If you weren’t at the Hillel last Friday night, it means that you missed my exceptional acting in a skit that I wrote to introduce our Wild West-themed Shabbat dinner. But it also means that you missed one of the most profound interfaith events I’ve ever attended on this campus.
Following a joint Jewish-Mormon dinner in the Hillel dining hall, Harvard students gathered to hear Mark Paredes, a Mormon who writes a column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on Latter Day Saints-Jewish relations. Paredes, as Yair Rosenberg ’11-’12, the organizer of the event, put it, has devoted his life to “explaining Jews to Mormons, and Mormons to Jews.” And his presence immediately catalyzed a no-holds barred discussion on every issue that had previously driven a wedge between LDS Church members and Jews—leaving me far more enlightened than after any other interfaith event I’ve been to on Harvard’s campus.
The LDS church has a philo-Semitic attitude at the core of its theology. Mormons either consider themselves blood descendents of the Israelite tribes or are adopted into a tribe upon conversion, and thus view themselves as the “House of Israel” as much as Jews. The Book of Mormon even argues that “ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews…for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them.”
But there has been tension between these two faith communities in recent years. The LDS church has a longstanding practice to posthumously baptize ancestors via a genealogical database. Although it is official church policy not to submit names of people to whom church members are unrelated, Jewish groups discovered in the 1990s that Jewish Holocaust victims’ names appeared in this database. The church agreed to curtail its members from submitting these names in 1995, but Holocaust victims continued to reappear in the database as recently as 2008 (the issue was only formally resolved last year). Similarly, although the Church considers Jews to be a part of the Abrahamic covenant, Mormons nonetheless proselytize them. The title page of the Book of Mormon explicitly asserts that its goal is the “convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.”
At an ordinary interfaith event, these politically charged issues would have probably been willfully ignored. But this was no ordinary interfaith event.
With an orthodox rabbi by his side, Paredes encouraged questions on these kinds of subjects and fielded them frankly, honestly, and unabashedly. He deftly distinguished between standard Mormon practice and the acts of a renegade few, while also refusing to apologize for a single tenet of the LDS church. It’s unthinkable to ask Mormons to refrain from baptizing their ancestors, Paredes explained to the Jews in the audience. “It would be like asking Jews not to circumcise their children.” But even then, he explained, baptism can only give the deceased the option of accepting Mormonism in the afterlife, and does not automatically make them Mormon. It’s similarly the case that Mormons must spread the good word of the Standard Works, but they don’t specifically target Jews—every non-Mormon is meant to hear these words.
As the organizers of the controversial Social Transformation conference recently reminded us, Harvard is an institution founded on religion that now mandates absolutely no discussion about religion in the classroom. Because of a zealous group of secular professors who saw no value in mandating an education in world religion (thanks a lot, Steven Pinker), Harvard abandoned its General Education requirement to study “Reason and Faith.” And although some Culture and Belief courses cover this ground anyway, a Harvard student could very easily leave this school without learning anything about a faith other than her own.
Naturally, intellectually curious Harvard students find ways of learning about other faiths even if are not taught about them in the classroom. Yet, even the most well intended interfaith events can turn into moments of self-adulation that eclipse the essential—and sometimes politically incorrect—questions that must be addressed between different religious communities. An attendee at such an event might make friends from another culture and taste their food, but at the end of the day the barriers created by these discomforting questions still exist.
True religious understanding and tolerance will only come once we confront issues that are often too embarrassing to discuss at standard interfaith events. Sometimes the questions that need to be voiced the most are the ones that deal with sensitive issues that cannot make for appropriate conversation at an interfaith dinner. I can honestly say that Paredes’s talk broke more barriers between me and my Mormon friends than would have a simple get-together over non-caffeinated beverages. It may not be feasible to structure all interfaith events as no-holds-barred press conferences, but the Friday night discussion left me with something far more valuable than a photo opportunity and a pat on the back.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.