Book of Mormon for Modern Minds?

John DehlinMormon 25 Comments

Fascinating article from the New York Times about a new version of the Torah being released by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States.  Apparently, this Torah openly acknowledges the historical and archeological issues with the text — openly questioning things like whether or not Abraham (the founder of Judaism?) even existed.

Given the fact that questions about Book of Mormon archeology and historicity will likely never cease — can you ever see a Book of Mormon, or even an LDS version of the Bible being released like this?  Even 100 or 200 years from now?

Before you answer, remember that Jews 50 years ago probably could never have imagined this either.  Yet SOMEHOW they still retain 1.5 million church members.  Amazing.

Thoughts?  Dreams?

Comments 25

  1. Yeah, the Jews are amazing. They can be very frank, honest and open about various issues with their doctrines, traditions and even scriptures and yet at the same time be so faithful.

    One of my good friends in graduate school is Jewish. He is very open about issues with Judaism. Yet at the same time he is incredible faithful to his religion: attends weekly meetings, travels to Israel every so often, etc…

    “can you ever see…” Yes, we will see things like this eventually as every truth and falsity will “be made known.”

    There are skeletons in the closet of all religions including our own. I feel I can also admit that and yet say with 100% certainty: I am proud to be LDS and love this church. In fact, I think it is healthy to be able to be honest about these issues and yet at the same time be 100% faithful.

  2. However, I will say, being a loyal LDS person, I will never do anything openly to harm the church.

    I believe in being 100% honest, but there are wise ways to be honest and unwise ways.

  3. I think we’ve already begin the process, to a certain extent, with Grant Hardy, Terryl Givens, and Royal Skousen making major contributions, not to mention the views on the Book of Abraham since the 60s (Bushman does a good job outlining. I think the existence of the people within the Book of Mormon is pretty important to our Faith (and I am a believer), and while we have softened on it (With Blake Ostler’s Approach having some appeal to a large subset of people), I think there are fairly deep lines drawn in the sand which were not in place for Judaism.

  4. I do think there are some differences. There are many people who affirm that they are “Jewish” although they may not attend synagogue weekly. There is room in Judaism for differing viewpoints, with orthodox Jews, reform Jews, conservative Jews, etc. People can still be “Jewish” yet not fit to one group’s current interpretation of what the Torah or anything else means. This allows more room for differing viewpoints, interpretations, etc. to occur, and those that have the most validity stick around.

    In the LDS faith, it is a very correlated and hierarchal model. What it means to be an “active” LDS member (including access to temple rites, etc.) is very much up to the current person/people in charge. Things that were perfectly compatible with being an active member in the past (even at the highest level) are now grounds for denying of a temple recommend at best and excommunication at worst. There was also much more room for debate in the past with evolution in the early 20th century being a good example.

    In the LDS environment, to even consider talking about something that doesn’t support the current leadership’s interpretation of the gospel requires is only possible from one of 3 sources: 1) someone “outside” the current active/TR-holding paradigm where they don’t care what the Church thinks, 2) someone posting views anonymously on various blogs and other outlets, or 3) someone talking carefully around the edges of thing, trying to walk a precarious balance to avoid being labeled an “intellectual” be being cast-out for not “supporting the leadership”.

    So, I don’t see anything like this happening on an “official” basis anytime in my lifetime.

  5. I agree with you, Mike S. I see the church heading in the opposite direction mainly because there have already been examples of faithful members being excommunicated simply for disagreeing with general authorities. In fact, the evolution of the temple recommend interview questions is actually a pretty good indicator of how much the church has backslid from the early days (especially when a few questions have nothing to do with committing sin). In fact, a friend and I agree that Joseph Smith wouldn’t be given a temple recommend in this day and age if he were to walk into an interview without making his identity known.

  6. I think that the notice that there are different “types” of Jews is relevant here (says the little Community of Christ guy, waving his arms frantically for attention. :D)

    In Judaism, the militant orthodox will see OT prophecies being fulfilled before our eyes in the rise of Iran and its clients states. They don’t expect to have to ask the question about what happens 150 years from now. And as you noted, another portion of Judaism modernizes the religion.

    The same “speciation” will occur in the Mormon faith (always has; your offspring are just too small for you to notice, and we even have offspring that are too small for US to notice).

  7. Uh, Etz Hayyim has been around for years. Note the date on the article. It’s been recommended around the Naccle before.

    The scholarly level of the commentary (as it has three levels or streams of commentary) is based on the JPS Torah Commentary series, which has been around even longer. Sarna, the general editor, published the first volume in 1989. He authored the Genesis and Exodus volumes, which are expansions of his “Understanding Genesis” (1966) and “Exploring Exodus” (not sure when) from far back. Moreover, Jews for a long time have had a different perspective on these issues. Jewish scholars 1,000 years ago suggested Moses didn’t write the Torah, for example.

    So, suggesting that this is some radical new movement in Judaism is not exactly accurate, and to suggest Mormonism will eventually follow assumes that one religion is pretty much the same as another.

    The comparison between Mormonism and Judaism falls apart at several levels. “Conservative” Judaism, in spite of the name, is the rough equivalent of NOMs. Another importance difference is the dynamic of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy in Judaism vs. Mormonism, and the question of religious boundaries.

  8. “Yet SOMEHOW they still retain 1.5 million church members. Amazing.” Again, not really. Given Conservative Judaism’s approach, it’s almost tautological, or like saying “The DNC has come out in favor of a woman’s right to choose and gay rights, but amazingly retains [all] its members.”

    If Orthodox or Hasids came out with such things, that would be notable and amazing (as Schiffman implies in the NYT piece) because its such a contrast to their current positions.

  9. #6 Firetag

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to disenfranchise you, but it does prove my point. Because of my conditioning and upbringing, my mindset doesn’t even really think of anyone that is not a member of the “Salt-Lake-Church-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-Day-Saints” denomination as “Mormon” – and this despite conversations we have had that led to me buying several books at your recommendation. And witness the way that the “SLC-LDS” Church tries to distance itself from fundamentalist Mormon groups, etc. I am a victim to the same thing by conditioning – sorry about that. I also realize that you derive meaning and faith from the same Joseph Smith and the same early revelations that I do.

    #5: Dave P

    I hadn’t really thought about that, but I agree with you 100% that if JS walked unknown into a temple recommend interview today, he would not only be denied a temple recommend, but would also probably be relieved of any calling that he currently held. And depending on the temperament of the stake president/bishop, proceedings might even be started toward a church court. It’s quite ironic when you think about it.

  10. Also, sorry to post again right after, and Firetag may correct me, but I think JS would probably feel more at home in today’s CofC than in today’s LDS Church. He could still have his glass of wine, women could still give blessings, the D&C would still have continuing revelation added through prophets, there is a greater emphasis on grace than works, blacks could always have the priesthood, etc. I could be wrong.

  11. Mike S.:

    I don’t know in which church JS would be more comfortable. I suppose it might depend on which year you asked him. But one thing I think he’d tell both denominations: try and figure out what Jesus would want you to do, not what Joseph Smith would do.

  12. Thanks for posting this Batman. The Exodus is a favorite topic of mine, and I always love to hear Rabbi David Wolpe’s views.

    Yes, Joseph was more liberal that modern Mormons, but does anyone think Joseph Smith would be comfortable with the upcoming CoC topics of Gay Marriage and Baptism?

  13. No big deal here. The Jews overall attitude about their religion is causing them to go extinct like the dinosaurs. Most are cultural, not religious these days. If ever there was a case against cultural Mormonism, the Jews are the case study.

    I am with Nitsav on this one. As I’ve said before, the beauty of being Jewish is you can believe or not believe anything you want and still celebrate all the holidays!

    I will say that Yiddish beats out Reformed Egyptian any day. Oy Veh!

  14. #3 – I agree with Matt here. Such a text is not far away but I am confident the church won’t publish it in hte next 10-20 yrs. I say that because if they had wanted to move in that direction they would have done so in the most recent institute manual, which they did not. However, it is clear that they are happy, or at least not concerned, by the efforts of these other scholars to produce thoughtful editions of the text.

  15. Jeff:

    I’m confused. Are you referencing diaspora Jews or Israelis? The Conservative/Reform sects or the whole spectrum of the religion?

    Rather than describing the religion as giving way to the culture, I’d almost describe the situation in Israel as the religion permeating the culture, like a late stage of Christendom in Europe when the struggle between religious and political authorities is still very much up in the air.

  16. I attended a Conservative Synagogue for a while, and loved how the sermon and Torah portion was opened up for discussion, with the Rabbi asking what the congregants thought and calling on raised hands. In the end, the Rabbi didn’t make a “wrapping up” statement that suggested the most correct view. The different points of view were left to stand on their own merits, available for consideration by everyone. To me that’s how religion ought to be — a community of people sharing their personal spiritual journey with each other and rejoicing in it together.

    Before a version of the BOM that questions itself could come out, the SLC-LDS culture would have to change. I don’t think that transition could take place without a major splitting of membership, because some people take great comfort in having “arrived” at the “truth”, while other people feel that they are closer to the truth when they are asking progressively subtle and nuanced questions.

  17. #15, Firetag,

    “I’m confused. Are you referencing diaspora Jews or Israelis?”

    Either way, There as many secular Jews in Israel as anywhere. In fact, many came from other places, or their parents or grandparents did. While there is a religious minority in Israel that makes the rules, I don’t beleive you see a higher “activity rate” among Jews in Israel than anywhere else. I’m sure that many might migrate to Israel to soak up all the religion much as LDS members move to Utah. Some are satisfied, some not.

    The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, notwithstanding. But they have their own issues.

  18. I’m sorry to be late to this discussion because Firetag beat me to what I was going to say.

    In the LDS faith, it is a very correlated and hierarchal model. What it means to be an “active” LDS member (including access to temple rites, etc.) is very much up to the current person/people in charge.

    Yeah, that’s the problem with the CoJCoL-dS — they promote a very brittle definition of what it means to be “Mormon”.

    However, I could totally see the CoC publishing such a book. It’s only shocking if you think that the Corporation of the President of the CoJCoL-dS owns the trademark on the word “Mormon”. But it doesn’t.

  19. Jeff:

    My impression about Israel is that the power of the “religious” Jews vis a vis the “secular” Jews is growing compared to say, 40 years ago. The Israeli parliamentary system leads to formation and election of multiple narrow interest parties. No major party can form a government without the inclusion of smaller parties. The religious parties have been very focused on obtaining control of the agencies that control immigration and citizenship, and they have favored immigration from groups that reinforce their political and social power. This, and other factors, are, IMO, steadily shifting the power base in ways that at least neutralize the original dominance of the Europeans who provided the first generation of Israeli leadership.

    So, I’m not sure what activity rates mean when the religion and the political system are so integrated.


    I think the CofChrist is farther away from producing a modernized version of the BofM than is the Utah church. We may reaffirm its historicity. We may drop it entirely. But adapting and republishing it is just a luxury we can not afford. We are not even producing the bulk of our own Sunday School curriculum any more dueto lack of funds.

  20. firetag,

    “My impression about Israel is that the power of the “religious” Jews vis a vis the “secular” Jews is growing compared to say, 40 years ago.”

    Well, yes for the reasons you’ve stated. Due to their system, minority parties can have a great deal of power and influence against the majority or the party with a majority but not a plurality. So they extract concessions from them. For the religious parties, it is all about that. For example, the religious parties objected to the immigration of Ethiopian Jews, because they did not believe them to be “real Jews.” But they got in anyway.

    But that doesn’t mean Israel is getting more religious. It’s not. Most people either accept or respect the restriction created by the religious parties, but that doesn’t make them more observant. About 90% of the Israelis I know are not very religious. The most religiously observant Jews I know are American.

  21. Jeff:

    This may actually get at something more fundamental. To what (relative) extent is observance important? The answer may be different to a faith focused more on salvation than to one focused on Zion-building (whether in Jackson County or Jerusalem :D) )

  22. Lol. I don’t think we’ll be worrying about things like this 50 years from now. Decadence, depravity, debt, blasphemy, and general wickedness tend to catch up with nations faster than they think. People always doubt, and then quick destruction comes upon them. Remember that destruction shall come upon the servant who says to himself while sinning and being complacent: “My Master delayeth his coming.”

  23. Firetag, “21

    “This may actually get at something more fundamental. To what (relative) extent is observance important? The answer may be different to a faith focused more on salvation than to one focused on Zion-building (whether in Jackson County or Jerusalem 😀 ) )”

    It’s an excellent point. I used to think that The LDS Church was about both. I think they think it is about both. But sometimes, the “works” get in the way. 🙂

  24. Sean’s response is an excellent example of a future narrative that most on this board do not study, and which shows a future fraction that could happen depending on what becomes of “The West.” I’m not sure a dialectic ecumenical-ism or internationalism is in the future of the American nation . . . we could just as soon be seeing the Book of Eli. As long as cultural progressivism is the cause du jour, we may see this king of incremental-ism, but that is as much in doubt as the apocalypse.

  25. During my own visit with the Reformed Jews – –

    So I referred to the commentary I had just read. “I was always bothered by this story in the Old Testament – Whether Pharaoh hardened his own heart or not is interesting – but not nearly so bothersome to me as was the killing of the wrong people. It seems to me that God should have killed Pharaoh – not the firstborn of all of Egypt. But in the commentary included at the end of what we just read – it says, ‘We do not know whether it was a fictional or real Pharaoh who was the antagonist of Moses.’ I know this is not part of the actual Torah – but is this commentary to be taken seriously?”

    With this, the Rabbi quickly asked, “Where? What page?” I had my finger on it. Page 456 (or whatever the page was) – the first paragraph – about half way through. I can read it – She nodded – so I read the passage in context – Here it is:

    “Even though the plagues and many details of the life of Moses cannot be classified as ‘external’ (i.e. verifiable) history, the story of the Exodus has a historical kernel. This core consists primarily of the fact that Israel (or some portion of the people) sojourned in Egypt, suffered servitude there, and after a series of events that were later embellished in folk literature, left the land toward a new destiny. We do not know whether it was a fictional or real Pharaoh who was Moses’ antagonist.”

    I asked again, “Is this commentary portion of our copies of the Torah to be taken seriously as beliefs of the Jews?”

    The Rabbi answered, “Yes – this commentary is from some of the most respected and studied Rabbis.”

    More at:

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