The Book of Mormon makes it abundantly clear that Latter-day Saints should not curse nor hate nor “hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews” (2 Ne. 29: 5; 3 Ne. 29:8). But is that all that the Book of Mormon requires of us? Are we simply supposed to avoid treating Jews negatively without engaging them in more positive ways? Judging from Joseph Smith’s experience with Joshua Seixas, I would say no.

In January of 1836, Joseph, as part of an effort to create a “School of the Prophets,” contracted a Jewish scholar, Joshua Seixas, to teach Hebrew to his growing flock in Kirtland. Joseph’s choice of Seixas was fortunate. He was the son of Gershom Mendes Seixas, the chief rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and Joshua, according to Louis C. Zucker, was “the ablest Hebraist” anyone in that area at that time could have hoped for.[i]

Furthermore, Seixas was a gifted teacher, a fact that was immediately apparent to those who investigated Seixas’ class. Seixas had been hired to teach forty students two one-hour classes five days a week for seven weeks. However after just one week, so many additional students enrolled that he was forced to double the number of classes he offered. Joseph himself was quite taken with Seixas and would often go to Seixas’ home after class for additional instruction. Joseph praised the way Seixas “conversed freely” during these sessions and described him as “an interesting man,” cordial, intelligent, and pleasant1F[ii]—and he did so despite the fact that Seixas never embraced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to Steven Epperson, Joseph early on viewed Seixas as a potential proselyte and even prayed vocally, with others, that he would “become a brother in the faith of the gospel.”2F[iii]  However, as Epperson continues, “Seixas’ quiet composure when evangelized, his evident devotion to the foundational text and holy language of his people, his intelligence and sincerity tested Joseph’s uncritical assumptions about the rules of engagement between Mormon and Jew.”3F[iv]

No one knows how Joseph expected Seixas to respond to his missionizing, whether he thought Seixas would be amazed at his doctrine or would, like the way Jews are often portrayed in the New Testament, oppose him and seek to “catch him in his words” (Mark 1: 27;12:13). However, Seixas did neither. He chose instead the path of a respectful listener, someone very much interested in what Joseph had to say but not inclined to embrace his faith as his own. And as a result Joseph ceased his attempts to convert Seixas—but not his efforts to understand Seixas and make him his friend.

As Epperson writes, “during the final six weeks of Seixas’ tenure, Joseph never again mentioned conversion. Instead his journal history focused on Seixas as an acquaintance and mentor. He savored their evening tutorials, exulting as the language disclosed its bounty.”4F[v] Seixas too concentrated on his friendship with Joseph, even adding a personal note to Joseph’s certificate of course completion saying, “I take this opportunity of thanking [Joseph Smith] for his industry and his marked kindness towards me.”5F[vi]

I have no inside information as to why exactly Joseph altered his opinion of and approach to Seixas. However, I suspect it had something to do with the Book of Mormon. Why else would he have wanted to meet with Seixas in the first place unless he, on some level, recalled Nephi’s statement that he had “charity for the Jew” (2 Ne. 29:5)? And why would he have desired to be taught by Seixas unless he had internalized, to some degree, the Lord’s statement to Nephi that “there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them” (2 Ne. 25:5)?

Certainly, Latter-day Saints and Jews had both experienced persecution at the hands of traditional Christians and clearly such experiences can create bonds between people. However, this reason alone does not account, I think, for their connection—or for Joseph’s vigorous defense of the Jews later on.

After all, Joseph, like Martin Luther, could have easily turned on all Jews when one of the few Jews he knew well did not accept his teachings. However, instead of calling for the burning of Jewish books and for the annihilation of the Jewish faith, as Luther did,[vii] Joseph, long after he and Seixas had gone their separate ways, seems to have internalized, in a very personal way, the Book of Mormon’s command to remember “the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews” (2 Ne. 29:4). In 1842, as the editor of Times and Seasons, he reprinted a letter from a Jewish father bewailing the fact that his son had converted to Christianity and prefaced it with these words:

when we reflect that the Jews, as a people, have been proscribed, prosecuted, and persecuted; that they have been spoiled, robbed, murdered, pillaged and driven by the Christians, that they have suffered banishment, exile, the confiscation of property, for ages and generations past, at the hands of merciless persecutors, and cruel tyrants; we are not surprised that they should cherish in their bosoms, feelings of disgust and abhorrence at the idea of their children embracing a religion which was so at variance with the principles of righteousness. 6F[viii]

As I see it, Joseph simply could not have written such a knowledgeable and impassioned expression of sympathy for Jews without interpreting the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of Jewish persecution broadly, as injunction not just to avoid oppressing Jews but as an invitation to befriend them, to meet them, to converse with them, to enjoy them, and to treat them not as evil stereotypes or even as potential converts but as real people who have much to teach Latter-day Saints. After all, according to the Book of Mormon, repentant Gentiles are to be numbered with the House of Israel, not the other way around (3 Ne. 30:2)

[i] Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol 3 No. 2 (1968) 45.

[ii] Steven Epperson, Mormons and Jews: Early Mormon Theologies of Israel (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992), 83.

[iii] Epperson, Mormons and Jews, 88.

[iv] Epperson, Mormons and Jews, 89.

[v] Epperson, Mormons and Jews, 89.

[vi] Certificate dated Kirtland, Ohio, 30 Mar. 1836, J. Seixas, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS archives.

[vii] William Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1995), 270-271.

[viii] Times and Seasons 3 (13 Apr. 1842): 754.