But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles? (2 Ne. 29:4)
This Friday millions of Jews around the world will gather in large groups and in small to celebrate Passover. They will dip greens in salt water, spread horseradish on unleavened bread, and drink wine. They will sing songs, ask four questions, set a place for Elijah, and eat a sumptuous meal, all to commemorate how God delivered their ancestors from slavery and oppression.
It is also a time for them to reflect upon their own lives and to thank God for helping them during their own difficulties, often not so directly but through other people. Consistent with this tradition, this Passover I want to thank the Jews, in general as well as those I have known, for giving me hope in myself when I had little, for bolstering my faith in others and in my own spiritual tradition, and for helping me fall in love with the Scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon. To me, they truly have been messengers of God, bringing for salvation unto this Gentile.
My first contact with Jews and with Judaism occurred, as far as I can recall, when I was eleven. My family had recently moved from Cincinnati to Dayton, Ohio. It was a difficult time for me. There were no other LDS families in the neighborhood, and although religious differences were not high on my list of concerns at this point in my young life, my Mormonism only accentuated my preadolescent self-consciousness. I felt extremely awkward and incompetent, too clumsy physically and socially to ever fit in much less excel.
I hesitated to go outside and join with the neighborhood kids when they played army or formed impromptu baseball or football games. Instead, I remained inside, by myself, building model ships, arranging model tanks in battle scenes, and suspending model airplanes in silent dogfights above my bed. It was not so much that I liked war or was fascinated by killing as I felt small and alone, ill-equipped to deal with this new world that surrounded me, and it was somehow comforting to know that I had allies, even if they were only plastic.
One day, I was flipping through the magazines in my school classroom, and I came across an article on the Six Day War. Instantly, I became obsessed with all things Israeli. I searched the other magazines for additional articles on Israeli politics and Israeli military operations. I scoured the encyclopedia for more information on Israeli history and learned a great deal about the place Jerusalem has in Jewish culture as well as the horrible persecution that prompted Jews to immigrate there. I studied maps of the Middle East. I made maps of the Middle East—illustrating with red, blue, and green magic markers the location of Egyptian military emplacements, the Israeli air strikes that took them out, as well as the dramatic progress the Israeli army made as it rolled across the Sinai, marched up the Golan Heights, and captured the sacred city of Jerusalem.
It seemed like a miracle to me that such a tiny country could triumph so quickly and so completely against so many nations that looked so large and so menacing on my 22” by 28” poster board. Obviously, I was too young and too inexperienced to know what war meant in general, much less what this war meant in particular. However, for a time, Moshe Dayan, Yitzak Rabin, and Golda Meir were my heroes. These Jews gave this Mormon hope that although I was similarly small, outnumbered, and seemingly alone, I did not have to be defeated by my circumstances but could in fact prevail and yet do surprising things.
Six years later, my family was back in Cincinnati, and I was older, wiser, more mature, and more accomplished. I had put away my models and my interest in war and had become a skilled athlete as well as a more than passible student. I had also acquired several friends and was welcome at most pick-up games, parties, and social events. And yet, I still felt alone. By then, religious differences had begun to matter to me, very much, and I could not help feeling irredeemably odd, out of it, even oppressed somehow.
It was not that I was persecuted or that people made fun of me for being a Mormon. In fact, most of my friends did not even know I was a Mormon. They never asked, and I never told. But that was the problem. Deep inside me I was certain that my friends could not understand my Mormonism, and therefore I became adept at hiding my religious activities and preferences. I had absolutely no faith that I could explain Mormonism to anyone, perhaps even to myself. Having grown up on a part-member family with only sporadic contact with the Church, I knew little about what it meant to be a Mormon. I only knew that I was one and that I had to keep that part of myself locked inside myself forever.
Then my second significant encounter with Jews and Judaism occurred. Somehow, somewhere I picked up a copy of The Chosen by Chaim Potok, and again, as with my discovery of the Six-Day War, I was instantly captivated. In this novel, I got to know young, intelligent, thoughtful, sports-playing religious people doing their best to find their way as a tiny minority in a larger, largely non-religious society.
Danny and Reuven did not look like me or dress like me or talk like me, but immediately I felt a kinship to them and wanted to know them better. I quickly finished The Chosen and moved on to The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev, and later In the Beginning. As a result Danny and Reuven and Asher and David became my best friends, buddies I understood and who seemed to understand me. And they inspired me to be more open about my faith with my flesh and blood friends and to explore that faith as intelligently and thoughtfully as they did theirs.
And so I did, not only reading the Book of Mormon for the first time on my own, but attending Sunday School classes regularly, enrolling in Seminary, and praying—really praying, on my knees, at night, by my bed, by myself but never alone. I don’t recall any of Potok’s characters praying the way Mormons pray. Nevertheless, the way they spoke to each other—openly presenting their points of view, listening carefully to the response, pondering that response, taking it seriously, and continuing the conversation with revised thoughts and improved ideas encouraged me to approach Heavenly Father similarly and in so doing strengthened my confidence in communicating with divinity as well as with humanity. In many ways, I learned to pray by listening to Jews talk.
And this improved communication continued through my senior year in high school, into my freshman year at BYU and onto a mission, as did my study of Jews and Judaism. Like Danny and Reuven, I took Hebrew in college. This impressed my mission president, and from the outset of my mission he challenged me to find ways to connect with the Jewish people. Consequently, I dragged many a bewildered companion to Jewish restaurants, Jewish book stores, Jewish student centers, and especially to Jewish worship services. Initially, I was afraid that our presence in a synagogue would be unwelcome, even insulting somehow. However, no offence was ever taken. Instead in all cases we were greeted warmly by rabbis and treated as honored guests by synagogue members.
Before services, they would shake our hands, explain the service to us, and make sure we were seated properly. Afterwards, they would ask us about ourselves, inquire as to what we thought of the sermon or the readings, and then pepper us with questions on some religious or scriptural topic. These questions were not combative or mean spirited. They did not seem deliberately designed to embarrass us or to expose our ignorance—although they often did. They seemed instead to reflect an almost insatiable curiosity, a deep need to know and understand everything—even Mormonism.
Visiting synagogues often left me feeling invigorated. Certainly, I had had a chance to spread the word a bit about the Church, but I had also learned something myself and felt inspired to learn more. On one occasion, a Jewish man, upon learning about the Book of Mormon and hearing me explain its basic structure, asked, “So why do you Mormons need the Book of Mormon if you have the Bible?” It was fairly usual question and I gave him a fairly usual answer.
Nevertheless, the way the man had asked the question caused me to wonder if I really knew why we had the Book of Mormon, and I resolved to explore this question more deeply. And so, I searched the resources I had at hand—the Scriptures themselves as well as statements Joseph Smith and others had made—and came upon six specific areas the Book of Mormon was supposed to provide more information on. I then read the Book of Mormon slowly, carefully, as a Jew would, recording in a notebook additional information it provided on those topics. The project took several months but in the end left me overwhelmed with the Book of Mormon and incurably in love with it.
After my mission, I continued to study the Book of Mormon, taking classes on it, reading books about it, and learning under the personal guidance of Richard D. Rust how to approach it literarily, as one would a poem or a novel, paying close attention its presentation as well as the ideas it presents. Nonetheless, whenever and however I read the Book of Mormon I always did so with my Jewish friends figuratively sitting beside me, asking me questions, responding to my answers, always encouraging me to look more closely at the text and to dig deeper into it—an approach that has not only provided me with a rich scriptural experience but led directly to my book Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon.
This Friday when I join my Jewish friends in a Passover Seder, I will raise my glass of grape juice and publically bless God for creating the fruit of the vine, but I will also privately thank Him for preserving the Jews and for blessing me through them.