What Jews Can Learn From Mormons: Insights From the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

By Steven Windmueller and Mark S. Diamond

Passover in July? Not for Jews, but for millions of others who celebrate a holiday replete with narratives of religious persecution, exodus, a perilous journey in the wilderness, and eventual redemption in the Promised Land. July 24 is Pioneer Day, a major holiday for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church), better known as the Mormons. A state holiday in Utah, Pioneer Day commemorates the first group of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

Both Judaism and Mormonism have core narratives of intolerance and discrimination in their respective historical experiences. LDS pioneers endured severe persecution before journeying across the country to reestablish their religious center in Utah. Bronze replicas of Mormon wagon trains recall their forced exodus from the Midwest and their eventual settlement in Utah.

Key features of the LDS Church have parallels in Jewish life and thought, since church leaders patterned Mormon doctrines and rituals in part on the rites of ancient Judaism. LDS theology borrows freely from Biblical symbolism of Zion and the lost tribes, and holds: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent” (Article Ten of Mormon Articles of Faith). Mormons speak with awe and love of Salt Lake City as the ideological and religious center of their faith. For the LDS Church, Salt Lake City is the new Zion, and America is the new Israel. More than two million LDS members live in Utah, 60% of the state’s population. Arizona, California, and Idaho each have populations of 400,000+ Mormons living in close proximity to temples and other LDS institutions.

Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims more than fifteen million followers across the globe, higher than the estimated Jewish worldwide population of 13.5-14 million. While Jewish population growth is at or near zero percent, the LDS Church is growing thanks to high birth rates among Mormon families and active proselytizing carried out by LDS missionaries around the world. The church is experiencing significant growth, especially in the United States (with an estimated population of 6.5 million Mormons), Mexico, Brazil, Peru and the Philippines.

Religious communities have a particularly difficult time to admit that they might be able to learn from another faith tradition. Certainly, in the case of the Mormons, who are seen as an “upstart” faith community celebrating a mere 150 years, what might Judaism as the oldest amongst Western religions extract from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? In fact, there may well be a number of instructive organizational and cultural insights based on our own research and experiences with the LDS Church in California, Arizona and Utah:

Decision-Making: One of the compelling reasons for the Church’s success is its streamlined system of governance. The leadership cohort of the LDS community sets core policy; yet, the local wards retain the daily operational decisions. This bifurcated system of organizing maintains both a coherent order for Mormons while still providing an individualized mechanism for grass roots management. Mormons base their operational structure on the New Testament. The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles represent the decision-making centerpiece for the Church. Members of the Church regard the Apostles as “special witnesses” of Jesus Christ. A leadership cohort of seventy men, referred to as the “Seventies,” assist the Twelve Apostles. Around the world today, situated in various key locations, are some eight “quorums” of the Seventies, fulfilling key administrative responsibilities for the Church.

Mormon theology is predicated upon the doctrine of continuous or continuing revelation, manifested in a lay hierarchy of prophets, presidents, bishops and priests. While Mormonism today is far more centralized than Judaism, continuous revelation allows the LDS church to evolve on matters of faith and ritual in much the same manner that Judaism evolves through the respective halakhic processes of Jewish religious movements.

The hierarchy of local bishops shifts much of the power into the community or “ward.” In turn, a group of wards form a “stake,” and the leader of a stake is identified as a “president.” The term “stake” is taken from the Old Testament’s tent imagery, where the church is described as being held up by supporting stakes. These functions are rotated among the members, with bishops serving for five years and stake presidents for nine. Where the LDS community has instituted a more hierarchical system of governance and a decision-making model inspired in part from Biblical tradition, the Jewish communal model is derived from both the federalist system of American democracy with its focus on separation of powers and the American economic system of competition.

Self-Reliance as a Religious Value: Mormons give particular attention to the notion of “self reliance” and in turn, this value is expressed through the church’s focus on generating an array of food and social services designed to serve those in need. Unlike other faith traditions that will readily partner with governments in offering such resources, Mormons assiduously avoid engaging governmental units, preferring instead to create their own networks of production, delivery, and distribution of services and products. A specific emphasis on family preparedness with food storage systems and financial management arrangements represents a primary focus of the LDS community. It is possible, for example, to purchase many of these products through the more than one hundred Food Storage Centers operated by the Church.

In a similar vein, the focus on Jewish self-reliance was generated in 1654 on the occasion of the arrival of the first Jewish settlers to New Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company would instruct the Governor of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, to permit the arriving community of 23 Jews to remain, subject to their “caring for their own.” This principle of providing for the needs of the community would remain intact until the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Religious Standards/Cultural Norms: The Church has established a very structured set of expectations for its followers, as represented by specific behaviors, family and personal practice, and defined cultural and social norms. Where liberal Judaism and other progressive faith traditions have reduced their set of ritual demands on adherents, Mormons have maintained their level of religious rules and social expectations. One might argue that the value of a religious experience and the importance of a faith community are directly aligned to the personal obligations and investment of time and resources that one gives over to such an enterprise.

Temples and Covenants: Mormons revere the Old Testament, New Testament and the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture, the word of God. Harking back to Israelite worship, Mormon temples are considered “houses of the Lord” and figure prominently in LDS religious thought and practice. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, Jewish religious life transitioned from a sacrificial system to synagogue-based rites of prayer and learning. Mormonism, on the other hand, incorporates temple rites as integral components of LDS faith and practice.

To date, the LDS Church has built 145 temples around the world, with 28 more under construction or in planning stages. A central feature of each temple is the baptismal font, which rests on twelve oxen representing the twelve tribes of Israel. This imagery is drawn directly from Biblical descriptions of Solomon’s Temple:

“The tank stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south and three facing east. The tank rested on top of them, and their haunches were all turned inward” (I Kings 7:25).

LDS doctrine places special emphasis on Mormons making covenants with God in their temples. LDS members speak of themselves as “covenant people” both collectively and individually, and view their covenants as modern-day equivalents of Biblical covenants. This authoritative covenant theology is the foundation of several notable Mormon practices, including:

Tithing as a Communal Standard: While Jewish tradition references the act of tithing, the LDS community operates on this principle. The overriding Biblical obligation is found in Deuteronomy 15:7-8 with its reference to being generous on behalf of those in need. Similar expectations were introduced in the New Testament; in turn, Mormons have framed this standard of giving as the basis for their on-going support for the maintenance of the Church:

“Our people are expected to pay 10 percent of their income to move forward the work of the Church … Tithing is not so much a matter of dollars as it is a matter of faith. It becomes a privilege and an opportunity, not a burden” (Gordon Hinkley, former LDS president).

As Jews today debate their current system of congregational dues and charitable giving models, what might be the impact on Jewish life if our institutions were to adopt this Biblically-inspired framework of taxation?

Voluntarism and Mission: The Mormon commitment to service represents a powerful motif within their religious culture. This theme is present throughout the Church, as everyone is expected to volunteer on behalf of the community. More directly, mission service today involves some 90,000 Mormon young adults. This commitment creates for the LDS a reservoir of volunteers and missionaries who can be found in all corners of the world. In turn, each family must generate the financial resources necessary to sustain their children over their tenure of service.

Imagine if young Jews were willing to set aside their college admission for two years to be servants of the Jewish people, offering their time and talents both within the Jewish world and beyond? Why not turn the success of “Birthright Israel” into a mission-type experience, where young Jews move beyond the excitement and value of a Birthright experience and are then challenged to serve the Jewish people and humankind!

Beyond the mission obligation of young Church members, each Mormon is encouraged to perform some level of service. One can find volunteers in all aspects of Church programming; these encompass performing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, maintaining LDS facilities and libraries, promoting outreach to other faith traditions and operating the community’s vast social and food services.

A tour of the Church’s Welfare Square in Salt Lake City demonstrates the extensive, integrated LDS network of food production and distribution, including canneries, bakeries, food processing plants, transportation services and bishops’ storehouses. Last year, LDS Humanitarian Services, as an example, delivered wheelchairs to 57,000 people in 54 countries. With its covenantal ethic and high standards of personal volunteerism, the Church is able to provide extensive social welfare and relief services with minimal overhead costs.

Focus on the Family: The Church’s central organizing framework is the family. This can best be understood by the importance given to family time, as represented by the Church’s commitment to making Monday evenings a family-focused experience devoted to prayer, study of Scripture, family sharing, games and other fun activities. To some degree, the framework of Shabbat has been adopted and directed to giving particular attention to an evening of shared time together. How might the Jewish community refocus some of its attention to heightening the place and role of family?

Life-Long Learning as a Core Value: Mormons turn everyone into a teacher or sermonizer, and by empowering their constituencies they place expectations on the community to be learners as well as teachers. It is not unusual therefore, to find young children delivering sermons or for teens to be teaching their peers and others. This focus on continuous study, which can also be found in Jewish principles of practice, aligns their members to the body of faith.

One of the particularly creative aspects associated with the LDS focus on learning is the discipline of study (as early as 6 am) where young people begin their weekday schedule with “Mormon School” each morning before heading to their secular educational classes. These unique educational models ought to be explored by our community as a possible way to strengthen Jewish learning opportunities.

One can identify Brigham Young University as the ideological and intellectual center of the Church. Yet beyond its ideological role, BYU also represents the central institution for the academic preparation and training of the Church’s future leadership. What might it mean for any number of Jewish academic centers, such as Brandeis or the various seminaries under the community’s auspices, to serve in a similar role in helping to shape the cultural and intellectual thinking of American Judaism?

Genealogy as a Cultural Resource: Similarly, the Mormon commitment to generational connections has not only produced a particular emphasis on celebrating and studying one’s family origins but in promoting and celebrating the family unit. The Church holds to the following doctrine:

“Marriage and family continue beyond this life. But this can only happen when families are sealed together in one of the Lord’s holy temples around the world and united for all eternity” (Mormon.org).

The Church’s vast genealogical resources would remind us of the interest that many Jews have in uncovering their family histories. For the Church, this collection has theological implications; for Jews, this focus is driven in part by the continuity of the Jewish experience and family narratives. How might the Jewish community identify ways to employ genealogy as a valuable educational tool in expanding how we embrace and understand our history, and in particular, unpack the contributions made by earlier generations?

Debunking Myths and Fighting Prejudice: As minority faiths, both Judaism and Mormonism are frequently misunderstood by others. Since LDS temples are closed to the public after they are consecrated, myths have arisen about the rituals that take place inside. Of late, LDS leaders have been more forthright in sharing details about their beliefs and practices to counter negative stereotypes about Mormonism. These efforts have special resonance for the Jewish community with its plethora of organizations, institutions and campaigns dedicated to countering anti-Semitism.

It is instructive how the LDS Church has responded to the popular musical “The Book of Mormon.” LDS leaders placed ads in “Book of Mormon” playbills across the country, with messages such as, “You’ve seen the play … now read the Book,” and “The Book is always better.” It is difficult to imagine a similar restrained Jewish communal response to a “Book of Tanakh” that depicted Judaism in such a negative light.

This brief survey of parallels between Mormon and Jewish life and practice would be incomplete without mention of some of the key divergences between the respective faiths and faith communities. Mormon views of the role of women, marriage equality and LGBT issues are at odds with the views of most non-Orthodox Jews. LDS proselytizing offends many in the Jewish community, and was at the center of the controversy surrounding the opening of the Mt. Scopus campus of BYU. Posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims remains a flashpoint in LDS-Jewish relations despite Church efforts to end the practice.

Concluding Reflections: Can one imagine a Jewish communal system based on all or some of the organizing principles extracted from the Mormon experience? Can one imagine a Jewish world marked by tithing, covenants of volunteerism, centralized decision-making, and renewed focus on family life? As one of the world’s fastest growing religious traditions, it would seem logical for Jews to further study Mormonism and in particular, these practices. We would do well to live and learn by Ben Zoma’s adage in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.”

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor in Jewish Communal Service and former dean of the Jack H. Skirball campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is a faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion California, and has served as Executive Vice President of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California and Director of the Los Angeles region of the American Jewish Committee.