Jewish Journal

How to Make Liberal Judaism Relevant? Ask a Mormon

by Mark Paredes

February 20, 2011 | 10:30 pm

“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” – 1 Kings 19:9-12

While perusing the findings of the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches published by the National Council of Churches (NCC), I couldn’t help but notice that all of the denominations that were listed as “growing”  – Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals – were not members of the ecumenical NCC. However, almost all of those with declining membership figures were mainline Protestant members of the NCC, including Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians. Coincidentally, I also happened to read an article in the Forward newspaper that documented the decline of the Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism (i.e., the Jewish equivalents of liberal Protestants), which are “struggling for relevance and funding.” As a member of one of the fastest-growing faiths who wishes to see more Jews become active in their communities, I humbly offer several suggestions for making liberal Judaism more relevant and meaningful to people who are voting with their feet to abandon organized Judaism.

Not long ago I ran into one of the most well-known figures in the LA Jewish community, a man who is probably on a first-name basis with every major community leader and rabbi. I told him that I had visited many synagogues, but had yet to find one with a spiritual service. Where, I asked, could I find a rabbi who brought the spirit of God into the worship service? “When you find one, please let me know,” he replied, adding that he had been on a similar quest for many years. 

I am occasionally asked what the essence of Mormonism is. I always answer that it is the “still small voice” that came to Elijah on the mountain. While Mormons appreciate articulate, learned speakers, the most popular speakers and teachers in the LDS community are those who are able to touch people spiritually while informing them. Everything that we do in our worship is designed to invite the spirit of God to accompany us. Spirituality is certainly not foreign to Judaism: I have been touched on several occasions while witnessing the blessing of children at the Sabbath table, and am moved by events like the Moses-Aaron Cooperative for autistic Jewish teens. However, I have not yet been to a synagogue where I can expect to have my spirit touched on a regular basis. Elijah’s still small voice is unique and inimitable, and has the power to inspire people and to change their lives in a way that only God can. If synagogue members were able to be spiritually inspired on a weekly basis by their services, they would flock to them. Lectures, symposia, and social events are wonderful, but they cannot take the place of true spirituality in worship. 

Here a word must be said about preaching (usually liberal) politics from the pulpit in the “prophetic tradition.” When LDS prophets speak, millions of people hear what they have to say. Almost all of their talks deal with how to become closer to God and to others, and they do not preach politics from the pulpit (though they do preach morality). Result: our church continues to grow throughout the world. By way of contrast, I have never been inspired by hearing politics preached from the bimah. Political rabbis do not believe that they are prophets, yet they claim to be speaking in the tradition of Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel. Result: the movements whose rabbis do this are shrinking. Could the substitution of politics for spirituality be turning a lot of people off? 

The lay-run LDS Church expects its members to contribute time, money, and effort to their congregations. Active Mormons pay tithing and are called to serve in various volunteer capacities, some of which require substantial time commitments. Most devout Mormon men (and an increasing number of women) spend two years giving service around the world. Synagogue members, on the other hand, are not usually expected to give more than a membership check (though there are often many opportunities to volunteer). Congregations need to make a greater effort to draw upon the considerable talents of their members in a way that makes them feel both needed and wanted as Jews. One way to do this is to ask every member who joins to commit an appropriate level of time and means to build the synagogue community. Simply writing a check should not be enough.

Finally, I continue to believe that Jews should actively seek converts. There’s no need for them to put on tags and knock on doors, but they should try to show non-Jews why they should be Jewish. In order for Jews to do this, they would have to study their faith and learn to teach it to others [Reform Chabad, anyone?].  I’ve heard many arguments against Jewish proselytizing, but they all fail to answer this question: if being Jewish is so great, then why shouldn’t others become Jewish? I believe that the world would be a better place with more Jews in it, and I’m sure that many people would be receptive to overtures by committed and knowledgeable Jews. After all, a recent poll showed that Jews are the most popular religious group in the country. I’m betting that if Jews saw their leaders advocating for conversion to Judaism in the public square, more of them would want to support their community.

Of course, one could also suggest that liberal Jews become more Orthodox, at least in the sense of adopting a more clearly defined set of beliefs (another characteristic of LDS Christianity) and greater expectations of their members. In my experience, Orthodox rabbis are also less likely to preach politics from the pulpit. Result: the Orthodox movement is growing, not shrinking. Whatever practices they may choose to adopt, it is my hope that the liberal movements will learn from others’ success, find a way to stay relevant, and perhaps pick up some converts in the process.         

My podcast interview on LDS-Jewish relations is available on the LDS Church’s official radio station: http://feeds.lds.org/WhyIBelieve

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Dr. Armand Mauss, and Brett Holbrooke will conduct an LDS-Jewish dialogue at University Synagogue in Irvine, CA on Friday, March 11 @ 8:00 p.m.

Thousand Oaks Stake Director of Public Affairs Larry Bagby and I will be making a presentation on LDS beliefs at Adat Elohim on March 16 @ 7:30 p.m.

I will be speaking at the San Antonio (TX) West Stake’s Education Weekend on April 15 and 16. 

Regular readers will note that comments from anti-Mormon bigots have been deleted from this site. I figure that if they have something to say to Jews, they can get their own blog.

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Mark Paredes is a former Mormon bishop currently living in Los Angeles. He has worked for the ZOA, the American Jewish Congress, and the Consulate General of Israel in Los...

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