Book Review: "The Learning of the Jews", What Latter-day Saints Can Learn from Jewish Religious Experience. (edited by Trevan G. Hatch and Leonard J Greenspoon)
Scholar Hugh Nibley often bemoaned the attitude of many BYU students, who thought they were members of the Church, had the Restored Gospel in their lives, and therefore didn't really need to learn anything else. Others have felt that they could only study the scriptures and learn what they needed to know and understand regarding the gospel without using other resources. The truth is, however, that if we do not learn from other sources, we end up studying only the things we already know. We need new perspective to continually make our testimonies, knowledge and understanding grow.
In "The Learning of the Jews," we get a series of essays regarding Jewish understanding of scripture and life. This is not the learning of which Nephi warned. Instead, it is a discussion of how Jews have survived and thrived since the destruction of Herod's Temple, and how Latter-day Saints can then take some of those concepts and enhance their own worship and life experience.
The book is divided into 7 major sections. Each section begins with an essay from a Jewish person, sometimes a rabbi or scholar. Then, a response is given from a Latter-day Saint perspective. The main sections with the responses are:
1. Approaching Scripture: Insights from Judaism
2. Neither Prophet nor Priest: Authority and the Emmergence of the Rabbis in Judaism
3. Approaching God: A Jewish Approach to Prayer
4. Women and Judaism in the Contemporary World; Tradition in Tension
5. Faith as Memory: Theologies of the Jewish Holidays
6. Sacrality and Particularity: Jews in Early Modern Context
7. It's Funny, But Is it Jewish? It's Jewish, But is it Funny?
We first learn that Jews and Christians often view scripture in different ways. Many Christians look at the Bible as sola scriptura, a writing so perfect and sacred that it stands alone and apart from all other writing or teaching on earth. For Christians, studying the Bible is often a personal or maybe a family experience done in the home.
However, for millennia on the Sabbath in rabbinical Judaism, the sacred scroll in the synagogue would be carefully removed from its "ark" or sacred storage place, carried forth among the congregants to the front. There, the Reader would carefully and clearly read the chosen text for the day. This would usually be followed by an explanation, often coming from the writings of the leading rabbinical scholars.It becomes a communal sacred experience.
Reading was different prior to the printing press. We are told that the Christian saint Ambrose was unique, because he could read without moving his lips! Reading was originally meant to be done aloud and in groups, not quietly at fast speeds alone. It brings to point just how we read or study o ur own scriptures (or any other book, for that matter). It causes me to pause and ask, do we takereading, and reading aloud, for granted? How often do we bring our own families or congregations together for a group experience with the sacred? Did we read aloud to our children when they were young? Are we still reading aloud to them now that they are older? What communal experience do we seek to experience?
"Learning of the Jews" emphasizes the concept of knowing the background behind the stories and teachings within sacred writings, whether the Hebrew Bible or commentaries from the rabbis (or in the case of Latter-day Saints, prophets and apostles). For the Jews, it all becomes sacred, because of the effort placed in discovering their relationship with God.
The Talmud, a set of ancient rabbinical writings, explains the journey of discipleship through a story about two of the earliest rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer (a priest) and Rabbi Joshua (a non-priest). They disagreed regarding a point in scripture regarding the move to a disciple-ship line of authority. R. Eliezer sought to have God prove his point through miracles: miraculous uprooting of a carob tree, reversing the flow of a stream of water, causing the schoolhouse to shake. Each time, R. Joshua refused to accept the miracles as proof, because they were not based on debate and logic. Finally, R Eliezer called upon Heaven itself to verify his authority, and Heaven responded: "What Business have you with R. Eliezer, for the law (of Moses) accords with his position on all accounts."
Still, R. Joshua disagreed, noting that the Torah (scripture) was already given from heaven, and therefore there could be no more response from heaven greater than what was already given. At that point, R. Eliezer laughed and responded that the children (younger generations) had overcome him.
While Latter-day Saints would at first disagree with R. Joshua's stance, as we focus heavily on continuing revelation, we must recognize that we often stumble along while we wait for revelation to come. Too often, Latter-day Saints use this same focus on debate and interpretation to make sense of spiritual things that are light on actual doctrine. For example, we know that Jesus is the Christ and is our Savior. But, how exactly does the atonement work? There are many theories on how the atonement occurs, and most members have their own personal favorite theory, which they often mistake as doctrine. Another example would be the continual discussion on the location of Book of Mormon events in the Americas: as some groups vehemently defend their theory as doctrine, while condemning all others who disagree.
For the Jewish people, debate is important to understanding what scripture means and what it especially means to the community. As the book notes, the Jews have long experienced tragedies that wiped out other nations and groups. Twice the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed and the Jews carried off. They experienced pogroms (persecution) in Russia, the Inquisition in Spain, and the attempted genocide caused by Hitler.
Yet, they still are a people. Perhaps it is their intensity in their Jewishness, if not in their faith, which causes them to thrive even in the face of extermination. Definitely, their keen observance of the Sabbath and holy days (Passover, Feast of Tabernacles, etc), and their sharp, but peaceful debates, continue to hold them together, while shaping their faith for the future.
For me, one important concept that is discussed in the book is the focus on "remembering." The Sabbath and holy days, in particular, help them remember important Biblical and sacred events of the past. In the book, we learn that these are not re-enactments, but moments of remembering. In their Passover Seder (dinner), those in attendance do not re-enact the first Passover when the angel of death passed over Moses and Israel, and killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Instead, they are spiritually transported back to the actual event, where they sit eating their sacred dinner with their ancestors and tell the stories that Moses shared 3500 years ago.
So it is with the Sabbath. As Jews partake of the Sabbath experience in the synagogue and in their evening meal, they again are transported to the foot of Mount Sinai, where they stand with Moses as he receives the Ten Commandments, including the command to "remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy."
In the Latter-day Saint response to these wonderful concepts, the writers discuss how we should have such an experience during the Sacrament (Eucharist or communion). In the prayers for the Latter-day Saint Sacrament, we are told to "always remember him (Jesus)." How often have I partaken of the Sacrament as part of a re-enactment of the Last Supper, when I should have remembered. I should have been transported to the Last Supper, to Gethsemane, and to the Cross, every time I partook of the bread and cup.
Beyond what the book discusses, Latter-day Saints can also find great value in "remembering" as we attend the temple. Baptisms for the dead are a great place to remember Jesus' baptism, as well as our own. In doing so, we can consider being baptized not only for remission of our sins, but to "fulfill all righteousness," as Jesus proclaimed. Again, in the initiatory, endowment and sealings, we can remember and be transported to the Creation, the Fall, Eden, our fore-ordination, and our future entrance into the kingdom of God.
These are just a few of the great concepts I gained from the "Learning of the Jews." It helped me to review my own worship style and forms, and consider new ways to kick them up several notches. The next time I reach for my scriptures, whether my physical set or electronic, I will consider just how sacred they are as I hold them in my hands. Perhaps I'll try to read them aloud more often, to hear with my ears the poetry and prose. Perhaps I'll hear the voices of Moses, Isaiah, Nephi and Jesus Christ, as I repeat aloud and remember the words and events.
"The Learning of the Jews" is now available at: