Community related to Non-Jewish institutions including everything from interfaith Dialogues to Educating the police about Jewish concerns and unique needs. I was always amazed how well Jews who held VERY diverse opinions about religion and engaged in vigorous debate were able to unify at the drop of a hat when the need arose. My point here is that a belief in revelation is not necessarily inimical to religious debate and free debate is not necessarily a barrier to unity. Lastly, a culture that discusses and debates is, according to my taste simply richer and more interesting than one that doesn’t. I simply cannot imagine myself gravitating to a religion or culture that walks in lock-step.

In conclusion, let me reiterate how much respect I have for Mormons and Mormonism. As I said, I love reading about Mormon History and Mormon Theology. When I read the sermons of Joseph Smith I feel his rough charisma and appreciate his unlettered brilliance. Whenever I pass a new Mormon chapel, I smile, even though I would be unlikely to go in. I see it as one more amazing tribute to Joseph Smith’s radical vision. Even though I understand the historical forces that caused it, I am still amazed and saddened though, that such a radical vision could become so utterly dull in its modern manifestation. I say this not to insult, but merely to inform with one or two reasons why the modern* LDS church would not be attractive to a person like me.

Moshe Akiva

*Sometimes when I read about Joseph Smith, I imagine that if I had lived in his day we would have become good friends. He did, in fact, befriend the two legitimate Jews who he encountered: Alexander Neibauer who converted (and was an ancestor of Hugh Nibley) and Rabbi Joshua Seixas, his Hebrew Tutor, who did not convert.


Jewish Community Mourns Gordon B Hinckley

February 3, 2008

Public Forum letter

The Jewish community of Utah mourns the departure of a dear friend. Our hearts go out to the family of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and our LDS neighbors. With his passing, we remember and honor this great man.

A precept of the Jewish religion as defined in Leviticus (19:18) is the Golden Rule: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” As an individual and as a leader, President Hinckley epitomized the Golden Rule for us and so many of his brethren. We should all take great pride that throughout President Hinckley’s tenure, relations between our two communities grew. We cherish and honor his legacy of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. As our Jewish community thrives in Utah, we must thank President Hinckley and the LDS community for supporting our religious institutions and cultural activities. All has been done in the spirit of openness and respect fostered by President Hinckley.

Goodbye to a great neighbor.

Ron Zamir
Chairman, Jewish Community Relations Council of the United Jewish
Federation of Utah
Salt Lake City