Last month, a group of Jewish and Latter-day Saint (a.k.a. Mormon) academics and clergy met in Israel for a groundbreaking interfaith conference. The Israel gathering was the latest chapter in what is known as The Jewish – Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue Project. This interfaith dialogue was launched in 2016 with two goals — to sponsor private dialogues between a group of Latter-day Saint and Jewish academics and to create public dialogues to dispel misconceptions and foster understanding and respect between the two faith communities. Participating Latter-day Saint scholars serve on the faculty of Brigham Young University and the John A Widstoe Foundation at the University of Southern California. Jewish participants are faculty members and rabbis at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City. The Jewish cohort includes men and women who self-identify as Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform, an intra-faith diversity that we believe adds significant value to the dialogue.
Prior to the Israel conference, dialogue participants convened semi-annually in California and Utah. Meetings featured Latter-day Saint and Jewish scholars who presented academic papers and responses and public interfaith exchanges at seminaries, universities, synagogues and Latter-day Saint meetinghouses. Early papers and discussions focused on topics such as Sabbath observance, liturgical practices, and the images of Jews and Latter-day Saints in American literature. Recent papers and dialogues have dealt with more challenging subjects, including supersessionism, political behaviors of Latter-day Saints and Jews, and their respective attitudes towards Israel and Zionism.
From the outset, the project’s organizers shared a vision of holding a conference in Israel. Thanks to generous support from donors in both faith communities, thirteen dialogue partners joined by graduate students and local academics met in Israel June 4-6, 2019. The conclave featured:
- Three days of interfaith text study and dialogues at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Bar Ilan University, and the Jerusalem campuses of Brigham Young University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion;
- Guided tours of the City of David excavations and the museum of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archeology;
- A group tour and presentation at Yad Vashem followed by a poignant interfaith commemoration in the Hall of Remembrance;
- A memorable visit to Wolfson Medical Center and the Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) Children’s Home in Holon where dialogue participants witnessed firsthand the lifesaving work of SACH staff and volunteers;
- A public program at the BYU Jerusalem Center with keynote addresses by two outstanding faith leaders–Rabbi Michael Melchior, Chief Rabbi of Norway and a renowned Jewish thinker and interfaith activist, and Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the four years since the dialogue’s inception, participants have explored common features of the Jewish and Latter-day Saint traditions. Both religious communities set high standards of education, volunteerism, charitable giving, and humanitarian assistance. Latter-day Saints and Jews value family life and fealty to the community as pillars of their respective heritages. Each faith tradition has its own history of persecution, exile, exodus, and redemption in a promised land.
As partners in academic dialogue, we understand and appreciate the mandate to “dig deeper” in our interfaith engagement. We discuss not only what unites us as people of faith, but also how and where we differ in matters of theology and praxis. The role of women in the lived religious life and polity of Jews and Latter-day Saints is a recurring topic of inquiry and debate, as are issues of domestic politics and public policy. In our meetings to date, we have examined controversies over Latter-day Saint proselytizing and posthumous baptism of victims of the Holocaust. Throughout the proceedings, we are cognizant of the special challenges of interfaith engagement between adherents of an ancient religious tradition dating back to the Hebrew Bible and a nascent faith tradition that is 200 years young.
In my own work in interfaith relations, I have learned the unique value of bringing dialogue partners—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others–to study and tour together in Israel. So too with the Jewish – Latter-day Saint dialogue conference. A site visit to Yad Vashem is always an emotional experience; touring the Holocaust museum and memorial with an interfaith delegation imbued the visit with singular religious and historical connotations. Observing the joyful reactions of BYU students as they witnessed the interfaith exchanges of a “Jewish rabbi” and a Latter-day Saint apostle was a delight. Introducing our BYU colleagues to the time-honored hevruta method of Jewish study at the Shalom Hartman Institute was a privilege.
The recent conference in Israel reinforced and renewed the strong and sure bonds of friendship, fellowship, and collegiality among dialogue participants from two diverse faith traditions. As we walked and talked during site visits and seminars at academic institutions, we listened to each other’s narratives and learned with and from one another and our Israeli hosts. Being together in Israel transformed our academic project into a fruitful interfaith engagement between dialogue partners who have become respected colleagues and close friends.
Several factors contribute to the success of these interfaith dialogues. We benefit from keeping the group small, a dynamic that enables us to get to know each other and create a “safe space” for honest and open interfaith dialogue. We select participants carefully with the aim of matching Latter-day Saint and Jewish scholars from parallel academic fields and with similar professional interests. We allocate time and resources for shared meals, socialization, visits to religious centers and historical sites, and opportunities to observe each other’s prayers and rituals. We gratefully acknowledge donors in our respective communities who value both the private and public faces of the project, including the forthcoming publication of a volume of papers delivered at conferences to date.
I am often asked how and why I dialogue with “those people.” Set against the backdrop of Catholic-Jewish, Muslim-Jewish, and other well-known interfaith projects, why davka do I choose to engage with the “Mormons”? My answer: I have gained enormous respect and affection for my Latter-day Saint colleagues, and enduring “holy envy” of their faith community, more than I could ever have imagined. I am confident they feel likewise about their Jewish colleagues and the Jewish religious tradition. The Jewish – Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue is the most enriching and gratifying interfaith engagement project of my career as a rabbi. It reflects on multiple levels the ancient wisdom of Joshua ben Perahyah in Pirkay Avot 1:6: “Select for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a colleague and friend, and judge all persons favorably.”