Interfaith Conference Brings Jewish and Latter-day Saint Scholars Together in Israel

Photo above by: Ben Dorrough

Latter-day Saint and Jewish Scholars recently gathered in Israel for the sixth semi-annual Jewish-Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue. Participants included LMU’s Professor of English and Director of Jewish Studies Holli Levitsky and Rabbi Mark Diamond, as well as faculty members from USC, Hebrew Union College, and Brigham Young University. Colleagues from the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College, Bar Ilan University, and the BYU Jerusalem Center also joined the group for several seminars and activities, all of which highlighted the importance of interfaith study and dialogue in building understanding and respect.

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Interfaith Commemoration at Yad Vashem

The Jewish-Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue Project began in 2016, after a series of visits Rabbi Mark Diamond made with other Jewish leaders to the Provo campus of BYU in 2013 and 2015. Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU Shon Hopkin and Rabbi Mark Diamond struck up a friendship, which has blossomed into an ongoing series of relationship-building experiences and meetings. Each conference features papers delivered by Jewish and Latter-day Saint scholars on topics of mutual interest such as sabbath beliefs, or political behaviors of Jews/Mormons in the United States. The format is typically joint papers on a given subject, a paper delivered by a Jewish scholar with a Latter-day Saint scholar’s response, or visa versa. Most conferences have also included at least one public dialogue for the broader community. The semi-annual conferences have alternated between LMU and BYU, with the most recent one taking place in Israel.

“Israel/Zion is of paramount significance in both faith traditions and communities,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond. “Holding a conference in Israel has been a dream of ours since the dialogue’s inception.”

A benefit of holding the three-day conference in Israel was access to unique historical, spiritual, and cultural experiences. The group visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, the City of David excavations, and Save a Child’s Heart, a pediatric cardiology project that has performed 5,000 lifesaving cardiac surgeries on children from Africa, Asia, the West Bank and Gaza.

“The Jewish- LDS dialogue in Israel was a further opportunity for LMU Jewish Studies to take Interfaith engagement to the next level. After talking together about issues of interest to Jews and Latter-day Saints, at our respective universities, we were ready to ‘walk the walk,’ and actively share in one another’s sacred sites in the Holy Land,” said Professor Holli Levitsky. “Israel became a true interfaith ‘engagement’ in the sense that our time together in that sacred space opened up room for each other’s stories, so that in listening to the other, we did a small but not insignificant part to help repair the world.”

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Photo credit: Intellectual Reserve

The conference featured a keynote program with Rabbi Michael Melchior, chief rabbi of Norway and a U.N. Ambassador of Peace who is a leader in interfaith peacemaking in the Middle East, and Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Cook spoke about the common ground shared by the Latter-day Saint and Jewish communities. These four areas include a fundamental focus on family, a high value on education, a strong commitment to charitable giving and humanitarian outreach, and higher levels of happiness and optimism.

Plans are underway to publish a book consisting of papers from the first five Jewish-LDS Academic Dialogue conferences. Topics will include what Jews can learn from Mormons, supersessionism, the lived religious life of Jewish and Latter-day Saint women, sabbath in Latter-day Saint and Jewish traditions, images of Jews and Latter-day Saints in American literature, and Jewish and Latter-day Saint ideas of Israel and Zionism. Another first is that the book will be jointly published in 2019 or early 2020 by Jewish and Latter-day Saint publishing houses, Central Conference of American Rabbis Press and BYU Press.

The Jewish Studies program at LMU has played an important role in this project and forging connections between Judaism and Mormonism overall. “The Jewish-Latter-day Saint dialogue complements our work in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, Muslim-Jewish dialogue, and other interfaith efforts,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond. “Interfaith dialogue is a key component of having a Jewish Studies program at a Jesuit university like LMU.”

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Jewish-Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue Group