Mormons and Orthodox Judaism Part II

After my last post on Mormons and Orthodoxy, Mark Paredes the Mormon author of the column “Jews and Mormons” emailed me with encouragement. Mark seems to be a one man quest for Jewish-Mormon encounter.

Mark’s Wiki bio offers the following hurricane of productive activity.

Mark Paredes is the author of the “Middle East Matters” column for the Deseret News and the “Jews and Mormons” blog for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. He served as a U.S. diplomat at the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1994-1996 and the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara, Mexico from 1991-1993. He also worked as the press attaché for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, the National Director of Hispanic Outreach for the American Jewish Congress, and the Executive Director of the Western Region of the ZOA.

Jewish-Mormon encounter seems to be his special passion. A few weeks ago, he spoke at the Orthodox minyan at Harvard and the event was one of the best received that they ran all year, and got a glowing write-up by one of the participants in The Crimson, who dubbed it “one of the most profound interfaith events I’ve ever attended on this campus” due to its refusal to sidestep difficult issues, and cast it as a model for substantive interfaith work.

In the spirit of his passion, Mark answered a few questions about the Orthodox-Mormon encounter. Personally, I am fascinated by how a religion that accepts that there are many gods, accepts that god was a person who later became divine, has a wife, and that God has a body could be embraced by Orthodoxy. The obvious answer is that the common ground of family values, conservative politics, and banning gay marriage overcomes little things like the principles of faith. It even has them discussing their conflicting Abrahamic covenants.

Read on and then feel free to ask good questions that will open up the discussion. If I read Mark’s passion correctly, he will be checking the comments here eager to reply.

1] Which Orthodox rabbis are you friendly with or impressed with? why?
Rather than list specific rabbis, I’d prefer to list organizations with which I have worked. The OU, Agudath Israel, The Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, Jews for Judaism, the Sephardic Educational Center, Harvard Hillel and many LA-area Orthodox synagogues all have rabbis whom I know and admire. Last summer I conducted an especially meaningful dialogue with a Montreal Orthodox rabbi. I am very impressed by their dedication to Torah-based Judaism and Jewish values, and the way in which they use their influence both to strengthen their own communities and to work with people of faith to improve the world. I have attended OU seminars and lectures on kashrut laws and dina d’malchuta dina, welcomed the collaboration of the OU and Agudath Israel with Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelicals to pass Proposition 8 in California, attended a luncheon sponsored by Jews for Judaism, taken a Torah class from an inspired SEC rabbi, and conducted a town hall meeting on gay marriage at a leading Orthodox shul.

2] What theological topics do you talk with them?

It’s hard to identify a common theme to my religious discussions with Orthodox rabbis. Together we’ve explored many topics: the obligations associated with the Abrahamic covenant, what it means to be created b’tselem, whether dina d’malchuta dina can ever trump Torah law, whether evil was divinely created, the role of Satan in Jewish thought, why certain prohibitions are contained in the Noahide Laws, and why religious Jews and Mormons wear sacred garments.

Two weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of giving the D’var Torah to the Orthodox minyan at Harvard University. After discussing lepers and cleansing, I thanked the Orthodox for standing for morality and Torah values in a world that sorely needs them. I’ll never forget this experience.

3] Why is Mormon-Orthodox Jewish dialogue important?

Mormons generally consider the Orthodox to be Jews who take G-d and their religion seriously. We have enormous respect for people who believe that the Hebrew Bible is a divine book, and that this knowledge obligates us to act in certain ways. On a personal level, I have found that Orthodox Jews are usually much more knowledgeable about their own faith than their Reform and Conservative counterparts.

Given that Mormons believe that they are modern-day Israelites and that their theology is far more complete than other Christian belief systems on the Abrahamic covenant, chosenness and Israel, the prophetic tradition, etc., it’s only natural that they would seek to dialogue with Jews who look to Judaism, not secular liberalism, for enlightenment on these questions.

The LDS Church as a whole is interested in working with other faiths in two areas: humanitarian aid and promoting religious freedom. At the grass roots level, however, Mormons love Jews, Judaism, and Israel, and any attempt by the Orthodox to engage in dialogue with us would be warmly welcomed.

4] Do the Orthodox rabbis ever learn about Mormonism and its doctrines?

I’ve fielded many questions from Orthodox rabbis on LDS beliefs and practice. On one occasion the local LDS Church’s public affairs committee invited a group of LA-based rabbis to visit the temple in Draper, Utah, before it was dedicated. An Orthodox rabbi was in the group, and he was very appreciative of the chance to learn more about our sacred rituals.

5] If there is one message that would give an Orthodox audience?

Mormons have enormous respect for Judaism and Jews, and we have more to say to religious Jews than do other Christians.

6] Where do you see the most divergence?
Mormons have temples, revelation through prophets, and the priesthood. We consider them to be both necessary and irreplaceable. When we read the Hebrew Bible, we see a pattern of G-d calling prophets, giving them His word, and the sending them to transmit it to the masses.

There are no authorized dissenting voices in the Torah. Therefore, when a Mormon reads the Talmud, with its quarreling rabbis and multiple interpretations of scriptural passages, it’s difficult for him to accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition as being a continuation of temple-based Judaism. For us, there can’t be a prophetic tradition without prophets.

7] Is there any advice that you would give someone who is not used to encounter with Mormons.
Mormons do not believe that Jews and others who reject Jesus Christ as the Savior are going to hell. [For us the deadline for accepting G-d’s truths is not death, but the olam ha-ba]. Finally, there is no room in LDS doctrine for replacement theology. The Abrahamic covenant is at the center of our temple worship, and children born to couples who have been “sealed” in our temples are said to be “born in the [Abrahamic] covenant.” To be sure, our definition of that covenant is more expansive than the Jewish one, but the idea that the Abrahamic covenant has been replaced by something else is antithetical to our beliefs. Does the covenant still apply to Jews? Yes. Are they keeping all of its requirements? That would make for a fascinating dialogue topic.

8] One of the student organizers of your talk at Harvard emailed me after the event to inform me about it. But he added “My only regret is that we ran out of time before we could ask about the Mormon corporeal conception of God… many Orthodox rabbis may not be aware of the problematic Avodah Zarah-esque (idolatrous) natures of many LDS theological tenets.” How would you respond to this student statement?

Site editor--For those not acquainted with Mormon belief about God, here is a neutral BBC article on the topic.
• God is not of another species
• God is an exalted, perfected man
• God has a physical body
• There is more than one God
• Human beings have the potential to become like God
• The Godhead consists of 3 separate and distinct beings, united in purpose
• Mormons believe that God is immortal and that God was once a man.
• God the Father is a being called Elohim, who was once a man like present day human beings, but who lived on another planet.
• Over time this man made himself perfect and became God, with a knowledge of everything, and the power to do anything.
• Jesus Christ is the first-born spirit child of God. He was the literal, biological Son of God, and of Mary
• They believe that after the resurrection, Jesus visited America, where he taught and performed miracles.

Answer- Instead of waxing indignant like some Christians do when they discover that the Talmud regards them as idolaters (I tend to think that the rabbanim were targeting the Roman-era Christians who were persecuting them under the guise of religion, but I digress), I’ve found that it’s easier to simply explain what we believe and let Jews come to their own conclusions. The BBC link is accurate, but a little perspective is needed.

For Jews, the concept of covenant Israel begins at Sinai. For Mormons, it is an eternal covenant that began in the pre-earth life when we lived with G-d and will continue into the eternities. We believe that the first covenant Israelite, the first “Mormon” if you will, was Adam. We also believe that all of the early patriarchs (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham) held G-d’s priesthood and taught true worship of Him. In other words, we don’t believe that worship of the true G-d began with Abraham Avinu, though it may have been restored by him. While Jews tend to dismiss pre-Abrahamic concepts of G-d as idolatrous or benighted, Mormons see the ancient Near Eastern belief in a council of Gods reflected in the Hebrew Bible.

In Genesis 1:26, for example, we see the plural “us” used by G-d and we learn that we are created b’tselem, which Mormons interpret literally. Psalm 82:1 is another scripture that resonates with us.

We do believe that G-d is an exalted, perfected man who is the Father of our spirits. He is married to an exalted, perfected woman, and we are their spirit children. In LDS teaching, we are all literally brothers and sisters of G-d. We lived with our heavenly parents before we came to earth, and b’ezrat Hashem we’ll live with them in the olam ha-ba.

Mormons reject the concept of the Trinity, choosing instead to believe in three distinct divine members of a Godhead headed by G-d our Father.

One clarification is needed for the BBC article, one which may allay some avodah zarah concerns. Although we believe that there is more than one god, we only pray to our Heavenly Father (in the name of Jesus). In our modern scriptures, we learn that Abraham is now an Exalted Man who “Sitteth Upon His Throne,” but we do not worship Abraham.

Our relationship to G-d and other gods is analogous to a child/parent relationship: there may be many fathers walking the earth, but a child has only one dad that he recognizes as such.

Please let me know if you need more information. Clarity is always more important than agreement when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and this is especially true with respect to our concept of the divine.

5 responses to “Mormons and Orthodox Judaism Part II

  1. ” The obvious answer is that the common ground of family values, conservative politics, and banning gay marriage overcomes little things like the principles of faith.”

    As I think was at least alluded to in the comments to the previous post, I think it is more subtle than that. What you list applies to many protestant groups as well.
    But with Mormons, there is also commonality in (1) having a religion with a fairly complicated and obscure-to-outsiders set of rules and practices, about which one has been the target of ill-will and persecution in the recent past and for which one therefore mostly wants to be left alone (by both secularists and evangelicals) rather than evangelize/publicize, and (2) being a (generally) white-looking religious minority (seemingly?) overrepresented in the well-paying professions.

    (I realize the mormom mission goes against what i say re: “rather than evangelize,” but I think it is still true that in american politics mormons have a “leave us and our peculiarities alone” streak rather than a “be like us and adopt our pecluiarities” streak.)

  2. I wonder what would happen if Steinhardt were to hire Chabadniks to start missionizing in the Third World.

  3. Why does Paredes write “G-d”? Was it perceived sensitvity to you, Dr. Brill? Or is that now a Mormon thing too?

  4. S., as a Mormon, I would use “G-d”, too, when on Jewish forums or communicating with Jewish friends. I think this practice of the Jewish community is commendable, and I see nothing wrong following it, even though among Mormons we do write the Name in full.

  5. Do you happen to know if there is any relationship between the terms: ‘Avodah Zarah’ (mentioned in your article), and the name ‘Zarah’ (a Child of Judah and Tamar)?

    I am concerned that the concept of ‘Avodah Zarah’, may tend to make a group ‘clannish’. How can the doctrines of the Great Patriarchs, bless the nations – and yet still be clannish – at the same time?

    Do you accept the notion, that the descendants of Zarah, made it to England?

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