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 W├╝rttemberg. 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.


[4]Ruth Kark Millenarian and Agricultural Settlement in the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1983.

[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."

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.