The Book of Mormon contains a multitude of short, impressive statements, which Latter-day Saints often memorize and even “master,” so they can repeat them as the occasion requires. These statements include divine promises such as “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Ne. 1:20); inspiring resolutions such as Nephi’s commitment to “go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Ne. 3:7); theological insights such as “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25); as well as ringing assertions such as “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10) and “charity is the pure love of Christ” (Moro. 7:47).
Nevertheless, despite the obvious utility of these statements, Bradley J. Kramer asserts that “the Book of Mormon is simply too much of a book to be approached simply as a source of quotations. It is a sophisticated literary work where ideas do not exist in isolation, but where wording, characterization, setting, description, plot, as well as their placement in the canon relative to other scriptures, must be considered in order to be fully understood and appreciated. The Book of Mormon consequently demands a comprehensive, in-depth literary approach.”
In this episode of the Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews Bradley J. Kramer about his book Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon. In this book, Kramer outlines what he means by a “comprehensive, in-depth literary approach” and employs many of the techniques developed by Talmudic and post-Talmudic rabbis in order to show how this approach applies to the Book of Mormon.
Kramer makes no claim that Nephi, Jacob, and the other authors of the Book of Mormon were personally acquainted with these techniques or consciously employed them as they wrote. Nonetheless, since this rabbinic approach represents what he calls “universal principles” of effective reading that have been specifically adapted for scriptural narratives, he feels they are well suited to the Book of Mormon.
As Kramer asks, “Given that these rabbis took seriously the words of the Hebrew scriptures; assumed that these scriptures formed a coherent, meaningful, and inspired whole; and devoted themselves to scrutinizing every aspect of that whole in order to uncover subtly, sometimes hidden messages from God, why would their approach not work well with other scriptures? And why would it not work especially well with the Book of Mormon, a scripture that, like the Hebrew scriptures, tells a story of how a group of Jews left their homes, journeyed to a far off Promised Land, attempted to create a ‘holy nation,’ sinned under judges as well as kings, received prophetic warnings of destruction if they did not repent, failed to repent, and were ultimately dispersed or destroyed along with their capital city?”
Kramer, clearly, thinks it does and includes in his book several examples to defend his position. For instance, the Talmudic and post-Talmudic rabbis taught that the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) has at least seventy “faces” or meanings (Numbers Rabbah 13:15). They, therefore, encouraged their students to read the Torah on multiple levels—something Kramer feels the writers of the Book of Mormon do as well.
As he points out, not only does the Book of Mormon contain at least one highly developed allegory (Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree), but Lehi’s dream demonstrates how simple elements in the Book of Mormon (mocking people in Jerusalem, a river and fruit in the wilderness, darkness in which Nephi creeps to find Laban’s house) can be interpreted allegorically—much as Nephi’s vision and his lecturing of his brothers afterward shows how the meaning of these elements can be expanded sermonically as well as mystically, through direct experience with the divine.
These rabbis also advocated that their students study everything about the Torah—from its larger context to the shape of its letters—and to contemplate it slowly, carefully, “turning” it over, again and again, like fertile soil. “For,” as they taught, “everything is in it.” Therefore, “wax grey and old over it, and stir not from it, for thou hast no better rule than this” (Pirke Avot 5:25). This also seems consistent with the Book of Mormon’s oft-repeated enjoinder to search the scriptures as well as providing examples of people doing so.
In many ways, the rabbinic approach is not unlike the approach employed in any standard college literature class. However, it also involves some specific emphases or “keys,” which Kramer explains and demonstrates with examples from the Book of Mormon as well as the Hebrew scriptures. These keys include searching for meaningful similarities between different texts as well as differences in similar texts, examining repetitions and redundancies to see if they truly are such, and noting subtle but significant variations in the order and presentation of words in a common sequence.
In this podcast, Kramer discusses these topics as well as how the books in the Book of Mormon are intertwined structurally and thematically with the Hebrew scriptures; how Mormon functions as a rabbinic commentator in the books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, and the later books of Nephi; how Nephi attempts to form a Jewish style “study buddy” relationship with his readers; and how this relationship epitomizes the way the Holy Ghost leads, guides, and inspires reader throughout their study of this amazing book.
About Our Guest:
Bradley J. Kramer holds an MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BA in English from Brigham Young University with a minor in Near Eastern Studies. As the son of an LDS mother and a non-LDS father, he has had a life-long interest in interfaith dialogue. For the last several years, he has been a regular participant in Torah and Talmud classes at a local synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, and has helped arrange joint Mormon-Jewish study sessions and other educational exchanges. He is the author of Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon