Guest Post: Mormons Talking About Jews

This post comes from guest contributor Orson.

LDS scholars can sometimes be quite disparaging when discussing Judaism. It’s not intentional. Mormons by and large love the Jewish people (even if we often fail to properly understand them). Yet not withstanding this generally positive sentiment, Mormon scholars have a long history of making derogatory anti-Semitic remarks. I feel a need to point this out, not with a desire to embarrass specific individuals, for certainly, when it comes to representing the “other,” all of us can improve, but it’s high time that something be said about this problem so that we can begin correcting this matter.

Take for instance the recent Deseret News article by BYU professors William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson on the topic of “Rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.” These prominent LDS scholars depict Jewish history with these words:

The destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 was a devastating event in the history of Judaism. It served as a transforming catalyst in both the origins of Christianity and the transition of Israelite religion from a priestly sacrifice-centered system to the legalistic text-centered religion of rabbinic Judaism as we know it today.

To characterize 1st century Judaism as a “priestly sacrifice-centered system,” and rabbinic Judaism as a “legalistic text-centered religion” is not only historically incorrect, but a problematic and pejorative stereotype of the Jewish faith.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that these two Mormon professors are anti-Semitic. By all accounts, Hamblin and Peterson are good men. But this characterization of Judaism printed in the pages of the Deseret News perpetuates a religious stereotype. Given our own recent history with the media, I believe as Mormons, we should show greater sensitivity towards the way religious views are characterized by outsiders, especially when it is us who are doing the commenting.

Unfortunately, however, this most recent remark in the Deseret News has a long history in Mormon tradition. In his famous reinterpretation of the Bible’s opening verse, Joseph Smith reportedly explained:

 I shall comment on the very first Hebrew word in the Bible. I will make a comment on the very first sentence of the history of creation in the Bible- Berosheit. I want to analyze the word. Baith–in, by, through, and everything else. Rosh–the head. Sheit–grammatical termination. When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the Baith there. An old Jew, without any authority, added the word. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head!

As true as Smith’s comment may be (and it certainly cannot be sustained as correct from a historical perspective), Mormons should still recognize that it conveys an underlying anti-Semitic sentiment. This is not because Joseph Smith was a bad person, or because he was insensitive to the Jewish people. Smith was a product of his age. He was simply drawing upon a long-line of Christian thought (with origins as early as the second century CE) of accusing Jews of somehow altering the Hebrew scriptures. Fortunately our society has advanced to the point that most contemporary readers rightfully cringe when they encounter Joseph Smith’s statement. Today, most people (including most Latter-day Saints) recognize that suggesting that some “old Jew without any authority” tampered with God’s word is not only an incorrect historical assertion, but also a deeply offensive remark. The following reaction taken from the website illustrates this point:

 Throughout the centuries the Jewish people have transmitted the sacred text of the Torah with extreme care, so that not one letter should be changed, added, or deleted. When then could an unauthorized ‘old Jew’ have made this change without causing protest over a spurious addition?. . . What is Smith’s source for this improbable tale about “an old Jew”? Why should this so-called ‘old Jew’ even be concerned ‘about the head’ being mentioned…

Yet contemporary readers should not react too harshly to Joseph Smith’s comment. Looking back on his statement from our contemporary vantage point, we rightfully recognize how offensive such an assertion is to the Jewish people. Suffice it to say that like other 19th century American Christians, the frontier Mormon prophet was not sufficiently sympathetic towards this issue. So be it.

From my perspective, that’s neither here nor there. My real concern is that today in the 21st century, as seen in the recent Deseret News piece, many Mormon scholars have tragically continued Smith’s lack of sensitivity. And unlike Smith, we should know better. On this topic, the Society of Biblical Literature Handbook encourages scholars to use “bias-free” language, which it defines as:

Writing [that] respects all cultures, peoples, and religions… [Since] uncritical use of biblical characterizations such as the Jews or the Pharisees can perpetuate religious and ethnic stereotypes. (SBL Handbook, 17.)

Personally, I believe that it’s possible to accomplish this goal, even when writing to a faith community from the perspective of a believer. But unfortunately, when it comes to Judaism, this propensity towards perpetuating religious and ethnic stereotypes by Mormons is not simply limited to 19th century comments. Anti-Semitism often appears in the devotional material LDS scholars produce for a Mormon audience. Even though several examples of this trend could be cited, I’m going to focus on simply one more recent illustration that builds upon the long held Christian assumption that Jews tampered with the Bible. I’m certainly not trying to pick a fight nor to make anyone look bad. I do this with the sincere hope that in the future, LDS scholars will show greater sensitivity towards this important issue.

In 2013, LDS publisher Covenant Communications, a subsidiary of Desert Book, released Dr. Kerry Muhlestein’s book Return unto Me: Old Testament Messages of God’s Love. The book has an honorable objective, to help Mormon readers feel connected with the love of divinity through the Old Testament. Yet unfortunately, Muhlestein’s work perpetuates the classic Mormon myth, and it does so with a deeply problematic characterization of those responsible for transmitting this body of religious literature:

Another issue that can make it difficult for us to see God’s love in the Old Testament stems from its transmission process… We are fortunate that so much of the message of God’s love to us was encoded into the Old Testament in a way that it was impossible for it all to be taken out. God had His scriptural writers embed His most important message—those about His love and deliverance—in the stories that traverse the sacred pages off the Old Testament… He has left the messages there—hidden just enough beneath the surface that they were not removed from the text. (chapter 1)

Muhlestein’s book builds upon Joseph Smith’s belief that Jews tampered with the Old Testament. Yet Muhlestein takes this false assumption to an entirely new level by asserting that ancient prophets had to embed allusions to God’s love in way that Jewish scribes would not remove them from the Bible. Apparently, those responsible for its “transmission process” didn’t want to preserve religious references that convey God’s love.

Muhlestein’s argument, however, is not only historically incorrect, like the recent Deseret News piece, it is another comment that perpetuates a false perspective concerning Judaism. The Hebrew word “love” is one of the most commonly attested words in the Old Testament. It’s certainly not hidden. The Hebrew Bible speaks explicitly about God’s love for Israel (Hos 3:1), his love for her ancestors (Deut 4:37; 10:15), his love for the religiously devout (Deut 7:13; 23:6; Isa 43:4; Jer. 31:3; Hos 11:1; 14:5; Ps 97:10), his love for people like Solomon (2 Sam 12:24), his love for justice (Ps 33:5; 37:28), his love for Zion (Ps 87:2), etc.

Moreover, Jewish people (the transmitters of the Hebrew Bible) should not be represented as opposed to the idea that God possesses the capacity to love. Historically, Christians have often misrepresented Judaism as a predominately mechanical religion, devoid of higher virtues (see, for example, Hamblin and Peterson). Now, let me be clear. I’m certainly not accusing Muhlestein himself of being anti-Semitic. I feel quite certain that Muhlestein’s comment was not intended to perpetuate an anti-Semitic stereotype. However, I strongly believe that as we move forward, LDS scholars need to show greater sensitivity towards the way Christian commentators (including many LDS authors) have historically misrepresented Jews.

The truth is that Judaism (in both its ancient and modern incarnations) expresses a deep spiritual connection to the love of God. This view can be seen in a variety of Jewish sources. Consider, for example, the Aramaic Targum for the Song of Songs, which interprets the love poems as an allegory expressing God’s love for his people. Concerning the first poetic stanza, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine,” the Jewish Targum states that we learn from this that God “communed with us [Israel] face to face, as a man that kisses his fellow out of the abundance of his affection, loving us, as He does, more than the seventy nations.” God’s love was a very important traditional Jewish concern; always has been, always will be.

In reality, ancient Jews gave considerable focus to the concept of divine love. The idea that the transmitters of the Hebrew Bible would have systemically removed all of the explicit references to divine love from its pages so that only the hidden references they couldn’t decipher have been preserved is an absurd assertion.

More importantly, much like the recent Deseret News piece, this idea expressed by an LDS scholar continues to promote an anti-Semitic perspective. I believe that those who write for an LDS audience have a responsibility to show much greater care. Jews don’t hate the idea of God’s love; neither did their ancestors. Rabbinic Judaism is not simply a legalistic religion devoid of ethics; and, no, some old Jew without any authority did not tamper with the Bible to strip it of God’s love and emphasize his legalistic persuasion.

Honestly, I believe that the LDS scholarly community can/must do better. We owe it to our Jewish brothers and sisters. We owe it to ourselves.

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