Tuesday, May 6, 2014

An Historian at War: From Gershom Scholem's Experiences in 1948

Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a colossal figure in the modern academic study of Judaism. Without Scholem it is unlikely that there would be a serious, disciplined study of Jewish mysticism/esotericism in general, and of Kabbalah in particular. His 1941 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism is in my estimation quite likely the most widely quoted scholarly work on Jewish mysticism even today.[1] Aside from his scholarly achievements, Scholem also corresponded widely with various people, both famous and now-forgotten, such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Joseph Weiss.[2] Guy Stroumsa recently published Scholem's correspondence with Morton Smith (1915-1991), a brilliant yet controversial scholar of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity. His discovery of a work he termed the Secret Gospel of Mark resulted in accusations of forgery, which to this day have remained unresolved.[3]

On August 6, 1948, Scholem sent Smith a letter thanking him for the gift of a book, and filling him in on the recent events of the 1948 war.

How does an historian, someone used to studying history at a distance from old books and manuscripts, react when brought face-to-face with events of historical magnitude? Scholem appreciates a little bit of romance in his situation, mingled with the feeling that too much "history" is actually rather uncomfortable.

"The last months have been most eventful and we could go on and on talking about our experiences. It was a great time. Of course, no academic work could proceed orderly, but everybody has had his fill of excitement and work, building fortifications, standing up to shelling and sniping, it was all very much (a little too much, perhaps) “Historic”. I was some kind of  porter honoris causa with the Jewish H.Q. and have spent some time on Mount Zion when we took over the ‘Dormitio’ of  the Benedictines. The good patres had fled and we had to guard the place. You would not have recognized Jerusalem these days! The shelling (very much English-made) was disagreeable, distasteful and exceedingly noisy. Some fell around our house, but no damage was done. Nobody knows whether the whole thing is going to start anew, and both sides are preparing themselves. The optimism which greeted the second cease-fire has vanished."[4]

Scholem goes on to write that some of their mutual friends have died, but there is still some humour, as others, like a certain widow, now make for unlikely soldiers as they patrol the city with stenguns. Scholem ends his letter on a sober yet hopeful note that could stand in for the Jewish sector's experience of the Jerusalem siege as a whole.

"Everybody has become tall and meager and since the end of  the siege we are living on food parcels from every corner of  Israel. Everybody wanted to do something for us. To which we could not object reduced as we were in physical strength. Let us hope that the tribulations of  Israel are soon over. And that we meet again in peaceful employment."[5]

[1]The first chapter may be read here. http://www2.trincoll.edu/~kiener/RELG308_Scholem_MTJM_Lecture1.pdf


[3]Guy Stroumsa (ed.), Morton Smith and Gershom Scholem: Correspondence 1945-1982 (Brill, 2008). On Secret Mark see Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005). http://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/press/Catalog/Excerpts/brown.shtml

[4]Stroumsa, Correspondence, 25-26.

[5]Ibid., 26.

Monday, September 9, 2013

More Terrible Than Even the Persecutions of the Jews: The Mormon Experience in Ha-Magid

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck released a now forgotten film- Brigham Young: Frontiersman. This was the first sympathetic cinematic portrayal of the Mormon story, and it was warmly welcomed both by LDS leadership and lay members. The late Davis Bitton pointed out that the message of the film went beyond just telling the Mormon story, and was concerned with the present no less than the past.

I wonder how many people who saw the movie "Brigham Young" realized that it was also about the Jews. By this time, the terrible persecution of Jews in Hitler's Germany was far advanced. Nazi troops had moved into the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They had invaded Poland, the Netherlands, and France. France and England had declared war. Jews were being herded into camps. Some hid and some fled to safety in other countries. All of this was very much on the mind of people like Darryl Zanuck. We don't have to guess that this comparison was in his mind because he said so, and the comparison was also picked up by many reviewers. A movie about a persecuted religious minority, driven from their homes and seeking refuge elsewhere was very topical in 1940. You didn't have to be aware of this sub-text to enjoy the movie, but it was there and provided some of the motivation that brought it into being.”[1]
However, this was not the first time that the Mormon narrative was utilized to highlight the plight of Jews. In 1902, the Hebrew-language newspaper, Ha-Magid, published a letter about the rise of anti-Semitism in New-York. This letter by a correspondent identified only as “a Galician” shared some instances of this anti-Semitism. In one, Jews were framed for petty theft in order to keep them out of hotels. In another, a gang of Christian youth attacked Jewish park-goers, beating some and raping others. 

The correspondent made high use of alarmist rhetoric, and referenced the Mormon experience as an example of what might happen to American Jews if the anti-Semitic outbursts in New York were left unchecked.

Before antisemitism appeared in America, the Americans were famed as the most tolerant and free people in the world, but now that it has appeared here, there are grounds to the fear that hatred of Jews will develop to a degree unheard of in Europe. That the Americans are capable of persecuting people with a fury and wrath far surpassing that of the nations of Europe we know from the persecutions of Mormons in the previous century, which were more terrible than even the persecutions of the Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages.“[2]

The correspondent, as it turned out, was wrong. The very next year, a pogrom occurred in the town of Kishinev, signaling a series of violent attacks in several towns of the Russian Empire. The degree of official tolerance, complicity, and even instigation of the violence sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world.  Just over a decade later, the Jewish writer and activist, S. Ansky, witnessed what he termed the destruction of Galicia. The Russian atrocities against the Jewish communities of Galicia (home of the Magid’s correspondent) in World War One were staggering, but if that wasn’t enough, the Russian Civil War saw further eruptions of violence, not only under Petlyura, but also among the Whites and the Reds. The horror of Haun’s Mill was repeated in town after town and village after village of Jewish Eastern Europe. The Jewish writer Isaac Babel described in his terse, laconic style a Polish pogrom in Komarov, and the callousness of the subsequent occupation by the Red Army.

Last night Captain Yakovlev's Cossacks were here. A pogrom. The family of David Zis, in their home, the old prophet, naked and barely breathing, the butchered old woman, a child with chopped-off fingers. Many of these people are still breathing, the stench of blood, everything turned topsy-turvy, chaos, a mother over her butchered son, an old woman curled up, four people in one hut, dirt, blood under a black beard, they're just lying there in their blood… At night, a walk through the shtetl. The moon, their lives at night behind closed doors. Wailing inside. They will clean everything up. The fear and horror of the townsfolk. The main thing: our men are going around indifferently, looting where they can, ripping the clothes off the butchered people.”[3]

It wouldn’t take more than a generation before the Jewish world of Eastern Europe disappeared almost entirely in the Holocaust. On the other hand, neither Jewish nor Mormon communities in the United States have been subjected to such violence and destruction, and one hopes that this is true fifty, seventy, and one hundred years from now. 

Even though Ha-Magid’s predictions have thus far proved incorrect, the letter is invaluable as an example of how other minorities could view and use the Mormon experience to relate and define their own experiences and fears in the new world.  

[2]Ha-Magid (Hamgid L’Israel), July 31, 1902, A Letter from America

[3]Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry, 279.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Celebrations of Learned Men: Nibley, Schoolmen, and the Denial of Revelation

John Gee posted an interesting Hugh Nibley quote in a recent blog post.

I have discussed the supplanting of the gospel by the teaching of the schools (in ancient times, that is) in a number of studies, but to show what I mean, one example close to home will suffice. On 23 March 1955, I engaged in a public discussion in Salt Lake with my friend Sterling McMurrin. I closed my rather feeble address with the words, "At this point (i.e., after we have discovered the depths of our own ignorance) we can begin the study of the gospel; there is no further need for waiting around until 'history' can make up its mind." Immediately Sterling (for it was his turn to speak) arose and introduced his own discourse by saying, "now we will hear the real gospel." This brought a round of applause from the university crowd--did they realize what it meant? It was a frank declaration that the celebrations of the learned men and not the utterances of the prophets comprise the gospel. This has been the credo of the Christian schoolmen since the days of Clement of Alexandria: the university--Christian, Moslem, Jewish, or pagan--has its own religion, and the basic tenet of that religion is the denial of revelation." (Hugh Nibley, "Nobody to Blame," CWHN 17: 128-29.)[1]

Sterling McMurrin, of course, was an LDS philosopher often criticial of the church, but still fairly sympathetic to it.[2] Here he forms one half of a classic Nibley construct- the inherent dichothomy between the scholar and the man of god. When institutionalised, such learning becomes a counterfeit gospel, a false priesthood at odds with and fatal to the true gospel.[3]

"You see the point: The scholar and learned divine must necessarily get their knowledge from the written word, and then trouble begins. The prophet, on the other hand, who may well be illiterate, gets his knowledge by direct intercourse with heaven. The orientation of the two is entirely different."[4]

It seems a little inconsistent  for a tenured professor to have held those views, but whatever his beliefs, Nibley was nothing if not sincere. At times he even expressed a more-or-less favourable opinion of scholars.

"Lehi takes his place among the titans of the early sixth century; a seeker after righteousness, a prophet, a poet, a scholar, a man of the world, a great leader, and a founder of nations. A thoroughly typical product, we might add, of 600 B.C. and of no other period in history."[5]

While there is some truth to Nibley's claim that pneumatic authority was marginalised, I. E., that the "lights went out,"[6] I contend that his view misunderstands the medieval philosophical and scholastic traditions. Taken as a whole, each of these three religions- Judaism, Christianity, Islam- revolved around revealed tradition. Revelation was central to each, and scholars for the most part agreed that there was a limit to what could be discovered and grasped by human intellectual effort. Divine revelation bridged that gap between man and God, but the rest could, and, indeed, should, be explored to the fullest extent possible.

The 15th century Karaite authority, Elijah Bashyatchi, stressed that accepting a revealed truth or commandment ought to precede all other inquiries into it.

"The proper thing for every believer in the Law is to receive these ordinances first by tradition, and only afterward, with the help of his divine Rock, to seek the knowledge of the cause for every ordinance, according to its interpretations, particulars, and biblical examples. This is the way of him who desires and longs for moral perfection... If he were to endeavor first to learn the reasons and the biblical examples for every commandment, and accept it by tradition only afterward, he would be like a man who refuses to eat bread until he learns how it was sown, how it was harvested, how it was ground, and how it was baked, and who would consequently go hungry a long time until he shall have learned its causes and beginnings."[7]

The great scholar of esoteric Islam, Henri Corbin, pointed out that for Muslim philosophers, their Greek and Hellenistic counterparts had partaken of revelation, and thus their science was itself a facet of prophetic inspiration.

"The term hikmah is the equivalent of the Greek sophia, and the term hikmat ilahlyah is the literal equivalent of the Greek theosophia. Metaphysics is generally defined as being concerned with the ilahiyat, the Divinalia. The term 'ilm ilahi (scientia divina) cannot and should not be translated by the word theodicy. Muslim historians, from al-Shahrastani in the twelfth century to Qutb-al-Din Ashkivari in the seventeenth, take the view that the wisdom of the 'Greek sages' was itself also derived from the 'Cave of the lights of prophecy'... Philosophical enquiry (tahqiq) in Islam was most 'at home' where the object of meditation was the fundamental fact of prophecy and of the prophetic Revelation, with the hermeneutical problems and situation that this fact implies. Thus philosophy assumes the form of 'prophetic philosophy'... Correspondingly, it is not possible to speak of hikmah in Islam without speaking of mysticism—without speaking, that is to say, of Sufism both from the point of view of its spiritual experience and from that of its speculative theosophy, which has its roots in Shiite esotericism. As we shall see, al-Suhrawardi and, after him, the whole school of ishraqiyun directed their efforts to uniting philosophical enquiry with personal spiritual realization. In Islam above all, the history of philosophy and the history of spirituality are inseparable."[8]

Not only was Islamic philosophical enquiry concerned with a revealed text and tradition, gaining "knowledge by direct intercourse with heaven," was not seen as inimical to the scholastic pursuit. The ishraqi school, a highly influential school of thought in the Muslim world, even considered it the defining feature of acquiring knowledge.

In the Latin West, the attitude of the scholastics to prophecy was complex, but for the famed doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas, revelation still stood at the basis of God's relationship to man.

"Thomas Aquinas expresses in his De ente et essentia the relationship between the Creator and the fallen creature. According to the idea of the analogia entis, an analogy will always exist between God and man. This analogy is based in man’s being created in God’s image, which is expressed primarily in man’s reason, the direct place of encounter between him and God. For Thomas and the entire Scholastic tradition, reason is seen as the umbilical cord between God and man, and yet reason in itself will never suffice to fully understand and know God. Even if the analogia entis teaching expresses that there is and remains an analogy between God and man, it is far more important to acknowledge in this analogy a greater difference: while man and God can meet, this meeting can occur only on the condition that God never can be completely or fully comprehended.
This continued analogy guarantees the possibility that God can lift the veil that lies between himself and man and communicate himself to man. Although before the Fall there was continued openness, after it revelation was required whereby man might commune with God. And if the continued analogy makes continued revelation possible, God’s love makes it necessary. During the entire history of Israel, the prophets are the champions of continued openness and communication between God and man, his instruments through which he seeks to reestablish the broken unity. It is this revealing activity of God’s love that is continued in the vocation of the Christian prophets, whereby Christian prophecy may be seen as the most immediate expression of God’s revealing activity. It is immediate because not only is it a sign of God’s general revealing activity, but it is, in itself, a type of experienced revelation

Here, too, man experiences direct communication from God, and this experience is to culminate in man's ultimate goal- union with God.

"Prophecy is revealing in its mode, inasmuch the prophet considers his or her experience a form of direct communication from God through which God reveals his truths. Second, Prophecy is revealing in its scope, inasmuch as God through the prophet seeks to attain the goal of his activity, namely, to lead man back to his original union with God."[10]

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or more commonly in English, Maimonides, was the seminal figure of medieval Judaism. Physician, scientist, religious codifier, theologian, scholar, politician, philosopher, and benefactor of wide-flung Jewish communities, it is hard to exaggerate Maimonides' influence on both his contemporaries and subsequent generations, down to the Judaism of today. Maimonides was also widely read in a Latin translation, where his Guide for the Perplexed with its resolution of the supposed inconsistencies between the Bible and the science of the day in turn influenced the scholastics. 

As Abraham Joshua Heschel noted, Maimonides (oft considered the arch-rationalist) was practically obsessed with the idea of prophecy.

"During his youth, he delved into the arcana of prophecy, and his deep thoughts about it became the nucleus of his intellectual and spiritual life. Only this personal motive offers an explanation for the extraordinary centrality of prophecy in Maimonides' philosophy, for the intellectual passion with which he asked himself these questions."[11]

A recent academic study highlighted the centrality of the Torah in Maimonides' thought.

"The prophecy of Moses is distinguished from the prophecy of other prophets in four respects. The most significant of these differences is that “the prophets other than Moses received prophecy in an allegory or riddle, while Moses received his prophecy clearly and lucidly.”
From this description it follows, as Maimonides states, that Moses’ prophecy was rooted in the intellect alone, while the prophecy of the other prophets depended on the human imagination and the senses. Describing the prophecy of Moses in the seventh of his thirteen principles, Maimonides wrote: “There remained no veil he did not rend and penetrate, nothing physical to hold him back, no deficiency, great or small, to confuse him. All his powers of sense and imagination were suppressed, and pure reason alone remained.” Thus, the Law of Moses, the
Torah, is as close to reason, that is philosophy, as any law can be. This closeness leads Maimonides to emphasize, in his legal writings, that halakhah is based primarily on the Torah, rather than on rabbinic deductions. For the same reason, he relies on the philological considerations laid out in the Treatise on the Art of Logic for his interpretation of the Bible for the masses; it is in this way that he can bring their understanding of the biblical text, and particularly their understanding of the nature of God, closer to philosophic truth. Finally, syllogisms listed in the Treatise on the Art of Logic—again philosophic arguments—make it possible for him to show the religious person who has studied philosophy that no contradiction exists between biblical teachings, correctly interpreted, and philosophic truths."[12]

 The Torah's importance for Maimonides stemmed from it being a revealed text, and not only that, but revealed by the highest level of prophecy attainable by man. The talmuds were secondary in importance (though still authoritative) when it came to establishing legal rulings, as the reasoning was a natural, human process and thus inferior to the pure reason of revelation.

There is much more that could be said on the topic, but Nibley's sharp dichothomy between schoolmen and revelation simply does not withstand scrutiny. Not for Islam, not for Christianity, not for Judaism. The university, or the pursuit of knowledge in general, is no more in opposition to the gospel than any other human endeavour could be. It all depends on how we approach it.


[2]As an example, see https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V17N01_20.pdf

[3]Hugh Nibley, Leaders and Managers. http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=578
For a critique of another false dichothomy in Nibley's commencement speech, see http://www.withoutend.org/boss-critique-nibleys-leaders-managers/

[4]Nibley, "Prophets and Scholars," in The World and the Prophets. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=54&chapid=489

[5]Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, p. 39. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=60&chapid=581 Even this positive appraisal was qualified. "Lest we hastily conclude that Lehi was but a typical wise man of his age, and no more, we have but to set up his story and his sermons beside the stories and sermons of his great contemporaries of the East and West. What a contrast! For all their moral fervor, nothing could be less like the inspired utterances of the man from Jerusalem than the teachings of the great Greeks, with their worldly wisdom and their bleak pessimism." An Approach," p. 43-44.

[6]A representative example of Nibley's view on apostasy is found in his "The Passing of the Primitive Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme," in When the Lights Went Out: Three Studies on the Ancient Apostasy. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=43&chapid=217 "The call to repentance of the apostolic fathers is a last call; they labor the doctrine of the Two Ways as offering to Christian society a last chance to choose between saving its soul by dying in the faith or saving its skin by coming to terms with the world. They have no illusions as to the way things are going: the church has lost the gains it once made, the people are being led by false teachers, there is little to hinder the fulfillment of the dread (and oft-quoted) prophecy, "the Lord shall deliver the sheep of his pasture and their fold and their tower to destructions." The original tower with its perfectly cut and well-fitted stones is soon to be taken from the earth, and in its place will remain only a second-class tower of defective stones which could not pass the test... The apostolic fathers take their leave of a church not busily engaged in realizing the kingdom but fast falling asleep; the lights are going out, the Master has departed on his long journey, and until he returns all shall sleep. What lies ahead is the Wintertime of the Just, the time of mourning for the Bridegroom, when men shall seek the Lord and not find him, and "seek to do good, but no longer be able to."
The talmudic pericope on the controversy of the oven of achnay depicts the tension betwen pneumatic authority on the one hand, and the idea expressed in the talmudic dicta "a sage is greater than a prophet," and "prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and has been given to the sages," on the other. Even here, however, the question is nuanced. If God gave the law to his legislators, are they allowed to arrive at their own interpretations, conclusions, and rulings, or not?

[7]Elijah Bashyatchi, Adderet Eliyahu, as quoted in Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature, p. 242.

[8]Henry Corbin, The History of Islamic Philosophy, vol. 1, p. xv-xvi. http://www.amiscorbin.com/textes/anglais/Hist_Iran_Phil_Corbin_part_I.pdf For example, even the pagan god Hermes Trismegistus was considered to be the prophet Idris, that is, Enoch. This facilitated Muslim adoption of the science in the Corpus Hermeticum. See Kevin van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science. Following the term coined by Marsilio Ficino, this concept in Christian thought is generally termed prisca theologia. Rabbi Yosef Shelomo Delmedigo expressed one of the Jewish approaches to this. "Plato's opinions are similar to the opinions of the Sages of Israel and in a few instances it appears that he spoke as a Kabbalist. No fault can be found in his words, and why should we not accept them, for they belong to us, and were inherited by the Greeks from our ancient fathers?" For the fuller quote, and a discussion of the various prisca theories, see Moshe Idel, "Prisca Theologia in Marsilio Ficino and in Some Jewish Treatments," in Michael J. B. Allen, Valery Rees, and Martin Davies, ed., Marsilio Ficino, His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, p. 137-158.

[9]Niels Christian Hvidt, Christian Prophecy: the Post Biblical Tradition, p. 124

[10]Ibid., p. 125.

[11]Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides: A Biography, p. 26. See also the essay on Maimonides in Heschel's Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Others.

[12]Arthur Hyman, "Maimonides as Biblical Exegete," in Dobbs-Weinstein, Goodman, Grady, ed., Maimonides and His Heritage, p. 10.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Two Pockets

Page 50 of the book "Siach Serafei Kodesh," contains the following teaching of the Hasidic Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Przysucha.

"I further heard it said in [R. Simcha Bunim's] name that each and every person should have two pockets to be used when needed. In one pocket "For me was the world created (Mishnah, t. Sanhedrin 4:5)," and in the other, "I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)."

According to the same source, R. David of Lelov added that many err and use the wrong pocket at the wrong time.

To my mind, this represents a very novel way of finding balance between two religious extremes. On the one hand, we are in God's image and likeness, and are the reason for the creation. Focusing on that alone can lead to pride. On the other hand, we are lowly, helpless, and hapless. Focusing on that, however, leads to depression, dejection, and a sense of futility which Maupassant brilliantly explored in his short story, "The Venus of Braniza." Recognising that there is a time and place for both sentiments helps us ascend higher up the rungs of the ladder leading back to God.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mormon Gathering in the Ottoman Empire

As yesterday was Pioneer Day, I thought it would be interesting to post a little-known source regarding the Mormon doctrine of the gathering.

 In 1889, Fred Stauffer, of the "Turkish Mission," wrote to the apostle George Teasdale, mission president in Europe.

 "The Turks have of late passed strict laws prohibiting any of their subjects from leaving the empire. Many who have attempted to leave have been taken and imprisoned, that was the case with two parties in Sivas this week. Hence the idea of having a gathering place in Asia Minor or Palestine is very pleasing to the Saints because they are all anxious to gather to one place where they can be more fully instructed in the ways of God"[1]

 While I hesitate to term this an important interim step in the development of the gathering, it is still a fascinating document. President Ferdinand Hintze explored the possibility of establishing a Mormon colony near Jerusalem. He considered it "a good plan for us to settle in Palestine and make a colony there."[2]

In this, he was highly influenced by the Mormon converts in the German Colony of Haifa. The colony was established by members of the Temple Society from Württemberg. This Millenarian group broke off from the Lutheran church, and sought to pave the way for the return of the Messiah by redeeming the Holy Land through communal agriculture.[3] Ironically, they were actually preceded in this by two former Mormons, Warder Cresson, and George Adams.[4]

 As Stauffer wrote to Teasdale, founding a Mormon colony in Palestine, or Turkey, would allow the saints- barred by Ottoman laws from emigrating outside the Empire- to gather to a central location and live the gospel as an united community.

George Q. Cannon concurred. "It appears that the time must soon come when a gathering place for those who obey the gospel in those regions must be appointed, so that they can be taught the principles of righteousness in a body and not be left in their scattered condition."[5]

Gathering was vital to early Mormonism. If not to the Zion in Missouri, then to the Rocky Mountains. If not to the Rocky Mountains, then to some central spot locally. The theology, as ever, was tempered by pragmatic considerations. Later, even this was deemphasised, and members of the church encouraged to build up their local communities.

As far as the Mormon dream of an agricultural colony in the East goes, it never materialised, but that is another story.

[1]The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star, vol. 52, p. 395.

[2]Rao H. Lindsay, The Dream of a Mormon Colony in the Near East. Dialogue 1 (Winter 1966), p. 52. http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V01N04_52.pdf


[4]Ruth Kark Millenarian and Agricultural Settlement in the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1983. http://geography.huji.ac.il/.upload/RuthPub/Num%2030%20Millenarian%20and%20Agricultural%20Settlement%20in%20the%20Holy%20Land.PDF

[5]Lindsay, Mormon Colony, p. 53.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Seek Ye Out of the Best Books: An Approach to Academic Study and Faith

According to one of the early revelations of Joseph Smith, the Latter-day Saints are commanded to "teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith."[1]

In a classic article on the inner meaning of the Bible in Medieval Judaism, Frank Talmage provides food for thought on the role that secular, academic study of scripture can play for the believer.

"When the late Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, was asked concerning the legitimacy of the findings of modern biblical scholarship for the pious Jew, he replied... that although one need not blindly accept them, neither must one blindly reject them: "For the purpose of Torah is not to tell us simple facts and stories. Its essence is that which lies within (tokh), the inner elucidation of the material." If anything, he continues, should modern biblical scholarship challenge traditional understanding of the Torah, all the better! For it will spur on the pious Jew to probe more deeply and search out the Torah's profounder intents."[2]

In other words, we need not fear challenges posed by secular, academic studies of scripture even when they contradict or challenge our beliefs. Some of the findings are legitimate, others are not. However, even those which are not still serve a valuable purpose by encouraging us to dig deeper into the meaning of our scriptures. We needn't always take a conservative stance in regards to scripture, where the litmus test for the validity of academic studies is whether or not they conform to and confirm our presuppositions. Academic study can transform our understanding and bring us closer to truth when we use it as catalyst for seeking deeper knowledge, even "by faith."

[1]Doctrine and Covenants 88:118.

[2]Frank Talmage, "Apples of Gold: The Inner Meaning of Sacred Texts in Medieval Judaism." http://www.lineas.cchs.csic.es/inteleg/sites/lineas.cchs.csic.es.inteleg/files/Talmage-Apples.pdf

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Mystical Motive for Haredi Opposition to the BYU Jerusalem Center

The BYU Jerusalem Center began construction in 1985, and almost immediately encountered opposition from the Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, sector. I turned four in 1988, the same year that the Center was completed. I was thus too young to remember much of the controversy, but I do that the bulk of the Israeli population was indifferent, and those who were acquainted with members of the church tore up posters and fliers distributed by Haredi anti-missionary activists. They never allowed protests to be held in the neighbourhood where we had our small meeting house, either.  Anti-missionary sentiment was perhaps the most obvious cause of Haredi opposition, however, even this doesn’t adequately explain why the opposition from some Haredi groups was fiercer than that from other groups. Writing in 1988, the Israeli journalist Amnon Levy pointed out other factors which came into play.

“When Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, the foremost Kabbalist in Israel, declares that the Admor of Ger’s illness is caused by the construction of the Mormon university on Mount Scopus, the Hasidic court [of Ger] wages an all out war against the Mormons, and the Ger representative in the Knesset is even instructed to call for a vote of no confidence in the government and to threaten to resign from the coalition. All this because the Hasidim accept the decrepit Kabbalist’s vision as meaningful, undisputed fact.”[1]

Widely celebrated as the greatest Kabbalist of the past thirty years, Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri was well over one hundred years old when he died in 2006. Thousands flocked to him for amulets, blessings, and prognostications for matters ranging anywhere from finding a good match, to curing childlessness, to mysterious health issues, to demonic possession, to financial woes. I personally know dozens who turned to him, and were you to recommend a good clinic or financial advisor instead, would look at you as though you were mad. By virtue of his mastery of Kabbalah and the aura of ascetic holiness surrounding him, Kaduri was considered to be in control of divine and hidden processes in both this world and the one beyond. This allowed him to diagnose the true root of any issue and prescribe the correct cure- usually a unique permutation of the divine name- which would then be written on an amulet given the supplicant. This ability was not restricted to amulets. Kaduri frequently spoke out on matters of national policy, connecting the visible manifestation to another separate, spiritual issue;  the deep link between them concealed below the surface. Thus it was with the building of BYU Jersusalem. The Center, according to Kaduri, was the cause of the mysterious, debilitating illness which struck the Hasidic Rebbe of Ger in 1985. 

Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter was the fifth Rebbe (or Admor) of the Hasidic court of Ger. On the one hand he did things like institute daily study of the much neglected Talmud Yerushalmi, and fought against social ills such as smoking. On the other hand, he was extremely reactionary, and bitterly campaigned against what he saw as the twin evils of Christianity and the secular world. Politically, he achieved a lot of pull, and unusually for a Hasidic Rebbe, was very supportive of the Sephardic faction in the Haredi world. Kaduri was prominent in that marginalized faction, which helps explains why he was close to Alter.  As for the Hasidim themselves, they certainly believed in an unseen world where the supernatural regularly intruded upon this, the seen world. Miracles, visions, dreams, prophecies, and curses, these were all mysterious, but very real and very present. This is why they believed Kaduri’s diagnosis, but their vehemence towards BYU is better explained by the role that Alter played in their lives.  A Hasidic Rebbe is a tzaddik- a holy man- who intercedes with God on behalf of his followers, drawing down blessings upon them. He also purifies and uplifts their souls. In return they are to cleave to him, and support him materially. The tzaddik, as famously formulated, is the foundation upon which the world stands. He is literally the link between his followers and God. Alter fell mysteriously ill in 1985, becoming unable to communicate with his followers, and, indeed, barely functioning at all. This sent shockwaves throughout his court, and Kaduri’s declaration galvanized them into action against the cause of their Rebbe’s affliction. So, in the case of Ger, the motivation behind Hasidic opposition to the BYU center was as much personal as it was anti-missionary. Alter never recovered, but died in 1992. Since then, Mormons have largely faded from Hasidic memory, and one is far likelier to encounter negative sentiment stemming from LDS proxy work for the dead than from anything to do with Alter or Kaduri.

[1]Amnon Levy, "The Ultra-Orthodox," (Heb.), Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, Ltd., 1988, p. 22.