Harim Saviv Lah: Between Jerusalem and Salt Lake City
A little over a month ago, I was leaving my final Heights Lounge mincha of the fall semester when I noticed Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern, the senior advisor to the provost and deputy director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, standing right in front of me. Before I could say hello, he abruptly asked me the question I was least expecting at that moment.
“Do you want to go to BYU for a day?”
Rabbi Halpern explained that on Jan. 31, Brigham Young University (BYU) was bringing in President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman to speak at BYU Forum, their weekly equivalent of a shiur klali. Visiting the university—officially identified with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormonism)—would be a worthwhile educational experience, Rabbi Halpern said. We would speak to professors, students and administrators and witness first-hand how things work at another religious university in the United States. Finally, he mentioned that I would help make a minyan in Provo, Utah, so President Berman could say kaddish for his late father. I expressed my unequivocal interest, and before I knew it, I was on the way to the airport for the journey to Utah.
My knowledge about the Church of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) was pretty limited before the trip. I remember Mitt Romney convincingly winning my lower school’s mock presidential election in 2012 and BYU’s golden boy, Jimmer Fredette, draining threes in March Madness. However, I was unaware of how the LDS community functions, what the religious rituals are like and how they might be similar to Jews.
A few days before the trip, Rabbi Halpern assigned us some articles to read and hosted a Zoom call where he briefly recounted the history and rituals of the church. On the way to the airport, he added a few other interesting pieces of information.
“In some ways, they are like Chabad,” he said.
As backward as it sounds, there is some truth to it. While high school graduates in the Modern Orthodox community take gap years to learn in Israeli yeshivas and seminaries, LDS church members take a couple years off to embark on a “mission,” or what some would term shlichus. In comparison to the academic programs that the average Jew might partake in, pairs of LDS teenagers travel all around the world—including Taiwan, Congo, Kentucky and Germany—to missionize the new people they meet in the area. Granted, the kiruv done by Chabad is only directed towards unaffiliated Jews, not gentiles; however, the act of traveling to a remote section of the world to bring people closer to God by both groups is similar and admirable.
As we approached the recently renovated Terminal A of Newark airport, Rabbi Halpern also noted that LDS members have a “Temple garment” that they don under their clothes to remind them of their covenant with God, remarkably similar to the Jewish ritual of wearing tzizit.
Most importantly, he mentioned that in line with LDS religious practice, there will be no coffee found on the BYU campus, so when we arrived at the hotel we made sure to get a good night’s sleep before what would be an incredible day.
Upon entering the board room assigned for shacharit, it was impossible to miss the sublime mountains protruding in the distance. It wasn’t just at our hotels, though. Throughout all our rides one could not stop marveling at the scenic beauty of the snowy landscape, especially once we got to BYU. As we tried to explain to people there, YU does have the glorious hills of Washington Heights, but they do not come close to the Utah topography.
After arriving at BYU, we were welcomed into a conference room where Rabbi Halpern moderated a fascinating panel discussion with three BYU faculty members—Professors Andrew Reed, Elizabeth Clark and Barbara Morgan Gardner—all of whom have previously interacted with the Jewish community through Jewish-LDS academic dialogue and interfaith conferences.
When asked about the importance of a relationship between the LDS and Jewish communities, one professor said that the partnership allows us to build a stronger front when fighting issues of religious freedom: “When we are united, we are taken more seriously.”
They also mentioned that a bond with Judaism, or any religion, allows the LDS community to have “Holy Envy,” a virtuous “jealousy” of other religions’ righteous practices. Reed expressed his admiration of Judaism’s “wrestling with scripture,” about which Yehuda Goldberg (YC ‘22), the lone semicha student on the trip, beautifully explained to the BYU students the nature of the “chavruta relationship”—the seemingly vitriolic disagreements of the beit midrash which are nevertheless rooted in a profound search for truth. In a contemporary world that does not favor much discourse, the LDS students were amazed by the notion that such intense disagreements can be had within the walls of a study hall.
Given that Yeshiva University has a plethora of rituals and programs revolving around traditional learning that generate the “Jewish environment” around campus, I asked the panelists how exactly the religiousness of BYU manifests itself on a daily basis. Institutionally, they said, the religious atmosphere is all-encompassing, whether it be through the smaller things—the church bells at noon or the prayers before every class—or the larger things—religious studies requirements for classes and academic buildings turning into areas of worship on Sundays.
The religious environment at BYU also expresses itself in the individual, they added. Students are expected to abide by the university’s “Honor Code,” which among several things requires them to “Be honest,” dress modestly and abstain from premarital relations and certain substances like coffee, alcohol and tea.
While some of these LDS practices might resemble some Jewish rituals, the community dynamics within the church drastically differ from anything Jews experience today. In comparison to Judaism, where the number of sects are often too many to count, all of BYU and Latter-day Saints around the world are united under the church in Salt Lake City. In the current model, every member of the church annually donates a tithe, and this money is subsequently distributed to community institutions. At BYU, for instance, tuition is only $3,152 a semester for undergraduate students.
The communal unity is also expressed in BYU’s sheer number of students—more than 34,000. Although Judaism and the LDS church have similar total populations, Yeshiva’s student population in comparison to BYU is much smaller, undoubtedly because Jews divide themselves for better or for worse between different sects and educational institutions.
Such unity is no accident: it is most directly the result of centralized power. While Jews do not currently believe that any leader is receiving nevuah or ruach hakodesh, LDS church members believe that the incumbent president of the Church receives prophecy from God. The revelations that the president hears from God even dictate recent policies for the entire LDS community. Questions like whether or not to permit medical marijuana and the acceptance of Coca-Cola have all been directly determined by prophecy.
With such an important figure within the LDS community, one might assume that the prophet works as a spiritual leader elsewhere before assuming the position. However, for LDS members, almost none of them are initially clergymen. As one student put it, “Our job is to go to work and be a source of Christ’s light.” This is true until the moment is right, when they believe that God selects those who are working as lawyers, doctors, or businessmen to engage in the holy work.
Following the panel, we spoke to many of the BYU students in attendance. We discussed topics like marrying Christians from other denominations, the differing levels of religious observance in the church and where they went on their missions. I had over twenty more questions ready to be asked in my notebook before they began escorting us to the BYU basketball stadium, where nearly 10,000 BYU students were already awaiting President Berman’s keynote address.
In a magnificent speech titled “Covenant versus Consumer Education,” President Berman beautifully articulated to the crowd two different approaches one could take in life. A “consumer” mentality, he argued, is self-centered, focused on the needs of the present moment and a materialistic goal. Conversely, a “covenantal” mindset places one in a community that simultaneously lives in the past, present and future with an end goal of improving ourselves and relationships with those around us.
President Berman also described how these different modes of thinking impact our relationship to our end goals. The consumer, he argued, uses a checklist to acquire a product, which must meet the predetermined criteria or else it is useless. A covenant, though, is encountered completely differently. Surely, we know some things about the people we love, but when we learn new information about them we do not simply throw away our relationships. Rather, we use this new information to strengthen our bond going forward. President Berman summarized a similar sentiment found in CS Lewis’ writings about grieving for his wife after she passed away:
What he misses most about his wife is the way she surprised him. It is not what he knew about her already that excited him—it was the alterity, the mystery, the different and unexpected ways that his wife grew and evolved that pushed him to evolve and grow as well.
In President Berman’s words, consumerism “prioritizes the known and certain.” However, the model of the covenant, he added, “prizes faith, empathy, loyalty, curiosity and discovery.” While there is certainly greater risk and uncertainty found when entering a covenantal relationship, the potential benefits and opportunities for growth are so much more, President Berman explained.
These opposing models manifest themselves within education as well. “For the consumer, education is about utility.” Within the covenant, though, everyone has a place and the educational mission is to help students discover their own personality and “story within a larger one.” As President Berman put it:
We each experience God's presence in our own unique ways. Our educational goal is to help [you] … identify and develop what makes you distinct to help you on your journey of becoming the person you were always meant to become.
This focus on individual personality and finding God in whatever we do also echoes the new text surrounding the emblem of Yeshiva University. While the current motto of Torah UMadda could be understood as limiting our interactions with God to intellectual realms, the new motto of hakol lichvodo, or “In service of a higher calling,” allows for the diverse students of YU to find religious significance in whatever passions they have. According to President Berman, it does not matter whether you like studying Torah, singing or playing basketball—there is always potential for you to actualize your best self and find God at Yeshiva University.
When President Berman concluded, the stadium rose in a standing ovation and roared in applause, and we immediately went to lunch for our last event at BYU, where we found tasty chicken salads and cookies brought to us by the local Chabad. As we unwrapped the infinite layers of plastic wrap characteristic of all imported kosher food, we spoke with the university president, professors and other leaders of the community about our impressions of BYU and invited them to visit us in Washington Heights as well.
We then headed back to Salt Lake City for one final stop: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center. A couple fellows gave us a tour of the massive room where the bi-annual conventions are held, which seats 21,000 people—more than the Utah Jazz’s stadium. We even saw someone play a resounding organ, which blows sounds through 3,708 pipes and is wired with enough fiber optics cable to encircle the earth twice.
After this, we drove to the airport for our flight home, closing off the trip with President Berman leading mincha/maariv and saying kaddish one more time. While sitting in the airport about to board our flight, I finally was able to internalize what I witnessed in the last twenty-four hours. I had immersed myself in an unfamiliar religious world that was both significantly different and oddly similar to my own faith. As one student put it, “the discussions about maintaining a tight-knit religious community in a secularizing world are very relevant to our religious lives as well.” Questions like how to engage the younger generation and relate to modern culture deeply resonated with both the BYU and Yeshiva students.
President Berman attributed broader significance to the trip. The trip, in his opinion, allowed the YU “students [to] broaden their own understanding of Judaism and of the world.” Going forward, he also acknowledged that this trip serves as a foundation “for our leaders of tomorrow to develop a broad network to be developed for the future.”
The trip to BYU certainly allowed us students to create new relationships with a community centered around religious, cultural and political topics, but this is certainly not YU’s first encounter with the LDS community. In 2016, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik went with a Jewish delegation to BYU to commemorate the 1841 proclamation by Orson Hyde, an LDS Church member, in support of forming a Jewish state within the Land of Israel. (In fact, the LDS support of Israel is so strong that there even exists a BYU campus in Jerusalem.)
Rabbi Halpern similarly emphasized that this trip did not create but strengthened a relationship between YU and BYU. In the past decade alone Yeshiva University and BYU have jointly hosted a religious freedom conference and a launch for a Straus Center book, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States,” Rabbi Halpern noted.
Aside from political topics and scholarship, Rabbi Halpern stressed that “BYU faculty and church leadership understand that this is not just an interfaith dialogue but a shared interest about faith in the modern world, education for the next generation, and a recognition of the prime role that the Land of Israel holds for both of our faiths.”
While there is so much to internalize from such an incredible trip, one thing is instantly clear: It is more than mountains that unite Salt Lake City and Jerusalem. The bond between the LDS and Jewish communities provides us with friends who strongly care about the State of Israel, religious freedom in a secular world and faith in the modern age, and continuing to strengthen this relationship going forward can only lead to further growth for both communities.
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Photo Caption: BYU and YU students at BYU
Photo Credit: Richard Gill