Welcome to “Two Sticks,” a site for Mormon-Jewish dialogue! My name is Moshe Akiva* and I have felt the need to establish some sort of dialogue between Mormons and Jews for some time. In my experience, which as you will see is pretty extensive, Mormons and Jews really do have a lot of meaningful and interesting issues to discuss but have been somewhat limited by a variety of forces ranging from dissimilar geographic distribution to highly differentiated religious vocabularies to a certain degree of mutual suspicion.
I am a moderately religious Jew. A non-Jewish external observer would probably classify me as “highly religious. ” For example, I go regularly to synagogue, I keep kosher (I eat only permitted foods prepared in permitted ways), I keep Shabbat (the Sabbath, from sundown Friday night to an hour or so past sundown on Saturday night) in what would, externally, be perceived as a rigorous fashion. On the other hand, I’m “merely” a Conservative Jew and within the context of Judaism, the term “Religious” only seems to refer to those of the Orthodox variety. Additionally, I do feel quite free to quibble with the ancient Rabbis, or rather, I actively argue with them from time to time. I personally think they would have liked that, but some would see it as heterodox (or rather “heteroprax” since most of my arguments with them are about practice, not belief…the “dox” part of the term “Orthodox”). There is no question that I am heterodox, as regular readers will discover, however this has historically been less of an issue in Judaism than in Mormonism.
I also speak “Mormon.” In a later post I’ll explain why, but I have an undergraduate degree in history (BA cum laude) from BYU, a large Mormon affiliated college in Utah. I also have another BA in philosophy and a law degree (JD) from Willamette University. Finally, I have an MA in intellectual history from Portland State University. While I was at BYU, I was mentored by a number of people Mormons will recognize. I was taught the Book of Mormon by Hugh Nibley (a Jew, BTW…I’ll explain more in a later post) and Jeffery R Holland (when he was president of the university). I worked for Truman Madsen in the Richard Evans Chair of Religious Understanding office. I was taught Mormon philosophy by David Paulsen, James Faulconer and Dennis Packard. Thomas G Alexander and D. Michael Quinn were my mentors in history (to some of you this will be a minus rather than a plus, but it’s the truth). For a variety of reasons I have spent a great deal of time studying LDS history and theology. Today I teach a community college course in comparative religion and teach a unit on Mormonism.
Though my graduate research focused on the relative impact of Greek philosophy on the separation of Christianity from Judaism, it would be fair to say that Mormonism is my research avocation. Among the academics I work with, I am the resident expert on Mormonism (and this group includes at least two active Latter-day Saints). Further than this however, I actively like Joseph Smith as a religious thinker. Though I would not call myself a “follower” of Joseph, I would have to admit that I believe that he is one of the most underrated religious figures in history, at least among non-Mormon theologians and academics. From an academic and even cosmic perspective, I would be willing to call him a prophet, though I have a very loose definition of the term. For example, though it shows signs of Smiths future religious depth later exhibited in the Doctrine and Covenants, I see the Book of Mormon as an immature religious work and I do not believe in it as a historical account nor, generally speaking, as spiritually valuable.** I would have to admit that, though I am actively and happily Jewish, my personal theological interests and even my understanding of Jewish Theology have been influenced by Smith. More on this later…
Given this background (upon which I intend to elaborate more in subsequent posts), I recently came to the conclusion that if Mormons and Jews were ever going to dialogue informally, I would be as good a candidate as any. As I stated earlier, I’ve felt the need for a respectful, yet informal place for Jewish-Mormon dialogue for some time yet the precipitating cause that led me to establish this blog was a chance encounter with Robert C. Millet on my television set. I happened to be channel surfing my digital cable channels one evening and happened to cross the BYU channel. There I heard Millet state, “Even though Jews control Jerusalem, they don’t have the priesthood. They don’t Even if they built a temple they couldn’t dedicate it. It will be a Latter-day Saint Temple.” I thought he was wrong on three counts from both the Mormon and Jewish perspectives…
Again, more later.
(To a good year! I’m writing this the day after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish siritual New Year)
*This is my “real” Hebrew name. It’s not a pseudonym, but I also have an “English” name which I use professionally. I’m not using it here mainly because I do teach both Judaism and Mormonism professionally and try to maintain some level of objectivity in my lectures (Yes, I’ve read Kuhn and Novick and I know the objectivity is impossible, but still, I try). I’d like to be free to express my thoughts on this blog while not being goggled by my students. However, if I get into a serious discussion with someone and it seems appropriate, I’d be happy to provide my English name. Also, even based on the limited biography above, a few of you will be able to figure out who I am in the “real” world. -MA
**Obviously, as a Jew, I do not believe that Jesus was the messiah and since much of the Book of Mormon revolves around ancient Jews having precise prophetic knowledge about the ministry of Jesus, I would tend to be skeptical. My interest in Joseph as a religious thinking is mainly in the area of his metaphysics, his conception of God as a finite being and his theology of man. For example, I am a fan of D&C 93 and the King Follet Sermon. I intend to discuss all of these issues in later posts.