Archive for the ‘Similarities and Diffferences’ Category


Judaism, Mormonism and “Salvation”

January 24, 2008

On Wed, 23 Jan 2008 20:27:23 -0800 (PST), Red Davis <> wrote:

>The great question is: Is there anything you must do to be saved?

>I ask it because anti-Mormons like to yell at us LDS that we are lost because we “believe in salvation by works” when “salvation is by grace alone, not by works” — and that if we want to be saved, we must perform a work to be saved — leave the LDS Church.

Interesting question.

The Hebrew word for “salvation” (Gulut) or “Saved” (Gulah) appears hundred of times in the Hebrew bible and in our prayers. However, it almost universally refers to physical salvation from harm or exile (Galut). Thus I sometimes say that for Jews, salvation means to be free of the Christians! 🙂 [I’m mostly kidding here]

By “salvation,” you probably mean final forgiveness from sins and eventual reward in the afterlife and avoiding hell.

First of all, traditional Judaism, like Mormonism, rejects the concept of eternal hell. Hell for us is much like the Catholic purgatory or (a little less) like your spirit prison. It is a temporary place where the soul is purged of sin preparatory to meet God. Thus, in a sense, Jews believe in universal salvation.

Now, as to forgiveness of sins in this life…

In reference to grace works divide, Judaism is not as easy to categorize as many Christians might imagine (I presume we are assumed to be 100% “works based”). I would say that we accept a “mixed” system similar to Mormonism in some respects. Our scriptures and prayers refer to forgiveness as an act of God’s “Chessed.” Chessed is usually translated as “kindness” but in terms of meaning it is essentially the same word as “grace.” That is to say, “unmerited kindness.”

Beyond that we really have two forms of forgiveness which are accessed by a variety of means. Unlike Christians, Jews have a strong concept of communal forgiveness. Yom Kippur, for example is about communal forgiveness primarily (For the individual, it also is about forgiveness for unintentional sins). That is to say, it’s about God forgiving Israel as a communal unit and maintaining his relationship with us. Thus in the service there are several “confessionals” in which _everyone_ confesses to virtually _every_ category of sin that anyone could commit even though it is unlikely that any individual in the room committed many of them. The idea is that some Jew somewhere probably did sometime, and we ALL are sorry about that. I have to say, we really are. I think that, like Mormons, Jews have a strong sense of communal responsibility. Thus when one of us screws up, we all feel it. I think that this is not really true among Christians (but maybe I’m wrong here).

Anyway, there is then the issue of individual, intentional sin. That has to be taken care of at an individual level. The process is somewhat similar to Mormonism in that it emphasizes repentance. That is, sorrow for the sin and a commitment to not commit it again. At that point one asks God for forgiveness and an abrogation of the punishment. Six days a week excluding holidays the prays make room for “Tachnun” which is essentially a prayer for individual forgiveness and “Chessed” (grace). To us, it is still grace because the punishment is still deserved but we ask God to suspend it and he does.

This is where we differ most from Christians because there is no intermediary necessary. We say we are sorry. We ask God to forgive us and he does. Simple. Neat. No need for Jesus or any sacrifice.

I’ve always thought it somewhat odd that Christians think that God needs some sort of sacrifice, perfect or otherwise, for God to forgive us. It is incredibly limiting on God’s power. Indeed it denies God a power my 16 month old son already possesses — the power to forgive.

I fully realize that the whole sacrifice thing in Christianity comes originally from us but I think that Christians generally totally misunderstand it. First of all, the vast majority of sacrifices were not for sin. They were to commemorate holidays and pleasant life events with “holy barbecue.” People ate the sacrifices. In another sense, it was based on the idea that the life of a thing was in its blood (Lev 17). One could eat the meat but the life, the blood, belonged to God and had to be returned to him in the form of smoke. Kosher slaughter to this day treats the blood specially. It is totally drained and then the meat is salted and soaked to remove any last traces of it.

There were, however, sacrifices for sin. The Yom Kippur sacrifice was for the community. If one chose, one could seal his repentance with an individual sacrifice for a specific sin. On the other hand, these were for unintentional sins.

Leviticus 4:1-3 KJV Leviticus 4:1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them: 3 If the priest that is anointed do sin according to the sin of the people; then let him bring for his sin, which he hath sinned, a young bullock without blemish unto the LORD for a sin offering.

These situations were neither universal not were they encouraged. For example, The bible text is clear that God forgave King David for his sin regarding Bathsheba without any sacrifice:

2 Samuel 12:13 13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin.

David then writes in the Psalms:

Psalm 51:16-17 16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

I’ve has a number of Christians mystified that Judaism continues without the temple. They assume that we need the sacrificial system to achieve what they term salvation. But really the balance of the Hebrew bible is that it is not God’s preferred way. For example:

Micah 6:6-8 6 Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

So what alternative is provided.

KJV Hosea 14:1 O Israel, return unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. 2 Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips.

Or as translated in the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version:

JPS Hosea 14:3 Take words with you And return to the LORD. Say to Him: “Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; Instead of bulls we will pay The offering of our lips.

In other words, God is not particularly thrilled with sacrifice. It’s not necessary. Repentance and a request for forgiveness is all you need.

I think that this is the primary reason for the Jewish rejection of Jesus. He solves a problem we don’t have. He’s more or less superfluous. Pagan gentiles, on the other hand, seemed to need “God/men” or “God in the flesh.” They appeared to need some more tangible sign of God’s forgiveness than abstract prayer. We’d already been working through that one for a millennium or so it really was not an issue for us anymore. But for Romans and Greeks… Well, they needed a hero.

Now, I imagine that some are asking (particularly and lurking evangelicals), “What about original sin? What happens if there are sins that one has intentionally committed that have not been repented of and forgiven when one dies?

Well first of all, there is no “original sin” in Judaism. Yes there was a “first sin.” Yes, it did bring about death. But it was basically inevitable and no one much worries about it. Indeed, it was probably for the best or God would not have allowed it to happen. In this, the Jewish view is almost identical to the Mormon view. (Only we don’t believe that it was a personal “Satan” in the garden. Just a smart snake. Seriously. Read it carefully. That’s al it says. I personally believe in evolution and take the whole thing as a metaphor).

Beyond that, for sincere Orthodox Jews (which I am not), this is somewhat unlikely because they work on this every day. At most, we’d be talking about minimal issues. But even for the worst of us, hell has an end. I think the general (traditional) Jewish attitude is that if one dies with sin on his conscious, a few days in hell is deserved and one should take it like a Mensch. God loves his children and he wouldn’t do it if it weren’t good for us in the long run. It’s just part of the plan.

Hope you found this interesting…

Moshe Akiva


When Men Become Primates

January 15, 2008

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

We religious people are not adept at taking criticism. Since religion is based on the idea of divinely revealed truth, most religions would rather hide their imperfections, the better to demonstrate that their practitioners are as infallible as their doctrines.

A recent article in Time magazine identified Utah as the state with the highest rate of depression in America, which seems curious. I have been close to the Mormon Church for 15 years. Mormons lead clean, healthy, and generous lives. They raise close-knit families. So why so unhappy? Because they are not trained to be open about things that trouble them. A Mormon mom, for example, has lots of kids which brings lots of joy but also lots of pressure. But she sometimes has to pretend to be happy, even when she’s not. And the lack of an outlet to express unhappiness becomes a dangerous source of melancholy.

The Catholic Church, of course, is legend for the inadequacy of its apologies. Whether it was the scandal of pedophile priests, or the even the great John Paul II’s grossly deficient apology for Catholic anti-Semitism and the Church’s failure to speak out during the holocaust, the Church often feels that it has to feign infallibility even when it is guilty of serious crimes.

A few weeks ago I published an article criticizing my own religious Jewish community for allowing increasingly shallow values to dictate our dating values. The article sparked scores of emails that told me that, although the problem is real, it should not be published in a newspaper. The critics seemed more upset at the problem’s discussion than its existence, even amid the ancient Rabbinical rebuke that the only way to grow as individuals is ‘to love criticism.’

Most importantly, Islam today seems wholly incapable of condemning, with a unified and authoritative voice, the atrocities being perpetrated in its name.

This lack of humility is the principal reason that religion has, over the past few years, come under such ferocious attack from so many best-selling books. Our own arrogance has brought it upon us. But this should not exempt religions’ detractors from being criticized themselves for their dangerous reductionist view of humankind that sees men and women as soulless and purposeless primates.

On January 30th, at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan, I will debate for the second time the world’s leading religious critic, Christopher Hitchins, on religion versus atheism. On the same night, I will also launch my new book, The Broken American Male. The two subjects are connected.

Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, is a radical reductionist. To him we humans are nothing but intelligent mammals, thinking apes. Hence, seeing nothing uniquely human about our species, Hitchens has an extremely negative view of even those whom the rest of us consider saintly. Of Martin Luther King, Jr. he writes, ³He was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife. He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him. Of course, his favorite target is Mother Theresa:  She was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return)’Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been – she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself’She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” (

For Hitchens, the fact that saintly individuals exhibit serious flaws is proof that we are all nothing but unimpressive orangutans. For all our talk of a noble soul and human virtue, it is our beastly nature which most predominates.

This reduction of modern man to nothing more than his animal urges is what is most destroying him. Men like Hitchens would have us believe that the material is our truest essence. Hence, wasting our lives at the office making money so we can fill the emptiness of our existence with lifelong consumption is as inescapable as is the male tendency to indulge his genetic urge to inseminate as many women as possible. To the enemies of faith, men are nothing more than walking sperm machines. It is not surprising that they cheat on their wives, programmed as they are to copulate with as many females as possible. Likewise, it is not surprising that they lust for power, conditioned as they are to hunt and horde resources in a world of limited supplies.

Both Hitchens theory and book are seriously flawed, as I intend to point out in our debate. But its mass acceptance on the part of so many who now believe that humans were not created for any transcendent purpose is what allows them to squander their lives on ephemeral pursuits like TV binge-watching and empty celebrity chatter without regret.

Communism and terrorism remain the greatest threats to human liberty. But it is soulless capitalism that has now emerged as the most serious threat to human uniqueness, turning us all into a indistinguishable morass of shallow materialists. We define our success not by the blessings our lives have become to others, but by the money we have in the bank and how many people recognize us on the streets. A man who is taught that he is nothing more than an animal will have no pangs of conscience when he behaves like one, living for consumption, indulgence, and the satisfaction of his hormonal urges. This, as I say in my book, is what is most destroying the American male as he invests his energy at work and returns home an uninspired wreck, unable to love his wife and incapable of inspiring his children.

Long ago the voice of G-d went out to men and called them to the possibility of a uniquely human greatness. Possessed of a divine spirit, they were capable of transcending their genetic makeup and leading lives of romantic monogamy, parental purpose, and communal commitment. It is time for that voice to be heard again.

To a religious person, Martin Luther King’s imperfections make his achievements all the more impressive. Had he been flawless, it would have been intuitive for him to purge the United States of its Jim Crow racism and restored the country to its founding ideals of equality. But the fact that he did so amid the herculean struggle of an imperfect character proves that men can rise above their material natures and lead lives of earth-changing purpose. And in so doing, Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this Tuesday, became the greatest American of the twentieth century and inspired the rest of us to overcome our own imperfect natures and make America a more perfect country.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book, “The Broken American Male” is published this month. He has just launched “This World: The Jewish Values Network.”



Aaronic Priesthood and Authority:

October 5, 2007

Not Necessarily the same thing…

(Please Note: This started out as merely an introduction the the Jewish conception of priesthood as a precursor to a blog post explaining what goes on in a synagogue on Yom Kippur. It somewhat took on a life of it’s own and is well on the way to becoming a quasi-academic paper. It’s rough but, had I taken the time to work out all the kinks and document every source, I never would have posted it. Since the point of a blog is to have something of a running commentary, I decided to post what I have now and adjust over time, including emendations suggested by comments, so have at… Moshe)

One basic principal upon which Judaism and Mormonism agree upon is that Judaism subsumes the Aaronic priesthood and that this priesthood continues to be held within Judaism.

I’m going to use, more or less, Mormon terminology in this essay since it is addressed primarily to Mormons. However let me start my saying that we rarely refer to our priesthood as the “Aaronic priesthood.” Though that formulation appears occasionally in Jewish literature, we usually refer to “the priests” by their Hebrew name, the “Kohanim.” An individual priest is usually referred to as a “kohen.” Priests have “ha Kohain” added to their Hebrew names and their English last names are often “Cohen.” It is this naming convention that has preserved the identity of the priesthood from ancient times because, in Judaism, the transferal of priesthood is purely through lineal descent. That is to say, if your father was a kohen, then so are you. There is no “ordination” to the Aaronic priesthood in Judaism* (Except for the first ones, Aaron and his sons as recorded in the Bible.)**

Mormonism agrees with this formulation and accords the descendants of Aaron special privileges:



D&C 68:14-18 There remain hereafter, in the due time of the Lord, other bishops to be set apart unto the church, to minister even according to the first; 15 Wherefore they shall be high priests who are worthy, and they shall be appointed by the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, except they be literal descendants of Aaron. 16 And if they be literal descendants of Aaron they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron; 17 For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same. 18 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.


D&C 107:13-16 The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations. 14 Why it is called the lesser priesthood is because it is an appendage to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood, and has power in administering outward ordinances. 15 The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the keys or authority of the same. 16 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant of Aaron.


D&C 84:18 18 And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.

JosephSmith seems to have confirmed this a number of times in his discourses. He said, for example:

“There was a priesthood conferred upon the sons of Levi throughout all the generations of the Jews. They are born heirs to this priesthood. (Discourse of March 21st 1841, recorded by William McIntire)

“This priesthood was given to Aaron and his posterity throughout all generations.” (Discourse of July 23rd 1843, recorded by James Burgess)

It is forever hereditary, fixed on the head of Aaron.” (Discourse of July 23rd 1843, recorded by Willard Richards)

The Specific notation that the office is held by the descendants of Aaron, throughout all their generations and that this priesthood continueth and abideth forever among the descendant of Aaron is, I believe, an important starting point for Mormon-Jewish dialogue. What this means is that Mormonism recognizes a level of priesthood authority outside the Mormon sphere and it is within Judaism.

One of the reasons that I decided 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 perspective. I think it is clear that even from the perspective of the uniquely Mormon scriptures, the priesthood exists within Judaism. The question is, how is that priesthood exercised and how does authority function within Judaism?

These are good questions for Jews to ask, even in a purely Jewish context. They are essential in the context of Jewish-Mormon dialogue (particularly if the Mormons in question are orthodox. It’s probably more an “interesting” question to most Jews and Mormons of the Sunstone/Dialogue variety).

Some Mormons might object that no one can confirm today who really is a literal descendant of Aaron. That might have been true at one time. Even 20 years ago, one had to accept the unbroken chain of the Jewish naming conventions to accept individual priesthood holders. However today with DNA research, the familial relationship and common ancestry, traced to a single individual, of todays Aaronic priests can be confirmed.

For example, Prof. Karl Skorec using a set of six markers (DYS19, DYS388, DYS390, DYS391, DYS392, and DYS393), a single genetic haplotype, termed the “Cohen Modal Haplotype,” was found to be the most frequent, and to be shared among priests from all Jewish communities. In a 1998 study, the modal haplotype frequencies were found to be 0.449 and 0.561 for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi kohanim, respectively. Overall Jewish identity, since at least talmudic times (100 B.C.E.–500 C.E.) has traditionally been acquired either by descent from a Jewish woman, or alternatively by rabbinically authorized conversion, without the need to establish descent from a common male (or female) ancestor. In contrast, affiliation to the Jewish Aaronic priesthood was restricted along patrilineal descent. The use of one-step mutation haplotypes, termed the Cohen Modal Cluster, allowed the calculation of the most common recent ancestor by standard accepted mutation rates. This calculation gave an estimate of approximately 106 generations, which for a generation time of 25 years gives an estimated range which brackets a mean of 2,650 years before the present. These results establish the common origin of the Jewish priesthood caste in the Near East, coinciding with a timeframe beginning at approximately the biblically attributed date of the exodus from Egypt and extending to the Temple period.

In actual Jewish practice, however, the authority exercised by the Aaronic priesthood today is minimal. Except for a few holidays and a few very minor rituals, the Aaronic priesthood functions no differently than do regular members of a congregation. This is largely due to the absence of a temple in Judaism today since most of the functions of the priesthood were confined to the temple and the sacrificial process. Further, there was a continual problem in ancient Judaism that is common to all hereditary systems. That problem is, simply stated, not all people born to an office are particularly good at it not ethical in its administration. Thus, an entire class of ordained people, with direct authority, with the “laying on of hands” (Semikah), but without priesthood arose to prominence….ultimately, the Rabbis.

At this point, let me note that authority through divine revelation was, of course, foundational to Judaism. Though very early there was a separation between revelatory functions and the exercise of authority in making judgments or performing ritual actions (i.e. “ordinances”). Thus, Moses as the great prophet but also acting as the great judge does go directly to God for information on how to deal with issues of community discipline as in:

Numbers 15:32-36 32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day. 33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. 34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. 35 And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. 36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.

Yet by the end of the Deuteronomy, which, within the Torah’s internal chronology is relatively late and includes a retelling of the divine legal code (hence the name “Deuteronomy” or “Second law”), we are told that the Torah is no longer “in heaven” and is not “baffling.” It remains on earth and becomes the domain of earthly decisors.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 11 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it’?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

It is on the basis of this statement that Sanhedrin and the Rabbis they ordained have felt free to judge on a variety of matters.

These decisors, the Sanhedrin and ultimately the Rabbis, were ordained by laying on of hands and had all the authority they needed but they did not consider themselves to hold the priesthood. The idea of authority without priesthood is, to Mormons, something like a perfectly round square. In the Mormon sense, priesthood means, “Authority to act in the name of God” thus all god given authority is priesthood. In Judaism however, the title “priest” only refers to the descendants of Aaron. They are not, in Judaism, “ordained” per se other than the original ordination described in the Bible. However, a conferral of divine authority apart from this priesthood did (and arguably still does, albeit in an “interrupted” form) exist and it was transferred in a fashion similar to the way Mormons transfer priesthood. That method was by “Semikah,” the “laying on of hands.”

All Jewish religious leaders who were not Aaronic priests (Kohanim) had to be ordained before they were permitted to perform certain judicial functions and to decide practical questions in Jewish law. The Bible relates that Moses ordained Joshua by placing his hands on him, thereby transferring a portion of his spirit to Joshua (Num. 27:22, 23; Deut. 34:9).

Numbers 27:22-23 22 Moses did as the LORD commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community. 23 He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him — as the LORD had spoken through Moses.

Deuteronomy 34:9 9 Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

“Laying on of hands” here is (Semikah) literally, Laying on hands

The term “Semikah” also appears in:

Deuteronomy 34:9 Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses

Moses also ordained the 70 elders who assisted him in governing the people (Num. 11:16–17, 24–25). This is, of course, the Jewish “first council of seventy,” or in other worse, the original prototype of the “Sanhedrin.” The elders ordained by Moses ordained their successors, who in turn ordained others, so that there existed an unbroken chain of ordination from Moses down through the time of the Second Temple and into the 400 c.e. period.

Numbers 11:16-17 16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.

Numbers 11:24-25 Moses went out and reported the words of the LORD to the people. He gathered seventy of the people’s elders and stationed them around the Tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in a cloud and spoke to him; He drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.

Jewish tradition states that when the spirit was “put upon them,” though it does not specifically say so, it was via the laying on of hand. (Semikah). See Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 42a and comment by Maimonides.

Ordination by lying on of hands was required both for membership in the Great Sanhedrin, and the smaller Sanhedrins and regular colleges of judges empowered to decide legal cases. Three rows of scholars always sat before the Sanhedrin, and whenever it became necessary to choose a new member, a scholar from the first row was chosen and ordained (Maim. Sanh. 4:4). ***

Only a transfer of the Divine Spirit which originally rested on Moses empowered the ordained person to make decisions in these crucial areas. Ordination could be limited to only one or some of these various functions. The complete formula of ordination was “Yoreh Yoreh Yaddin Yaddin. Yattir Yattir” (”May he decide? He may decide. May he judge? He may judge. May he permit? He may permit”).

The ordination itself, which required the presence of four elder rabbis, one of whom was himself ordained, was originally performed by every ordained teacher upon his pupils (Sanh. 1:3; TJ, Sanh. 1:3, 19a).

On the day of ordination, the candidate wore a special garment (Lev. R. 2:4). After the ceremony, the scholars present praised in rhythmic sentences the person ordained. At the ordination of R. Ze’ira it was sung: “No powder, no paint, no waving of the hair, and still a graceful gazelle”; at the ordinations of Ammi and Assi: “Such as these, such as these ordain unto us” (Ket. 17a). After the ceremony, it seems that the ordinand delivered a public discourse on a specific topic.

After the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–35 C.E.), the Roman emperor Hadrian attempted to end the spiritual authority still wielded by the Sanhedrin, which had been shorn of all government support, by forbidding the granting of semikhah to new scholars. It was declared that “whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, the city in which the ordination took place demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed uprooted” (Sanh. 14a). R. Judah b. Bava was executed for ordaining several of his pupils in a no-man’s-land between Usha and Shefaram.

During 351-52 C.E., the few remaining Jewish communities in Israel including Sepphoris, Tiberias, Lydda were destroyed by the newly Christian Empire and new decrees were issued against the internal independent authority Dispora communities, and also limiting the observance of Judaism.

The Roman government aspired to erase the office of the nasi (Jewish prince) and the Sanhedrin. Because of the serious condition of the communities of Erez Israel and the deterioration of the Galilean center, Hillel II HaNasi, agreed in principle to limit his authority and his functions in connection with the proclamation of the new months on the basis of new moon sitings, the fixing of the festivals, and the general calculation of the festivals of the year (Thus, in practice, establishing our modern fixed Jewish calendar). The respected medival Rabbi Nahmanides in the Sefer ha-Zakkut (Git., ch. 4, Leghorn (1745), 43a) stated: “From the time of Hillel… in the year [358 C.E.], the Sanhedrin and Semikah ceased and it ceased to have experts in Israel.”

Thus, the theretofore unbroken chain of authority the Rabbis held had ended. Rabbis continued to function as experts in other areas of the Middle East and Europe (and later in America and modern Israel where they function in this capacity to this day) but their function as judges with authority derived from Moses to the Sanhedrin (the “first council of seventy”) had ended. Rabbis as sages and scholars have used the term “semikah” as a synonym for “graduation” or “ordination” off an on to the present. However they universally recognize that their semikah is not the authoritative semikah of the ancient rabbis.

Of course even if Mormons accepted the ancient authority of the Rabbis (they should, im my opinion — it’s well documented though not mentioned in Mormon scripture except obliquely. On the other hand, it is directly related to the introduction of the “seventy.”), all are agreed that it is lost. The only authority that Modern Rabbis have, even in Jewish theory, is the authority that their communities give them. Through the Middle Ages, some claimed to have an alternative authority, a “Mesorah,” that is to say, a complete knowledge of the entire Torah as delivered on Mt Sinai, transmitted intact without interruption from teacher to student. Even this has ended however since that last claim of this nature was in the 1500’s. Interestingly, violation of a modern Rabbinic dictum (modern meaning the last 1500 years or so), is considered to be, not a sin (chet) but violation of an “Issur d’rabbanan,” a “Prohibition of the Rabbis.” The only “sin” involved is disrespect for elders. This is both arguable and minor at worst.

So where does that leave the issue of authority in modern Judaism? Right back where we started… with the Aaronic Priesthood. This is the only extant form of divine authority left within Judaism. Lest anyone misunderstand me, let me make it clear that at a practical level, the priesthood barely functions. Though many Rabbis are also Kohanim, none that I am aware of claim any rabbinic authority from their priesthood. The ritual functions of the priesthood are very limited without a temple. Except for a few times a year (such as on Yom Kippur) no one much thinks about it. Yet, still, the Jewish Aaronic priesthood is the only continuous line of authority dating back to the time of Moses that we have.**** It’s interesting that it is a concept that we share with Mormonism.

So then, for Jews the issue becomes, “What of the Mormon Aaronic priesthood?” For Jews, it does present some oddities (as for Mormons). Firstly there is the whole idea of it being a “Restoration of the Aaronic priesthood.” This is odd since both Jews and the uniquely Mormon scriptures agree that it was never really lost. Clearly Joseph Smith recognized the lineal nature of the Aaronic priesthood as well. Perhaps by “restoration” what was meant is that it was being “opened” to non-Levites/Aaronites? Then there is the issue of John the Baptist though he was priest through the lineage of both his parents (Luke 1:1-6) he appears to have transferred the priesthood in a manner quite different from the original ordination of Aaron and his sons as described in Leviticus 8:6-13. That is to say, he was ordained by Semikah rather than washing, anointing and clothing in the robes of the Aaronic priesthood. On the other had, those elements would be present in later Mormon temple rituals, but those would become primarily elements associated with the LDS understanding of the Melchezidek priesthood (Oddly, at least to me, the Mormon temple seems to take more from the ordination of the original Aaronic priests than from any other obvious source except perhaps Masonry. It includes virtually nothing from the actual ancient temple ritual except the “cosmic” geography of the holy place and the most holy place.

In any case, the “restoration” of the Aaronic priesthood as it is described by most Mormons would strike most curious Jews as odd (yet, perhaps, somewhat interesting). It is not, by itself, very convincing but it is a place for Jews and Mormons to being a discussion of divine authority. In my opinion, this would be good for Judaism. We have neglected that important subject for far too long.

Moshe Akiva

*This reminds me of an old Joke… A Jewish man comes to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi, you have to ordain me a kohain!” The Rabbi says, “That’s not how it works. I don’t really “Ordain” anyone.” The guy is insistent. He says, “Rabbi, I’m SERIOUS! You’ve GOT to make me a kohain! If you do I’m prepared to write a check to the congregation right now for one million dollars!” Well the Rabbi experienced a moment of moral turpitude at that moment. He knew it was wrong. But he looked around at the crumbling building and thought of the bad food at the last bar mitzvah and slipped. He said, “Ok, I’ll look in my books.” He “found something” and said some mumbo-jumbo and pronounced the guy a kohain, upon which time, he promptly wrote out the check. As the Rabbi put the check in his pocket he asked, ”So you;ve got to tell me. Why was it so important that you be a Kohain?” The guy responded, “You don’t understand the pressure! My father was a kohain, his father was a kohain….”

**The original ordination of the Aaronic priests was not by the laying on of hands either. This is recorded in the Bible as follows:

Leviticus 8:6-13 6 Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. 7 He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. 8 He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breast piece, the Urim and Thummim. 9 And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem — as the LORD had commanded Moses. 10 Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, thus consecrating them. 11 He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. 12 He poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him. 13 Moses then brought Aaron’s sons forward, clothed them in tunics, girded them with sashes, and wound turbans upon them, as the LORD had commanded Moses. Leviticus 8:30-33 And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments. 31 Moses said to Aaron and his sons: Boil the flesh at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and eat it there with the bread that is in the basket of ordination — as I commanded: Aaron and his sons shall eat it; 32 and what is left over of the flesh and the bread you shall consume in fire. 33 You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days.

The Hebrew word here is not “Smicha” (“laying”) it is “Meluaichem” (to “Install”).

***All further references similar to this one are to the Talmud or to later respected commentaries on the Talmud. A modern edition of the Talmud really is a combination of three sources: 1) The Mishneh, a compilation of the orally transmitted procedures and details for observing the laws outlined in the Bible; 2) The Gemara, a loose “commentary” on the Mishneh of sorts – really it’s a running transcript of ancient rabbis discussing a variety of issues loosely related to the preceding Mishneh portion; 3) a variety of later commentaries on 1 and 2, some as late as the middle ages.

****I’m fully aware of modern academic arguments arguing for a late compilation of what we now regard as the Torah. I am personally a believer in the documentary hypothesis (as a scholar rather than as a Jew). I am aware of the possibility that J and P disagree about the pedigree of the priesthood and the later possible confinement to the line of Zadok. If these are issues that interest you, comment and I’ll respond. I’ve kept it relatively simple for a Mormon audience that generally will not be aware of these issues.



Similarities and Discord 2: Outline of Issues

September 19, 2007

Part 2: An Outline of the Issues

I believe that true dialogue requires a thoughtful and respectful, yet honest discussion of issues that both unite and divide.

Last night, I “brain-stormed” a list of what I regarded as the “major” issues uniting and dividing us. I plan to use this list (or a modified version) as a sort of an outline of the posts I intend to write in the “Similarities and discord” category. I also intend to post on other issues as they arise or strike me, but right now the plan is to keep the “Similarities and Discord” category for this list of issues.

I know I’ve been getting hits on the blog every day, but I realize that it’s in its infancy. So far, it’s really been an experiment for me as I figure out the system and work on my editing. From this point forward though, I’ll be actively soliciting readership and I would really appreciate your suggestions as to what should be included in this list. Also, I’ve been defaulting to LDS vocabulary without much explanation because I have an assumption that the majority of readers will end up being LDS. However, I have been using Jewish religious terminology from time to time but providing parenthetical definitions as needed. If my assumptions are wrong, however, I’d like to know about it so don’t hesitate to write me.

On to the list…

Similarities Differences
Charismatic Prophets “Institutional” Prophets
Aaronic Priesthood Rabbis – Weak “Melchizedek” priesthood
Mikveh/Baptism Purity laws – Mikveh used in repentance
Proxy baptism of Jews – strongly resisted
“Peoplehood” and Religious Faith
God as person
God as Corporeal Being* God as incorporeal (a firm view among most Jews since the Middle Ages)
God As Finite* Discarded by Jews in the Middle Ages but resurfacing recently
Pre-existence of human spirits
No “original sin” per se
Fall Brings death only
Fall a “part of the plan”
Universalism – No or limited hell
Satan ultimately serves God’s plan Ambiguous or impersonal Satan
Large List of commandments
Tradition of Temple worship Modern Temples
“National” and “Quasi-National” identity Fading in Mormonism
A serious Sabbath The nature and day of the Sabbath
Dietary Rules Different ones
Holy garments Different ones (though similar)
“Salvation” for the dead Weak in Judaism – no “Ordinances”
Polygamy ended due to pressure

I know there are more issues out there. I’m really looking forward to suggestions!

*Issue that is definitely present in traditional Jewish literature and possibly once represented a majority view but rare today. I plan to examine the sources for these assertions in detail.


Similarities and Discord

September 16, 2007

Part 1: A Survey of Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, thanks for reading!

Moshe Akiva

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