Three Books on Jewish and Mormon Themes

Review of Raphael Jospe, Truman G. Madsen, and Seth Ward, eds. Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism. London: Associated University Presses, 2001. 225 pp., with an appendix and subject and source indexes. $39.95.

Review of Frank J. Johnson and Rabbi William J. Leffler. Jews and Mormons: Two Houses of Israel. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publishing House, 2000. xii + 243 pp., with three appendixes and a glossary. $24.95.

Review of Harris Lenowitz. The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. viii + 297 pp., with three indexes. $19.95.

Three Books on Jewish and Mormon Themes

Reviewed by Jeffrey R. Chadwick

President Ezra Taft Benson admonished us, “We need to know more about the
Jews, and the Jews ought to know more about the Mormons.”1 Three recently
published books on Jewish and Mormon themes may assist Latter-day Saints in exploring
the relationship to their “cousins” of the house of Judah. The newest
and first reviewed, Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism, is
a compilation of scholarly yet spiritual treatments on both subjects and should
be a valuable source for anyone interested in the intersection of Mormon and Jewish
thought. The second, Jews and Mormons: Two Houses of Israel, presents two rather
narrow views of the respective religions but may still be useful to Mormons in
terms of an overall understanding of what it means to be Jewish. The last reviewed,
The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, is perhaps the most fascinating,
even though it does not deal specifically with Mormon themes.

Covenant and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism

This volume is the published record of a scholarly conference held at the University
of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies in 1998. The conference itself was
the brainchild of Stanley M. Wagner, founding director of the Center for Judaic
Studies, and Daniel C. Rona, the well-known Israeli Latter-day Saint whose Ensign
Foundation provided substantial financial support for the conference. The Foundation
for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies also contributed additional funding
for the conference. But the book itself is the result of the tenacity of its
three coeditors, especially Raphael Jospe and Truman G. Madsen, whose dedication
to bridging the understanding gap that separates the two Israelite peoples has
been unflagging.

Beginning with an introduction by coeditor Seth Ward, which gives a chapter-by-chapter
preview that could easily have been published in lieu of this review, the book
is divided into four parts. Each part features two or three chapters that, as
Ward describes them, “debate scriptural foundations, in both the Hebrew
Bible and . . . Mormon scriptures,” as well as issues of Sabbath,
temple, and “the development of ideas about covenant in the works of Joseph
Smith and in contemporary Jewish theology” (p. 14). But the reader
soon discovers that this is no debate in the classic sense. Not a single subject
is approached from both Jewish and Mormon sides. The various authors each wind
up pursuing a separate path. This loose focus notwithstanding, the results of
all four parts of the book are informative and thought provoking. A final and
very useful contribution by Ward entitled “A Literature Survey of Mormon-Jewish
Studies” appears as an appendix.

Part 1, “Scriptural Foundations of the Covenant,” features chapters
entitled “Biblical Voices on Chosenness,” by Tikva Frymer-Kensky,
and “Covenant in the Book of Mormon,” by Daniel C. Peterson. Book
of Mormon perspectives will understandably be explored by Latter-day Saint authors
in such compilations, but whenever I see a pairing like this, I am troubled
that the Bible is so often left to the non-Latter-day Saint partner. Certainly
no one understands the fulness of the Israelite covenant, as presented throughout
the Bible, in the way that Latter-day Saints do. The Bible is, after all, first
among equals among our standard works. A competent Latter-day Saint presentation
on biblical voices would be appropriate, particularly since the offering by
Frymer-Kensky, professor of Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School,
amounts to little more than a recap of selected Deuteronomic themes with no
reference to Judaism until the final page.

The absence of endnotes in the article is troubling. At least one endnote should
have been provided for the reference to Moshe Dothan’s archaeological
work at the Philistine site of Ashdod in Israel. Even the reference to Dothan’s
work is puzzling since the Ashdod work is over thirty years old and has been
eclipsed by more recent work at Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath (was the writer unaware
of this?). By contrast, Daniel Peterson’s article on the Book of Mormon
is logically crafted, well ordered, thematically consistent, and thoroughly
referenced with endnotes. In discussing the Book of Mormon’s contribution
to understanding the “covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the
house of Israel” (1 Nephi 13:23), Peterson explores the entire scope
of Book of Mormon comments on the subject. He, of course, refers back to the
Bible and even includes a reference to the Quran, which Peterson, associate
professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, cannot
(or does not) resist. In terms of Judah, Peterson demonstrates that the Book
of Mormon covenant concept fully recognizes the Jewish people and their unique
position in the house of Israel. He also quotes 2 Nephi 29:4-5, the
Lord’s stern condemnation of those Gentiles who persecute and attack Jews.
The message is timely. Peterson rescues part 1, making it, as a whole, a strong
section of the book.

In part 2, “Signs of the Covenant: Sabbath and Temple,” two Latter-day
Saint authors explore the subject matter from both Latter-day Saint and Jewish
perspectives. While both are qualified for the task, I wonder why no Jewish
perspectives appear from Jews (who are, after all, the ones who can legitimately
offer that perspective). Susan Easton Black, professor of church history and
doctrine at BYU, competently presents “The Sabbath as a Covenant in Mormonism
and Judaism.” Her amply documented chapter samples the spirit of the Jewish
Sabbath by quoting from Jewish authors such as coeditor Raphael Jospe and Abraham
Joshua Heschel. Her comments on the Sunday Sabbath observed by Latter-day Saints
are insightful but short enough (only four pages) that one might be left wanting
more. The chapter authored by Andrew Skinner, professor of ancient scripture
and dean of Religious Education at BYU, is particularly well written. A scholar
familiar with Jewish primary sources (and who can read them in Hebrew), Skinner
declares an important concept for Judah to keep in mind: “Latter-day Saints
maintain unequivocally that the covenant which the Lord made with Abraham is
their covenant too” (p. 84).

Noting the Latter-day Saint preoccupation with temples, Skinner also demonstrates
“Judaism’s temple-centeredness” (p. 73) with supporting
quotations from Rabbi Chaim Richman, one of Israel’s top scholars on the
ancient Jewish temple. He then moves on to explore, from both Jewish and Latter-day
Saint sources, the blessings of having temples, the despair at losing them for
a time, the covenants connected with temples, and even the temple connections
of the prophet Elijah, demonstrating (as the chapter title suggests) “The
Inextricable Link between Temple, Covenant, and Chosenness in Judaism and Mormonism.”

Part 3, “Covenants: Modern and Post-Modern,” begins with a discussion
by Stephen Ricks, “Covenant and Chosenness in the Revelations and
Writings of Joseph Smith.” Ricks, professor of Asian and Near Eastern
languages at BYU, contrasts Joseph Smith’s very positive view of God’s
covenant with the house of Israel with the rather gloomy views regarding that
covenant in the writings of early nineteenth-century Christian religionists,
demonstrating how unique Joseph Smith’s concept of the eternal covenant
really was. As an example, Ricks describes Joseph’s authorization of Orson
Hyde to travel to Jerusalem “to dedicate the Holy Land for the return
of the Jews” (p. 96). Ricks’s treatment of Orson Hyde’s
prayer of dedication and its implications for the immigration of Jews to the
land of Israel could be considered “politically incorrect” in some
circles today but is remarkably accurate in terms of historical context and
prophecy. He maintains that “The mission of Orson Hyde to dedicate Jerusalem
and Palestine for the return of the Jews to their homeland was fulfillment of
the covenant promise made to Abraham, renewed with Isaac, and confirmed with
Jacob ‘that thou wouldst not only give them this land for an everlasting
inheritance, but that thou wouldst remember their seed forever,’ as Orson
Hyde expressed it in his prayer” (p. 100).

In addition to quoting Joseph Smith and Orson Hyde, Ricks quotes Brigham Young
when addressing the issue of proselytizing, or rather not proselytizing, the
Jews of the land of Israel: “Unlike Christian expectations for the return
of the Jews, Orson Hyde’s prayer for their return to Jerusalem did not
include a prayer for affirmative preaching to them there. Brigham Young stated
this in a sermon in December 1854-a point reiterated by other leaders
of the LDS Church: ‘Jerusalem is not to be redeemed by our going
there and preaching to the inhabitants. It will be redeemed by the hand of the
Almighty'” (p. 99).

In the next chapter, Neil Gillman provides the “post-Modern” part
of this section of Covenant and Chosenness. A professor of Jewish philosophy
at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, Gillman skillfully samples
diverse twentieth-century Jewish thinkers, from voices Orthodox to Reform, in
their search to find meaning in the notion of an ancient covenant in a modern
world. His offering is interesting reading, albeit somewhat involved, and only
goes astray when the author leaves the realm of Jewish thought to present what
he thinks are parallel post-Modern trends in Mormonism. His quotations from
obscure articles in Dialogue and Sunstone (there are no references to mainstream
LDS sources) demonstrate that he is not up to speed in terms of the real forces
driving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the twenty-first
century. In terms of the American Jewish experience, however, Gillman presents
some genuine issues. Whether the vast majority of the Jewish world will come
to think of themselves as “post-Modern” is another question (see
below, “Do the Math!”).

Part 4, “Covenant and Ultimate Destiny: Particularistic and Universalistic
Visions” is a mouthful of a title for the book’s final section.
But the last three chapters do in fact address the issue of whether Mormonism
and Judaism should expect a “particularist” or “universalist”
fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel—in other words, can Jews
and Mormons (and even others) believe and worship differently but still all
make it to heaven? Coeditor Truman G. Madsen, emeritus professor of philosophy
at BYU, eloquently describes and summarizes the universalist view that the restored
gospel presents of the Israelite covenant and all humankind. Pointing out that
all citizens of the earth, whether Jews or Gentiles, indeed all nations, kindreds,
tongues, and people, are eventually destined to be recognized as gathered Israel
in the restored gospel sense—the inheritors of the gospel covenants
God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Madsen reaches the ultimate universalist
conclusion: “Who then is left out? No one. Except those who resolutely
and finally choose not to be chosen” (p. 139).

In his chapter entitled “Overcoming Chosenness,” Menachem Kellner,
professor of Jewish thought at the University of Haifa, presents another
universalist model, but one so radically different from any of his modern Jewish
contemporaries that readers may be genuinely startled, Jewish and gentile alike.
Citing a passage allegedly suppressed from Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah,
Kellner suggests that all the peoples of the world will, eventually, become
heirs of the Israelite covenant and its blessings, because all the peoples of
the world will convert to Judaism incident to the coming of the Messiah! “In
the end of days all humans will be Jews” is the scenario predicted by
Kellner, “because . . . to become a Jew it is enough to adopt
correct beliefs; halakhic practice and even the identity of one’s mother
become secondary issues” (p. 157). Christianity and Islam, according
to Kellner’s interpretation of Maimonides, serve to prepare the way for
this mass conversion to Judaism by introducing large segments of the world to
the precepts of the Torah (i.e., the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament). I quickly
point out that Kellner is unique in his view—virtually no other Jewish
commentator takes the positions he proposes—and other than passages from
medieval literature, Kellner largely quotes his own previous works in the endnotes.
The message here: Kellner is virtually alone among Jews in his notion that we
will all one day be Jewish. Most of his colleagues (see Jospe below, for example)
suggest that Jews will retain their unique identity and religion under the Israelite
covenant in perpetuity, eternally separate from the gentile nations. But as
alone as he is among Jews, the photographic negative of Kellner’s model
has been at work for centuries among Christians and Muslims, as well as members
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of whom believe that
the world will convert to their faith at the end of days.

The third of this trio of chapters, however, takes a more traditional and “particularist”
view of the Jewish people as sole inheritors of the ancient covenant God made
with Israel, albeit leaving room enough and to spare for the Latter-day Saints
as a modern covenant people of God in and of themselves. In “Chosenness
in Judaism: Exclusivity vs. Inclusivity,” coeditor Raphael Jospe, who
is senior lecturer in Jewish philosophy at the Open University of Israel and
adjunct professor of Jewish studies at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern
Studies, maintains that Jews will remain Jews and non-Jews will remain non-Jews
in the plan of heaven. Both Jews and Gentiles may expect a heavenly reward for
their willingness to obey God’s commandments, or, as the sages put it,
“The righteous of the nations have a portion in the world to come”
(p. 179). Gentiles in general have a covenant from God in the form of the
seven Noahide commandments. And Latter-day Saints in particular have a specific
covenant in their restored gospel. God can covenant with any people, or with
all people. And the covenant expectations God has of one nation in any specific
setting or era may or may not be the same as for another nation in another setting
or era. But chosen people must exercise caution. “There are Jews today,”
Jospe maintains, “who think that chosenness confers upon the Jewish people
some spiritual or other superiority over non-Jews” (p. 185). Though
he does not say the same of Latter-day Saints, that conclusion applies just
as certainly to some of them. This often lends the very concept of chosenness
a negative connotation among individuals who are not Latter-day Saints or Jews.
However, Jospe suggests “that what is objectionable is not the concept
of the Chosen People per se, but rather its externalization”—chosenness,
says Jospe, “is a concept properly directed internally rather than externally”
(p. 185). Jews and Mormons each have a covenant with God and are chosen
peoples in his sight. And if his covenant with one differs from his covenant
with the other, are they not both valid in his eyes? “Thus understood,”
concludes Jospe, “chosenness and covenant need not imply any triumphalism
or superiority” (p. 187).

Do the Math!

The Jewish world is changing rapidly. In 1939 approximately 13 million Jews
lived on our planet, the majority of whom were located in eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union. More than 6 million of those (nearly half the world’s
Jews) were killed in the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany. It took more
than half a century for the Jewish world to rebuild its population to pre-World
War II levels, but by the end of the twentieth century it was estimated that
the number of Jews had again topped 13 million.2 The location of the majority
of those Jews, however, and the role that their location plays in religious
life, has altered significantly. In the last fifteen years, for example, over
1 million Jews moved from the former Soviet Union to Israel, while more tens
of thousands moved to the United States. Today, the country with the largest
Jewish population in the world is the United States of America, with an estimated
6 million Jews (the plurality of world Jewry). The country with the second largest
Jewish population is Israel, which, according to its 2002 population count,
numbered some 5.3 million Jews as part of its 6.5 million total population.3
Due to slowing Jewish birthrates, demographic models suggest that the world
Jewish population will not increase to 14 million until some time between 2030
and 2040. However, continued immigration to Israel and a higher birthrate among
Israeli Jews as opposed to non-Israeli Jews will result in more than 7 million
of those Jews residing in the Jewish State. Israel will therefore be the home
of an absolute majority of the world’s Jews before the middle of the twenty-first
century. Its population of Jews will also be much younger, on the average, than
the Jewish population in America and other parts of the world and will, of course,
be a Hebrew-speaking population.4

In terms of Jewish religious practice, this math provides a clear message. Prior
to the 1800s, only one “type” of Judaism existed—the traditional
system that is now called Orthodox Judaism. It was not even called “Orthodox”
then because no other types of Judaism existed. Whether the tradition was Ashkenazic
or Sephardic, Judaism was Judaism. But the appearance of Reform Judaism in Germany
in the 1800s and its subsequent migration to and popularity in the United States
resulted in the need to define traditional Judaism by assigning it some type
of name, and “Orthodox” became the identifying tag. The 1900s saw
the rise in America of a “third way” in Judaism—the Conservative
movement, a sort of meeting in the middle for American Jews who were uncomfortable
with some of the traditions and practices of the Orthodox but were put off by
the radical changes instituted by the Reform. Conservative Judaism attracted
more American Jews than any other movement during the twentieth century, so
that by 2002, nearly 1.1 million (or 18 percent) of America’s 6 million
Jews affiliated with Conservative synagogues, 960,000 (or 16 percent) affiliated
with the Reform movement, and only about 360,000 (just 6 percent) affiliated
with Orthodox movements. The Conservative and Reform movements together now
claim over 2.1 million American Jews, about 34 percent of the U.S. total. But
while the nontraditional movements are trouncing the Orthodox in terms of adherents
in the United States, more than half of all American Jews (some 3.5 million)
claim no religious affiliation with any of these movements.5

The situation in Israel, however, is a different story. For all intents and
purposes, Orthodox Judaism is the only recognized Judaism in Israel. In spite
of efforts by Reform and Conservative activists to obtain equal recognition
for their movements, the religious apparatus of the Jewish state is controlled
by the Orthodox. There is no sign of much popular opposition to the Orthodox
monopoly over the religious life of Israel’s 5.3 million Jews nor any
sign that Orthodox control of Israeli Jewish institutions and practices will
change in the coming decades. Relatively few Conservative or Reform Jews immigrate
to Israel from America—most new American-Israelis are Orthodox. Another
factor to consider is that nearly 80 percent of Israeli Jews (some 4 million)
participate in their synagogues, to one extent or another, and identify themselves
as traditionally adherent. The Jews of Israel who choose to exercise religion
are nearly all Orthodox by default. What this means in terms of world Jewry
is that the number of Orthodox Jews is double that of the Reform and Conservative
combined. Even now, practicing Orthodox Jews in the world outnumber the total
of all other movements together, literally by millions. And since the majority
of all the world’s Jews are projected to be living in Israel by the year
2040, the numerical gap between the growing Orthodox community in Israel and
the smaller American Reform/Conservative community will continue to grow. The
message, relevant for the next book to be reviewed, is simply this: Orthodox
Judaism is in first place today and is in first place to stay.

Jews and Mormons: Two Houses of Israel

This is a volume with an inviting title. Written by Frank J. Johnson
(a Latter-day Saint) and William J. Leffler (a Reform Jew), its title seems
to promise a comparison both of peoples and of their religious traditions. The
format—alternating chapters by the two writers on the backgrounds, beliefs,
and practices of Judaism and Mormonism—is strong and might have been employed
well in Covenant and Chosenness. However, the book falls short of informing
readers about the real nature and extent of Judaism because of its light treatment
of Orthodoxy. The book also fails, in my opinion, to represent the essence and
spirit of Latter-day Saint religion because of shortcomings in style and choice
of content. The reason for these failures probably lies with the background
and scope of experience of the two authors—Leffler is described as a retired
Reform rabbi and Johnson is introduced as a convert to Mormonism and a high
priest who recently served a year-long mission in Canada with his wife.

On the Jewish side, Rabbi Leffler writes in an intelligent and readable style,
presenting a picture of his own type of Judaism that is both interesting and
accurate—accurate, that is, in terms of Jews in America. Leffler gives
a great deal more weight to the interpretation and practice of “non-traditionalist”
Judaism (his combination term for Reform and Conservative) than to “traditionalist”
Judaism (which, of course, refers to Orthodoxy). The discussion is transparent
and honest, and Leffler does periodically contrast the beliefs and practices
of the “traditionalists” with the “non-traditionalists”
he clearly favors. But the discussion is not evenhanded. Reform ideas are given
much more space than Orthodox ideas, to the point that the reader could easily
come away with the impression that Jews in general are primarily non-Orthodox
and that Orthodoxy is the much smaller school of Judaism, destined to continue
shrinking and eventually to disappear. In America, of course, this may be true-far
more Conservative and Reform Jews than Orthodox live there. But as pointed out
above, this is certainly not the case with world Jewry in general, not now and
even less so in the future, if trends continue. Orthodox Judaism is far and
away dominant in the Jewish world as a whole. But a Latter-day Saint reader
could come away from Leffler’s chapters with the impression that Leffler’s
own brand of Judaism represents how most Jews throughout the world operate,
especially because Latter-day Saints tend to compare other religions to their
own, and LDS doctrine and practices are not as diverse as those of the Jews
(there is no “Reform” Mormonism).

Leffler often makes sweeping statements about “modern Jews” that
certainly do not apply to all Jews, or even to the majority of Jews, in this
modern age. For example:

Modern Jews are not disturbed by the findings of biblical scholars who conclude
that the Pentateuch was compiled by different authors and redactors over a period
of many centuries and reflect their editing of the events it reports. This approach
also permits Judaism to take a situational view of ethical questions, though
still maintaining the overarching principle on which they are based. (pp. 3-4)

Even if this can be said to be the case for modern Reform or Conservative
Jews, it certainly cannot be said of modern Orthodox Jews, for whom the Pentateuch
(or Torah) is the word of God and for whom “situational ethics”
is not an acceptable method of religious operation. Although Rabbi Leffler’s
chapters do not describe much concerning the beliefs and practices of the majority
of Jews, namely Orthodox Judaism, I would give them a conditional recommendation
for what they are—essentially an adequately written introductory discussion
of Reform Judaism.

The discussion of Mormonism, in my opinion, was not as well written. Johnson’s
treatment suffers on two counts. His description of Latter-day Saint religion
was, for my tastes, often tedious and one-dimensional. I found myself turned
off by descriptions of church organization, belief, and practice that, while
correct in the technical sense, give the impression of a centrally run bureaucracy
of mere conformists rather than the rich assortment of intelligent individuals
with whom I regularly associate. If I were a prospective investigator, I would
probably avoid a denomination described in such unattractive terms. Johnson’s
chapters also could have used some judicious editing. They go into far more
detail about certain aspects of church history and government than is really
necessary to adequately introduce a reader to Latter-day Saint belief and practice.
The text is cluttered with hundreds of idiosyncratic references to everything
from the nature of reformed Egyptian as “shorthand for Hebrew” to
the “living expenses” of General Authorities. Lack of content control
makes Johnson’s chapters a rambling collection of run-on sentences and
ideas that tend to be more confusing than informative.

The chapters on the Church of Jesus Christ also seem to be self-congratulatory,
as if the church had been recognized by popular acclamation as the truly truest
religion and receptacle of virtue, for example: “Today, Mormons are highly
respected and much better understood by most people” (p. 37). Perhaps
it can be said that Latter-day Saints are finding more respect in the United
States and in some other areas of the world than we used to enjoy, but as a
rule are we “highly respected”? In general, no. I regularly deal
with people who know nothing at all about Latter-day Saints, or who have only
heard stories of polygamy, and for whom I am the only Latter-day Saint they
have ever met. We may be coming “out of obscurity,” but in world
terms we are only barely out and still have a lot of work to do.

Another weakness is that in terms of Jews, Johnson’s text tends to be
undiplomatic and condescending. (To Rabbi Leffler’s credit, he makes no
statements about Mormons that could be considered negative.) If I were a Jew
reading this book, I would probably be amazed at what Johnson writes about Latter-day
Saints but would undoubtedly be insulted by what he writes about Jews. A couple
of examples will suffice: “‘True’ and ‘truth’
are words that we Latter-day Saints take very seriously and that relate to concepts
in which we believe absolutely. In contrast, Jews have great difficulty with
these words when applied to religious concepts and teachings” (p. 23).
“Mormons believe in absolute truth, whether it be scriptural, ethical,
or moral, and most Jews do not” (p. 23).

I came away from this book thinking that it might be beneficial for Latter-day
Saints to read it—it would be helpful if more Mormons understood something
of Reform Jews and Judaism in America (if not in Israel). But at the same time
I also came away hoping that no Jew would ever read it. The description of Mormonism
is, in my opinion, so unattractively presented that I would not want anyone
to think it accurately captured the essence, spirit, and revealed truth of my
faith. Alas, since the book is published by Ktav, a major Jewish publishing
house, the likelihood is that many more Jews will read it than Mormons. Oiy

“We have found the Messiah!”6

There is something about the word messiah that excites Latter-day Saints. Somehow,
just the use of the term messiah alongside the familiar anglicized Greek name-title
“Christ” lends an air of ancient world authenticity to our conversations
about Jesus of Nazareth. By now there cannot be many who have not been taught
that the Greek term christos, which means “anointed one,” was the
initial translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic term meshiah, which also means
“anointed one,” and from which our anglicized term messiah is derived.
When speaking of himself, Jesus (and his followers) actually used the term “Messiah”
rather than “Christ.” In our own time, to say “Jesus the Messiah”
has become as meaningful an expression for some Latter-day Saints as saying
“Jesus the Christ.” The acceptability that use of the Jewish term
has gained in Latter-day Saint settings is evident in the popular multivolume
commentary on the life of Jesus by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, commonly called
“the Messiah series” (The Promised Messiah, The Mortal Messiah volumes
1-4, and The Millennial Messiah).

The Latter-day Saint concept of messiah, indeed the concept of the Christian
world at large, is that there is but one: Jesus the Messiah, whom we more often
call Jesus the Christ, or simply Jesus Christ. In the historical development
of Judaism, however, there have been expectations of more than a single messiah.
As far back as the time of Jesus himself, Jews looked forward to the coming
of at least three different messiahs—a “forerunner” messiah
of the lineage of Joseph, a “priestly” messiah of the lineage of
Aaron, and a “royal” messiah of the lineage of David. (How these
differing expectations were dealt with by the New Testament writers in terms
of Jesus is a subject for another time.) A consensus has emerged among Jewish
thinkers over the centuries that in every generation men arise who could become
the promised messiahs, but whether or not God brings them to that point depends
on the worthiness of the generation. Every generation of Jews over the last
two millennia has prayed daily for the coming of messiah, and as will be seen
below, has actually expected that arrival in its day. By the same token, every
generation of Latter-day Saints since the restoration began has prepared for
the coming of Christ, and every Latter-day Saint since Joseph Smith has probably
thought, at one time or another, that during his or her own lifetime he or she
would see the Savior’s coming. Jews and Mormons continue to await the
messianic arrival with great expectations, as widely different as those expectations

I have used the term messiah uncapitalized here, somewhat out of normal LDS
literary practice, because it is applied above and below to men other than Jesus.
In fact, Jesus himself used the term in warning about others who would come
after he was gone: “Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is messiah,
or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false messiahs, and false prophets,
and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible,
they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:23-24, with messiah
substituted for Christ).

Since Jesus warned of false messiahs, he must surely have known that they would
come. But Christian history in general, and Latter-day Saint history in particular,
does not report their numbers being fooled by the arising of any false messiahs.
False messiahs really haven’t appeared in Christian history. Which false
messiahs, then, was Jesus speaking of? And who were the “very elect”
he said might be deceived? Could they be Jewish, as was he? Could Jesus have
been speaking of Jewish men who were thought to be messiahs?

The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights

By far the most intriguing of the three volumes I review here, The Jewish Messiahs:
From the Galilee to Crown Heights
is definitely not your average Mormon fare.
The author, Harris Lenowitz, is Jewish, and no Latter-day Saint themes
are explored in the book. But Lenowitz, who is professor of Hebrew at the University
of Utah Middle East Center, has a long history of interaction with and service
to Latter-day Saints, particularly those struggling to learn the Hebrew language
at the University of Utah. Arguably the finest Hebraist in the western United
States, Lenowitz’s genius in numerous languages is supplemented by his
able grasp of history, culture, and religion—his scope and ability are

The Jewish Messiahs explores what is known, or at least some of what is known,
of the lives and efforts of more than two dozen Jews over the last two millennia
who were deemed by their Jewish followers to be the promised messiah, beginning
with the Galilean Jesus of Nazareth and concluding with the end of the twentieth
century. It should be significant to Latter-day Saints and other Christian readers
that Jesus is the first messiah treated by Lenowitz, who recognizes him as such
not only in terms of historical priority, but also in terms of truly Jewish
origin: “More has been written about Jesus than about any other Jewish
messiah, yet it is quite common to find his Jewishness ignored, particularly
by the traditional historians of Christianity. . . . He was a Galilean
Jew, of the first century CE, who acted as a messiah and was taken for one”
(p. 34).

In telling Jesus’ story, Lenowitz employs a minimalist reconstruction
of synoptic gospel accounts, of his own making but based on E. P. Sanders’s
“framework,” entirely omitting the record of John. This approach
does not result in a negative portrayal, however; he combines selections of
Matthew, Mark, and Luke to present a positive and, if not complete, basically
authentic and certainly sympathetic picture of Jesus as a messiah figure. One
thesis that Lenowitz proposes will certainly resonate with Latter-day Saint
readers—the notion that it did not take long for Jesus’ teachings
and organization to become corrupted after his departure: “Often thought
the most successful messianic movement in Judaism, Christianity achieved its
power and endurance largely by abandoning the goals and society of Jesus and
his disciples following his death” (p. 7).

But this book is not about Jesus alone—he is just the beginning. Jesus
is contrasted with Shi’mon bar Kosiba (the famous Bar Kokhba), who also lived
in the land of Israel, although he lived a century later than Jesus and was
a Judean rather than a Galilean. There come accounts (rendered into English
from Hebrew, Yiddish, and other original source languages by Lenowitz himself)
of another two dozen Jewish figures who lived in diverse places from Persia
to Poland and from Yemen to New York, who arose as teachers and leaders and
were either claimed to be or were proclaimed as the promised messiah. While
some readers might be tempted to check out this volume just to see what Lenowitz
has to say about Jesus, they would certainly come away the poorer if they did
not sample several of the other messiah accounts, from Shabtai Zvi to the Ba’al
Shem Tov, that Lenowitz offers. Of most recent interest is the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of Crown Heights, New York, who was proclaimed King
Messiah by many of his followers during his lifetime. The Rebbe Schneerson did
not refute the claims prior to his death in June 1994, and even now there is
a significant movement within Habad (the acronym-title for the Lubavitcher movement)
who believe in him. In fact, a significant number of those followers believe
that Rebbe Schneerson will resurrect from the dead to return and reign as the
messiah of a redeemed Israel (as some had earlier believed concerning Shabtai
Zvi). I have met and talked with some of these believers myself and find this
theme fascinating.

A word of caution is in order, however. This book is not light reading, nor
is it devotional in nature. It is scholarly and difficult—literary “heavy
lifting,” so to speak. It is also set in a smaller type font than I found
comfortable. Not only that, Lenowitz treats the messiahs with a certain aloofness
that suggests he is not personally convinced their efforts were for the good
of the Jewish people. It is not that he lacks esteem for them, for he certainly
seems to admire each one of them as a Jewish individual. But the messianic ideal
is one that he concludes has never ended successfully: “The ephemeral
worth of such doomed creatures as our messiahs seems, finally, to be unequal
to the real suffering endured to bear them” (p. 276).

My own reaction to Lenowitz’s conclusion was that, with the exception
of Jesus of Nazareth, he is probably right. But despite his unenthusiastic summary,
The Jewish Messiahs certainly ranks as the most interesting compilation and
treatment of Jewish messianic individuals to appear so far; it easily earns
a recommendation as essential reading for those interested in Judah’s
longing for the hope of Israel.


  1. Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
    1988), 97.
  2. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported the current world Jewish population
    at 13.2 million. Yair Sheleg, “Intermarriage, Low Birth Rates Threaten
    Disapora Jewry,” Ha’aretz, 13 February 2002 (English Internet edition:

  3. As reported by the Central Bureau of Statistics of the State of Israel in
    April 2002. Tal Muscal, “Population at 6.5 Million on 54th Independence
    Day,” The Jerusalem Post, 16 April 2002 (Internet edition:

  4. Sheleg, “Intermarriage, Low Birth Rates.”
  5. Rachel Zoll (A.P.), “Conservative Jews Ponder Future of Religious Moderation,”
    The Jerusalem Post, 11 February 2002 (Internet edition:

  6. John 1:41 KJV: “Messias” is rendered here as “Messiah.”