LDS, Jewish ties are strong…

October 7, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.



We Jews Have our “Peoplehood” Issues too…

October 3, 2007


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

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

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


Judaism is a nation, not just a faith community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Peoplehood” Rocks…

September 25, 2007

…But Churches are a Dime a Dozen.

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

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

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

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

Why is this?

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

Jews are similar.

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

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

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

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

For your sake, I hope she’s wrong.

Moshe Akiva


Are you sure you want to be Christians?

September 24, 2007

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

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

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

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

I wonder…

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely, I want to know?

Moshe Akiva


Yom Kippur (and the Mormons): Pt. 1

September 21, 2007

An unusual Shabbat (sabbath) starts this evening. The Torah (in this context, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) describes it as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” It’s a more or less accurate translation to call it the “day of atonement.” Sabbaths are usually quite joyful and full of fun and learning. This one is a day long fast (Something Mormons are rather used to) and is the culmination of ten days of serious internal reflection and repentance that started on the (otherwise joyful) holiday of Rosh Hashanna, the Jewish spiritual New Year.*

On Rosh Hashanna, the “shofar” (a ritual horn made from a Ram’s horn) is blow both to announce the start of the New Year and as a general call to repentance. This is not to say the Jews aren’t able to repent all year, just that this is sort of the “last call” for the year before Yom Kippur.  This Yom Kippur, I’ll try to make special note of things that I think might be interesting to my Mormon readers.

All Jewish services are based on the services in the courtyard of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. On weekdays, there were three set daily sacrifices, Ma’ariv, Shach’rit and Mincha. On Shabbat there was an extra sacrifice, “Musaf.” We follow the same pattern and our prayers relate to the intent of the various daily sacrifices. However, this is not obvious except on Yom Kippur. The prayers are obviously from the Temple area (it might surprise LDS readers that the interior of the ancient temple was almost completely silent with the exception of a single prayer from teh High Priest that was said on Yom Kippur — Tomorrow, we will say a prayer commemorating it but not quite duplicating it). There is also a lot more ritualistic action on Yom Kippur that continues right from the temple to the present.

Finally it is one of the few services in which the Aaronic priesthood is quite actively exercising their office (We usually call them “The Kohanim” – i.e. “the Priests” in Hebrew. In fact many if not most are named “Cohen” in English. All of them have “HaKohen” appended to their Hebrew names). Most services are simply prayers and readings and anyone can do that.  On Yom Kippur, there some specific ritual actions that the Aaronic priesthood must perform.

As a side note, we also have a service in which we “redeem” our firstborn sons from the Aaronic priests, the Kohanim, because the original plan, apparently, was that all first born males would be ordained as priests. It was the incident of the Golden Calf that transfered the priesthood to the Tribe of Levi as a biologically inherited office — that tribe refused to worship it. We sill however, have a brief ritual that transfers the responsibility from our sons to a Levite. We recently performed this ritual, the “Pidyon HaBen” for our son. In actual practice, it’s an excuse for a party to celebrate the birth. It’s also a lot more fun for the baby than the circumcision!

Anyway, I’ll fill you in with a report, designed especially for Mormons, by Monday some time.

Until then,

Tzom Tal! Le’shana tova tikatevu ve’techatemu!

(Have a Good fast! To a Good year! May you be inscribed [in the book of life]! )**

*There are two other “new years” in the Jewish calendar.  There is the “new year for Kings” which is essentially the political calendar and the “New year for trees” or Tub’shavt.  This was the year for determining a full tithe and corresponded to the first new produce of the year (which were nuts, I believe).  As in early Mormonism, all tithing was of course, paid “in kind.”

**Mormons:  You have my permission to use this phrase on Fast Sunday. 🙂


A Couple of Interesting Posts

September 19, 2007

I recently came across a couple of excellent posts on the Mormon Blog, “Times and Seasons” that might be of interest to Two-Sticks readers. Both are from the LDS perspective and both are overwhelming positive toward Jews and Mormon-Jewish relations. Particularly interesting are the comments.

Hopefully we can address most or all of the issues raised in these posts.

The first post, Jews and Mormons” looks at the relationship from the point of view of Mormons who seem to have a natural affinity with Jews. In the post, the author, a Mormon, seems to have his good will return by the Jews he has met. Some of the those commenting though, seem to wonder if the affinity is reciprocated.

I would say “yes,” “no” and then “yes” in that order. Many Jews enjoy a stimulating intellectual conversation and might find affinity with a fellow religious or cultural “outsider” but will be wary of conversations that revolve around religion. Most Jews have little knowledge of Mormonism, let alone Mormonisms penchant for “Israelisms.” Further, many Jews, though enjoying Jewish holidays and having a great sense of “peoplehood” with other Jews, are not “theological” and are simply not interested in conversation about religion.

Secondly, almost all Jews see attempts at proselyting not as a loving offer of a precious gift but as an assault designed to crush the Jewish soul and end our existence as a distinct people. This is a natural reaction, I believe, to centuries of persecution and forced baptisms. (This is the issue at the root of the Proxy baptism controversy between Jews and Mormons as well. More on this in another post). This Shabbat (Saturday), is Yom Kippur and part of the service is devoted to a “martyrology” that recounts the horrendous actions taken by (mainly the Roman Catholic) Church to force Jews to convert and the heroic resistance offered by Jews who gave their lived to avoid baptism. When Jews are approached my missionary-minded Mormons, the natural reaction is to recoil. Even when the goal of the Mormon is to simply learn more about Judaism or to start a respectful dialogue, the Mormon reputation for proselyting creates a barrier that must be overcome before real dialogue can take place.

Finally though, once the air is cleared and it’s clear the proselyting is off the table, I think many knowledgeable Jews (would) find the parallels between Mormonism and Judaism interesting and even stimulating. The idea of Mormons being literal (or, more recently, adopted) members of the tribe of Ephraim, a little odd or even off-putting but, at least for me, after awhile the idea becomes a little endearing. Not something I take seriously at a literal level but kind of “cute” (forgive me, LDS readers) and a point of common embarkation on a journey of understanding. For some reason, the LDS claim seems so much easier to hear than the (thankfully fading) supersessionist idea of the Church (Roman Catholic or generic) becoming the “New Israel.” Your view of adoption (and or literal descent from the lost ribes of the “north countries”) merely add you in, rather than kicking us out of the category of God’s beloved Israel.

Anyway, once a few shockers are out of the way and once the threat of proselyting is off the table, relations can and I believe should, become rather cordial.

The second post follows a different vein. In “What do we think of Jews ” The author speculate on why Mormons tend to feel differently toward Jews than to other non Christians. He correctly affirms that the biggest single issue between us is that of whether Jesus is the Messiah (Moshiach) or not but still, he regard Jews differently than other non-Christians and take the position that Mormons do not and should not go out of their way to proselyte Jews.

The comments on this post are also fascinating. The majority seem to agree with the author. A few raise some quirky issues regarding the prominent Mormon senator from Utah, Orin Hatch, wearing Jewish symbols under his clothing. (?!) I have to admit, I had never heard this before… Fascinating!