SALT LAKE CITY — At the beginning of June, an event at the BYU Jerusalem Center featuring two prominent religious leaders — Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, the chief rabbi of Norway and a recognized leader in Israel — served as both a highlight and illustration of something even greater that is taking place between the two faiths.
Not only did BYU students and other invited guests listen to two insightful keynote addresses and witness firsthand a respectful interfaith dialogue between two faith leaders, but the program set the tone for other dialogues and study sessions held at the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Bar Ilan University for Jewish and Latter-day Saint scholars, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, a professor of Jewish studies at Loyola Marymount University, who was there.
Rabbi Diamond, along with fellow attendees Rabbi Samuel L. Spector of Utah's Congregation Kol Ami and Brent Top, who served as dean of BYU's Religious Studies Center from 2013-2018, agree that the Jewish-Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue Project is building new bridges of common ground and friendship between the two groups.
"The Jewish-Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue Project has built strong bonds of collegiality, friendship, and fellowship between the participating scholars," Diamond said. "We share a passion for academic interfaith dialogue and engagement and are equally committed to both the private and public programs of the project."
On the private academic side, their discussion has moved from topics in which there is a broad agreement between the two faith traditions to more challenging subjects such as supersessionism.
On the public side, they have reached out to Jewish and Latter-day Saint communities in California, Utah and now Israel to dispel common misconceptions about one another and share some of the fruits of their interfaith exchanges, Rabbi Diamond said.
Since he arrived in Utah last year, Rabbi Spector has had opportunities to meet Latter-day Saint church leaders and shared a photo or two on social media. Some members of his congregation criticized him for meeting with church leaders, but he holds to the belief that Latter-day Saints and Jews share a lot of common narratives, he said.
"With the dialogue and the work I've done with the church this year, one of my proudest achievements is now, in just one year, my community has changed so much their view on the church and sees them as friends. You're not always going to agree on every single thing, but these are our friends," Rabbi Spector said. "I explain that this is an investment for our community, a way for me to understand and learn more about the church and the dominant religion here in Utah. But likewise, this is a chance for the church to get to know us and our local leadership and to build bridges. If we want to accomplish making Utah a better place, which is something that we have as a shared goal, how can we be effective in this state, if we aren't building bridges with the church? It's not possible."
In addition to the program with Elder Cook and Rabbi Melchior, Jewish scholars and leaders of BYU's Religious Studies Center jointly participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and engaged in several interfaith dialogues.
The group also made visits to Save A Child's Heart/Wolfson Medical Center and the Save A Child's Heart home in Holon, Israel, where they met children from Gaza, the West Bank and Africa who have undergone heart surgeries performed by SACH cardiologists.
"They were deeply moving experiences," Rabbi Diamond said. "SACH staff members and volunteers know that every child is a child of God, and political, religious and ethnic divisions do not intrude on their lifesaving work."
The Academic Dialogue started a few years ago when Top was the dean of Religious Studies and hosted a visit by Rabbi Diamond, Steven Windmueller and others. A genuine bond was forged and the Jewish scholars asked how they could be more involved with BYU. That's how the dialogue group was formed, Top said.
They started out meeting twice a year; once in Utah and once in California. They would present papers, engage in discussions and have public events. One year, BYU professors were invited to speak in a southern California synagogue. Another time Rabbi Diamond participated in a Q&A session with BYU students and spoke in a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting on the Jewish view of the Sabbath. There have been memorable discussions on Zionism and the gathering of Israel.
"What happened in Jerusalem was an outgrowth of those early years," Top said. "We always had the goal and dream of having our dialogue meetings in Jerusalem because Jerusalem is near and dear to both traditions."
Rabbi Spector first attended a dialogue event in Los Angeles shortly after he was appointed the new rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami. The respectful tone and depth of the conversation at the event impressed the young rabbi.
"What immediately made this dialogue different is while still being respectful, I feel like we can have difficult conversations at times," he said. "Those are conversations I could imagine happening in another dialogue setting without people taking it personally and getting offended. Here there are people who were able to listen, but also not take it personally, but rather look at these criticisms through an academic lens for learning. That was really exciting for me. I felt like I could express myself and learn more in this type of dialogue."
Building on the success of their meetings in Israel, Rabbi Diamond said the group is organizing interfaith conferences in selected cities and sending teams of Jewish and Latter-day Saint scholars to speak about the project on college and seminary campuses, as well as in churches and synagogues. There are also plans to publish a book of academic papers delivered at the first five interfaith conferences.
"We are proud that the volume is set to be jointly published by BYU Press and the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press," Rabbi Diamond said. "This is a historic first — to have a work co-published by Jewish and Latter-day Saint presses — and we are excited about this development."