Reading lessons: interfaith, intertext, intersect

Rabbi John Borak. Photo courtesy of Ben Munson.

Rabbi John Borak. Photo courtesy of Ben Munson.

Last Saturday morning I attended an interfaith Torah study session, warmly hosted at the Shaare Emeth congregation and jointly led by LDS and Jewish presenters. The discussion focused on the week’s Torah portion, parashat bo, which recounts the story in Exodus 10 of the plagues visited on Pharaoh at his refusal to free the Israelites. It’s a challenging tale, both narratively and ethically, and Rabbi John Borak and Mark Paredes each shed some light on the special difficulties and rewards of those verses. As I listened to the speakers’ presentations, I was impressed, beyond any particular interpretive insight into Pharoah or Moses, by the fruitful differences between Jewish and LDS practices of scripture study.

Rabbi Borak focused his discussion around the central moral problem in the story: the text states that God hardened Pharoah’s heart against the Israelites, implying that God is ultimately responsible for the suffering of both the Egyptians and the Israelites. From the Rabbi’s discussion handout:

If we are reading this bit of Torah correctly, Pharoah is not responsible for the plagues and all the suffering that ensued from them—God is! It was God who ordained that Pharoah would not be swayed. And it’s not just the suffering of the Egyptians at issue here, but the suffering of the Hebrews as awell. This clearly seems to make God immoral. How can it possibly be that a moral, loving and just God would punish a people and their ruler for a hard-heartedness that was not of their own making?

Rabbi Borak entered the passage by way of an interpretive problem that raised difficult moral questions. He then brought other texts to bear on the problem, including the story of Akhnai’s Oven from the Baylonian Talmud in which a trio of rabbis energetically debates the lawfulness of a ceramic oven. In the end—the end of the story of Akhnai’s oven and of Rabbi Borak’s presentation—a range of viewpoints was acknowledged. The resolution came not in providing an authoritative answer but rather in affirming the work of interpretation itself. Rabbi Borak approached scripture with an eye for questions, problems and challenges; his method modeled a deep mutual respect between the integrity of the text and the human practice of interpretation.

Mark Paredes. Photo courtesy of Ben Munson.

Mark Paredes. Photo courtesy of Ben Munson.

When Latter-day Saints open the scriptures, they are generally not in search of questions but of answers—or at least a state of mind in which spiritual answers can be felt. Daily personal and family scripture study is a central devotional practice for LDS, together with personal and family prayer, and we’re taught to turn to the scriptures for comfort and guidance in our everyday lives. The LDS approach to scripture study emphasizes the clarity and simplicity of scriptural teachings: a major theme of the Book of Mormon is the “plain and precious” truth of Christ’s gospel. We’re encouraged to “liken the scriptures” to our own lives, to apply their truths to our personal situations and find in them direction for the choices we face. It’s not the process of textual interpretation that LDS value so much as its result, in the form of inspired answers to sincere personal seeking. Where Rabbi Borak’s approach to scripture values inquiry, challenge and exegesis, the Latter-day Saint approach values instruction, clarity and relevance; where the Rabbi’s relationship to the Torah is marked by mutual respect, the LDS relationship to scripture is intimate and familiar.

Both approaches have their strengths, each has its limitation. I spent years in school acquiring specialized tools to read and interpret texts, and in many ways I envy the Jewish tradition of rigorous textual study and interpretation. Only that kind of painstaking attention to every nuance of every word could have yielded the richness and ethical sophistication of the Talmudic literature; it can also, sometimes, lead to a kind of legalism in which forests hide behind trees. In the same vein, the Latter-day Saint emphasis on clear personal answers can, sometimes, produce a too-facile engagement with the deep strangeness and affront of scripture. On the other hand, the familiarity of the LDS approach opens the scriptures to all, not only to the scholars, and makes scriptural knowledge accessible to any willing reader.

Any attempt to draw out differences between faith traditions is bound to be too stark, of course, as mine is here. Jewish readers find answers and comfort in the Torah, and Latter-day Saints wrestle with difficult passages. Both groups are “people of the book,” and although we define our relationships to scripture differently, the mythos of ancient Israel continues to inform our respective narratives and sustain our communities until the present day.

14 comments for “Reading lessons: interfaith, intertext, intersect

  1. Garrett
    February 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Has God tried to give us answers through his servants the prophets, or simply material to produce more questions?

  2. February 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Garret- Is God like a teacher who simply gives you the answers or one who hopes you gain something from the process working through it?

  3. February 2, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Answers, of course. Why do you ask?

  4. Eric Russell
    February 2, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I’m wondering to what extent simple demographic demands can explain differences in approach vice an actual theological perspective on scripture. From Lutheran to Pentecostal, you can pretty accurately anticipate the type of Bible study that’s going to occur just by the demographics of the congregation. Looking at the Mormon population and the Jewish population, I think you could correctly predict their respective approaches to scripture as well.

  5. DavidH
    February 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    “I have observed a common characteristic among the instructors who have had the greatest influence in my life. They have helped me to seek learning by faith. They refused to give me easy answers to hard questions. In fact, they did not give me any answers at all. Rather, they pointed the way and helped me take the steps to find my own answers. I certainly did not always appreciate this approach, but experience has enabled me to understand that an answer given by another person usually is not remembered for very long, if remembered at all. But an answer we discover or obtain through the exercise of faith, typically, is retained for a lifetime. The most important learnings of life are caught—not taught.” David A. Bednar,4945,5344-1-2783-5,00.html

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    February 2, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    I think that the evidence we have about Joseph Smith’s work on the Inspired Translation of the Bible is that he had a LOT of questions. In many cases he received significant answers through revelation, which constitutes about half of the Doctrine and Covenants, and most of the Pearl of Great Price, as well as the Inspired Version text itself. It is clear that he relied on the principle taught in James 1:5 throughout his life as a prophet.

    At the same time, we also know that Joseph was very conscious of the need to use all the tools available to understand scripture, which is why he hired Joshua Seixas to teach Hebrew to himself and others in the School of the Prophets.

    Finally, we also know that the meaning of the scriptures for Joseph also developed through his own experiences as a teacher and leader, and as one who was hunted and persecuted and imprisoned. The meaning of Malachi Chapter 4, one of the very first things taught him by Moroni, only became clear over time, as he received keys from John the Baptist in 1829 and Elijah in 1836, and then was inspired to teach about baptism for the dead in Nauvoo.

    So the Latter-day Saints have the model of Joseph for understanding scripture through inspiration, through skilled study using the tools of scholarship and languages, and through application to life’s experiences. If we don’t use all these approaches, we are not being true to our heritage, and are circumscribing the value of the scriptures for ourselves and our children. We are missing many of the “precious” things, the pearls that are hidden there.

  7. Rosalynde Welch
    February 2, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Hi all, thanks so much for the comments. Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond.

    Eric, tell me more. Which demographics correspond to which kind of Bible study, in your experience? If the idea is that a higher educational or socioeconomic status corresponds to a more sophisticated approach to scripture, I think there will certainly be some of that. I wonder, though, how American Mormons compare to American Jews in terms of education and SES—I’m wondering whether there’s really much of a demographic difference. Certainly there’s a difference in geographical distribution, and maybe that has an effect, as well.

    In any case, I think you’re right that there’s not a strong theological mandate for our particular approach in scripture. We emphasize the verses that affirm what we do, but if we did something else we could find support for that practice, too.

  8. Rosalynde Welch
    February 2, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    DavidH, very much on point, thanks for the quote. I think it basically affirms what I argued in the post—namely that the LDS relationship to scripture emphasizes knowledge and answers, even if those answers don’t come easily. Any answer requires a question, of course, and LDS culture encourages a certain kind of questioning, but I think ultimately LDS teachings place a greater value on settled spiritual knowledge than on endless inquiry. This despite the notion of continuing revelation.

  9. Rosalynde Welch
    February 2, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Raymond, valuable points as always. Thanks!

  10. February 2, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Having a deep understanding of the complexities of the text, and wanting answers, can still work if you’re talking about individual answers received by personal revelation. A description of the complexities of the text is, in that case, a description of the possible range of answers.

    Also, if you’re just going to wear a Mr. Mac suit, what’s the point of being a Rabbi?

  11. Rosalynde Welch
    February 2, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    LOL, Adam! Both Rabbi Borak and Brother Paredes struck me as odd birds, not entirely representative of their communities but, maybe because of that, able to make interesting connections with one another and their audience. Maybe it takes someone a little out of the community mainstream to build a bridge.

  12. Rosalynde
    February 3, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Here’s a thought I’ve had: Mormonism is the inverse of Christian existentialism. Maybe even: Mormonism is theological positivism.

    I kinda like Christian existentialism, a la Paul Tillich, so I hope to be rebutted. Anyone?

  13. Russ Frandsen
    February 3, 2010 at 12:39 pm


    I’ve always said Latter-day Saints are radical materialists – even the spirit is more refined matter and all is governed by law.

    Russ Frandsen

  14. Rosalynde
    February 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Right, that’s the sort of thing I was thinking of. And the verificationalist strain in Mormon thought, and general optimism about human capacity to understand ultimate reality.

    Of course, Rachel would disagree with us. :) And positivism has fallen out of fashion in academia, so I think many Mormon thinkers are a bit embarrassed about what could be construed as a naive materialism in our theology.

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