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


Judaism, Mormonism and “Salvation”

January 24, 2008

On Wed, 23 Jan 2008 20:27:23 -0800 (PST), Red Davis <thereddavis@yahoo.com> 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


On God, the Universe and Everything

January 24, 2008

An Interesting Exchange Between Myself

and an Anti-Mormon Named Gerald Bostock


On Tue, 22 Jan 2008 16:28:18 -0800 (PST), Gerald Bostock

<gbostock@excite.com> wrote:


>The BoM is obviously a fiction (as are the rest of LDS scriptures).

>All the theology is irrelevant after that.


I’m not sure this follows logically. I agree that the Book of Mormon

is likely non-historical. The D&C is historical in the sense that all the

people and places mentioned in it are well attested to, and follow more

or less in well accepted chronological order.  In fact, in this sense,

it is probably the most historically well documented of all the worlds

scriptures.  The other various scriptures of Judaism, Christianity,

Islam and so forth fit somewhere between these two Mormon scriptures

in terms of external historical verifiability yet none of this makes

their theologies irrelevant.


From my point of view, Joseph Smith was a religious genius who solved

two major problems:


1) The problem of evil

2) A coherant explanation for the creation of humans and the Earth


I’m not sure that he’s right on either issue, but every reasonable and

well informed person, if they really know what he had to say, has to

take his theology seriously as possibilities. The fact that some of

his scriptures are likely unhistorical is what is irrelevant.


As I said, I reject the Book of Mormon. I also reject the New

Testament.  Neither one is really coherent logically

nor is either one historical (though the NT is slightly more likely

than the Book of Mormon in that a few – not many – of it’s external

details can be verified).  That said, Joseph Smith was a theological

force to be reckoned with.


It’s too bad for the Mormon Church that they cannot easily just dump

the Book of Mormon (and the Book of Abraham for that matter), and keep

the D&C. I think Mormon theology would be much more “marketable” that



Moshe Akiva


On Tue, 22 Jan 2008 20:21:49 -0800 (PST), Gerald Bostock

<gbostock@excite.com> wrote:



>> From my point of view, Joseph Smith was a religious genius who solved

>> two major problems:


>> 1) The problem of evil

>> 2) A coherant explanation for the creation of humans and the Earth


>Not at all, he doesn’t even address the issue of the Aristotalian

>Prime Mover, First Cause etc.


This is rather irrelevant in modern discourse since Aristotle (nor

Aquinas For that matter) does not really deal with infinite sets. He

just assumes that they are impossible in terms of cause and effect.


>>He seems to take the position that the

>universe always existed (which is impossible, an infinitely old

>universe would have died an entropy death)


Well _something_ always existed. There’s no question about that.

“Self existence” is a fact for both the theist and the atheist. It’s

just a question of what was self existing whether that be God,

“intelligences” or the primordial singularity (or whatever the  primordial

singularity came  from).


I don’t think that Mormonism precludes the Big-bang. Further, there

is no indication that the basic “intelligences” need follow the same

laws of physics we do. In fact, if the basic intelligences precede

the big-bang they would not since all agree that our laws of physics

were born in that event.


>and he doesn’t address the

>origin of the first of his gods.


You are more or less right on this. However, I read the Book of

Abraham to say that the “god” mentioned was simply the greatest of the

intelligences. This is later contradicted by the King Follet sermon

however. I think it is reasonable to believe that he ultimately would

have concluded that the first “gods” were simply those self-existent

intelligences who were “greatest” and started the ball rolling.


Please keep in mind that I’m not a Mormon and don’t believe any of

this literally. In actual practice, I lean toward process

philosophy/theology as formulated by Alfred North Whitehead and

Charles Hartshorne. I’m merely impressed that Jospeh Smith intuited a

form of process theology on his own without a theological education

(or any education at al for that matter).




On Wed, 23 Jan 2008 08:04:52 -0800 (PST), Gerald Bostock

<gbostock@excite.com> wrote:


>> This is rather irrelevant in modern discourse since Aristotle (nor

>> Aquinas For that matter) does not really deal with infinte sets. He

>> just assumes that they are impossible in terms of cause and effect.


>We all have to assume that they are impossible in terms of cause and

>effect. That’s the rub.


No we don’t. You and I are talking past each other a bit. You are

primarily discussing physics with a philosophical twist and I am

primarily discussing philosophy with a physics twist. However, I’m

game either way.


Here is the problem using entropy to establish the cosmological

argument (Aristotle, Aquinas et al): It depends on “our” time and

therefore is a byproduct of post big-bang physics. Entropy “picks” a

direction in time. Without time, there is no entropy.

Pre-big bang physics depend on utterly un-established principles of

time, cause and effect (If, in fact, there are causes and effects pre

big bang). Hawking, for example, said that talking about “before” the

big-bang or the “cause” of the big bang is, from a physics point of

view, like asking what is north of the north pole. It’s the reference

point that establishes our basic principles such as time.


While entropy would be an issue in the post-big bang period, it’s

irrelevant to the pre-big bang period and any periods that may or may

not have proceeded that.


Get it?


>> Well _something_ always existed.


>No. Nothing can be infinite according to thermodynamics. Anything

>infinite would have died an entropy death. I was about to get into a

>physics lesson here but realized I don’t have the time. You should be

>able to do your own research on what entropy death means.


No. The singularity is a”thing” regardless of what entropy “says.”

Entropy is simply not relevant to this question. The question precedes



>There’s the problem with the science which says that something can’t

>come from nothing, but in the origin something must have come from



Yes? And that is??


> You’re arguing that there must have been something that was



Not necessarily unless a pre-big bang, pre-entropy, cause and effect

process is regarded as a “thing” unto itself. That said, the

singularity is a “thing.” I’m not, BTW, arguing “for” anything except



>Nothing can be eternal.


Not impressed. Again, you are forgetting the whole issue of the

singularity or whatever may or may not have existed in some time

scheme and may or may not have existed prior to the big bang.


>Aristotle was the first guy we know

>of that said there must have been something that got it all started.


Yes but without any authority whatsoever. He doesn’t even argue for

this position. He merely assumes it.


>There’s no simple answer to any of this.


Agreed. There may be NO answer for us living, as we do in four

dimensions (one of which is “our” time). There is, however,

logically possible and logically impossible. You said certain things

were impossible and I don’t think you have made your case.


>> I don’t think that Mormonism precludes the Big-bang.


>I think the law of eternal progression precludes it.


How so? Do Mormons purport to know the physics and dimensions that

govern intelligences and Gods? I’m not sure they do…


> Further, there

>> is no indication that the basic “intelligences” need follow the same

>> laws of physics we do. In fact, if the basic intelligences preceed

>> the big-bang they would not since all gree that our laws of physics

>> were born in that event.


>I don’t think that all agree. If the intelligences precede the big

>bang then what is their origin?


Possibly they are self-existent pre-entropy extra-dimensional entities. If

they were you would have no way of proving nor disproving their



This is, for example, why string theory is so frustrating. The math

to unify all fields works out perfectly… But it required 11

dimensions. There is no way that we, as four dimensional beings can

prove or disprove their existence.


>> You are more or less right on this. However, I read the Book of

>> Abraham to say that the “god” mentioned was simply the greatest of the

>> intelligences. This is later contradicted by the King Follet sermon

>> however.


>Mormonism is full of contradictions. That’s how we know JSjr (and BY,

>et al.) was making it up as he went along.


Probably they were! However, I simply think that JS was intuiting

things beyond the typical con man.


To a certain degree I see all the great charismatic prophets of all

the world religions as “con men” or “psychos.I mean, to some degree you

would have to be to reject the socially constructed reality you were

raised with and that which your senses are a feeding you. Thus, I’m

not surprised when religions are internally self-contradictory. I

can’t think of one that isn’t. That does not preclude these folks

from producing interesting and creative ideas that deserve a second



That’s the way I feel about, for example, Buddhism as well as

Mormonism. I’m neither Buddhist nor Mormon but I feel that they

contribute something to the great philosophical a religious discussion

we are all having across space and time.


> I think it is reasonable to belive that he ultimately would

>> have concluded that the first “gods” were simply those self-existent

>> intelligences who were “greatest” and started the ball rolling.


>There’s no telling what he would have “concluded” since he was making

>it up as he went along.


I only say that because the roots are there in the Book of Abraham and

I don’t think he really got to the problem. He died while his ideas

were still forming. But you are right. There’s “no telling.”


>> Please keep in mind that I’m not a Mormon and don’t believe any of

>> this literally. In actual practice, I lean toward process

>> philosophy/theology as formulated by Alfred North Whitehead and

>> Charles Hartshorne. I’m merely impressed that Jospeh Smith intuited a

>> form of process theology on his own without a theological education

>> (or any education at al for that matter).


>I think a lot of people had similar ideas before JSjr and will again

>without knowing about him. I’m not impressed with those who think this

>stuff up.


However, Whitehead and Heartshorne are not merely”a lot of people”

they are both great philosophers. Whitehead was also a great

mathematician who, along with Bertrand Russell, wrote “Principia

Mathematica” which establish modern post-Aristotelian formal logic as

well as set theory in mathematics.*




*Not to be confused with Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.”


Torah Scroll Saved from Desecration in Provo

January 23, 2008

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

By Jessica Ravitz

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

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

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

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

Poland to Provo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Turkey (or Turkow) to Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

From one
Zion to another

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

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

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

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

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


Jewish Reponse to Van Hale

January 17, 2008

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

Dear Van,

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

Avinu Malkeinu, Chaneinu V’aneinu,

ki ein banu ma’asim.

Assei imanu ts’dakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Moshe Akiva


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


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.” (Salon.com)

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.” http://www.shmuley.com