What Mormons Can Learn From Jews

The Last Apple by Jane Campbell

As my stake’s interfaith representative, I attended an interfaith lunch meeting today in which spiritual practices were discussed from the perspective of a variety of faith traditions.

I was particularly impressed by the comments of the rabbi from a reformed synagogue. He talked about what it meant to be or become a Jew. Unlike most Christians (and Mormons) belief in distinctive ideas is not emphasized — it is the last and least important criterion.  Rather, his ranking was as follows:

1) belonging

2) behavior

3) belief

So to be or become a Jew, one first needs to feel welcomed and incorporated into the group. Behavioral practices are the next focus, as Jews pray, practice justice, etc. And finally, springing forth from their behavior and belonging comes belief, as some Jews feel comfortable then stating, “This I believe.”

The rabbi also talked about how Jews conceive of getting into heaven. Once again, it’s not about belief or ritual. One could be an atheist. One can believe in anything or nothing. What ultimately matters to God, according to this rabbi, are acts of kindness and one’s work in the world. “Deeds are more important than creeds,” the rabbi stated.

Part of this lack of emphasis on belief, apparently, stems from the fact that Jews don’t necessarily agree on what they should believe or what rules to follow. Jews have a horizontal rather than hierarchical structure, believing that a more democratic or populist structure in which the people personally have to figure out how to do their holy work in the world better shapes the inner lives of humans.

I found all this fascinating, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Mormonism could benefit from some of these ideas. Would we have a healthier and more dynamic church body if we emphasized belonging over belief? If we deemphasized hierarchical injunctions and instead encouraged people to figure out for themselves what they need to do to become the people God needs in the world? What do you think?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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15 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    I think both the hierarchy/belief and the behavior are important. We need a framework/structure and all the ordinances, but truly, all those things mean nothing if we haven’t figured out for ourselves our own relationship with diety. I think the Jews are right in that sometimes the belonging and behavior come before the belief. Also, the witness comes after the trial of faith.
    I enjoy hearing about other religions because most contain much truth and goodness that sometimes are communicated even better than in Mormonism. However, I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints contains the fulness of the gospel that the other churches don’t have, regardless of the imperfections of its leaders here on the earth.

  2. I’m all for the Jewish notion of emphasizing belonging over belief, but the Jewish religion has negative growth. Mormons are not likely to adopt a method that doesn’t offer a chance to up our church growth into higher higher percentage points.

  3. Caroline says:

    I agree that there are certainly some advantages to a hierarchical structure. Efficiency for one thing. Mormons can get things done and get them done fast. As for the focus on belief over belonging, I’m trying to think of advantages. Offhand I’d guess that the focus on belief creates strong feelings of community with those who believe similarly.

    Corktree, yes, Mormonism’s current focus on hierarchy and belief does bring about results in terms of numbers. I can’t help but hope, however, Church leaders might embrace big tent Mormonism someday.

    I was surprised by how much I liked what this rabbi had to say. My religion envy is generally pointed to liberal Christians who focus on Jesus’ life and teachings, so this was new for me.

  4. Stella says:

    I hope I’m not going to go too far, but I have to say that it is comments like Amy’s (who was just gracefully bearing her testimony) that immediately make me feel a LACK of belonging to a group of people I would LIKE to be included in (and have been included most of my life). When I share a thought that may differ, or think outside the box, or find things in other religions that make my core beliefs stronger–and then I’m met with—“SURE, they are nice but MORMONISM is the FULLNESS!”

    And I feel not one iota of that fullness from it.

    Then, it cuts off any further discussion….when I didn’t want to even discuss belief in the first place–but more of the belonging. It tells me loud and clear that I have no belonging if my beliefs aren’t in line. Which is sad really, because I’m sure if we all compared deeds–we’d be on the same level.

    • Amy says:

      Stella, I truly enjoy hearing your comments although many times we don’t see things in the same light. I appreciate seeing another viewpoint. I am wondering, however, how in religion do we reconcile the knowledge and/or faith that we have Heavenly parents and Jesus Christ who know more than us, with the fact that for most of us, there are difficult teachings/beliefs for us to follow and believe. Things that we wouldn’t believe on our own. I don’t believe that our Heavenly Father wants us to blindly follow everything- I think we should gain a testimony for ourselves. But, it is a delicate balance between faith and blind obedience. I know I don’t know all the answers and I am curious to hear what others think on this subject.

  5. Caroline says:

    Stella, you point to a problem I’ve thought a bit about. How do we share what is personally important to us, our truth so to speak, without alienating others who don’t have the same perspective? I’m not sure, but I do hope this blog can be a place where people can be vulnerable and share what is meaningful to them personally, all the while understanding that others may not agree.

    Amy, I appreciate your graciousness and willingness to mull over ideas and feelings that you haven’t personally embraced or experienced. I hope you continue to share your personal experiences and ideas.

  6. M.M. says:

    I like this post, Caroline. I attend church alone and find my untraditional family life (inactive husband, no kids) to greatly hinder my feelings of belonging within the Church. I think the rabbi’s ranking system would benefit those of us who feel leftout because we don’t fit the traditional Mormon model in one way or another.

  7. Stella says:

    Thanks Caroline and Amy. I agree. I think I’m a bit sensitive to hearing “the church is the only truth” at times in my life when my convictions haven’t been as strong. I think, for me, my gut reaction stems from my Mormon friends being able to tell me what THEY believe, but not having any patience for my disbelief. If that makes even any sense at all.

    But forums and places like this that allow me to hear and then, in turn, be heard, are really helpful…and HOPEFUL 🙂

  8. s-lpz says:

    “because I’m sure if we all compared deeds–we’d be on the same level.” Amazing words, Stella. I’m with you–if what we believe or believe in gets us to the place of loving and caring and giving and growing and doing, why should it matter what the belief is. If only we could spend more of our time and energy connecting with one another and listening to one another, rather than critiquing one another’s beliefs. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

  9. Aimee says:

    I love this post, Caroline! I have frankly always admired and yearned for the open-endedness of belief that exists in some Jewish communities that still manage to maintain a powerful sense of identity and “fellowship” (for lack of knowing the Jewish equivalent). What each individual really believes is so nebulous and personal that organizing an entire congregation around specific faith beliefs always (in my experience anyway) leaves a lot of room for people to feel like outsiders. I think church members coming from a preceding generation of believers are at a greater advantage for feeling included just because they have that heritage (which is another major component of the Jewish identity), but I’m not really sure that emphasizing a strict set of beliefs really IS doing the Church any favors in terms of converting and *retaining* new members.

    As I’ve participated in wards with a high rate of baptisms on the East coast these past 10 years, it seems that after 6 months to a year the convert often feels like they don’t believe enough if they can’t say with complete certainty that they know everything they hear at church is “true.” I think it’s difficult to feel in full fellowship when an essentialist belief system is espoused from the pulpit week after week as something so obvious and accessible to someone who is really living worthy to feel the Spirit. I have witness how this can often offend and alienate people who are doing their best to understand a new and complicated religion and feel like they’re having to ask all the hard questions on their own. And they almost always leave. Sometimes they come back after a while, but the sense that they can never be “real Mormons” (as one friend of mine put it) because they have sincere questions, always leaves them feeling like outsiders.

    I think there’s a way that the Church can maintain its core beliefs and teach its history in a way that better embraces the reality of the variety of its members. The Church doesn’t have to give up on its sense of truthfulness, but perhaps it could be wiser about deciding not to unify our congregations around beliefs that even the most devout and well taught church member is going to experience differently from her equal counterpart. I think the model presented here might be a great place to start.

  10. Caroline says:

    Thanks so much for your perspective, Aimee. You beautifully articulated something I was thinking about: that our rate of retention of new converts would be much higher if belief wasn’t treated as something so obvious and universal among ward members.

  11. Amy says:

    “because I’m sure if we all compared deeds–we’d be on the same level.”

    I like that part too, because it says “faith without works is dead” in the bible. I think part of why belief is so important is because of what it leads us to actually DO. If we can’t follow through with the good deed, how important really, is the belief?

  12. nat kelly says:

    I love this paradigm. With Mormons, I feel like belonging is contingent upon belief – if you don’t really believe, you can’t really belong. It’s awfully lonely, for an awful lot of people, I feel.

  13. Corktree says:

    Somehow I missed this gem of a post!

    For years now my religion envy has been heavily pointed toward Judaism, but more from a cultural aspect. Which is strange in that the forms I’ve been exposed to, the community feels very Mormon to me, and I would never say that I particularly enjoy Mormon culture. But maybe it is this very idea, that behavior trumps belief, that I am drawn to.

    I do not believe anymore that God requires our utmost faith in all things Mormon to get into Heaven, or even to receive blessings. I don’t believe we are the only church that anyone *should* join. I think we have a whole lotta truth and that our dispensing of the Gospel can and does produce good people, so it has some merit to following and sticking to. But that’s what the Rabbi was saying, yes? It’s the good that people do in the name of Mormonism that keeps some of us connected at all, isn’t it?

    I was asked this past week what I feel has been the greatest contribution to my life from the church. And it was hard for me to answer. My first thought was anything that I have learned of Christ has been of value (in the right context and use, of course), but that I couldn’t think of anything else about myself that wouldn’t be the same had I been born into different circumstance. I would still be “good”. But maybe, I am now thinking, the church has given me opportunities to develop that “good”, and that’s where the true value of organized religion lies. Not in the dogma or the dictates of conscience, but in the real life, hands on work for others that it provides us.

    At least, I hope so. My greatest wish would be that the Church would start teaching members to employ their agency MORE. That our beliefs and not only our actions are up to us to determine, and that we will be judged on how well we line up with our own inner core and how we treat those that cross our path. Nothing more.

    Thank you for this post Caroline. It really brings some views together for me.

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