“e ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” – 1 Peter 3:15
With two Mormons preparing to launch presidential campaigns and an irreverent Book of Mormon musical set to hit Broadway next month, interest in the LDS Church is bound to increase in the near future. I firmly believe that Latter-day Saints need to define our beliefs before others with hostile agendas attempt to do so. This is the second in a series of blog posts that represent my efforts to clarify what Mormons really believe. It is not important that others agree with these beliefs; this is not a proselytizing blog, and for me clarity trumps agreement. I know that Jews prize truthfulness and candor, and it is in that spirit that I have prepared the following answers. The responses are not meant to be comprehensive, and can’t take the place of conversations with well-informed LDS friends. Rather, they are concise, doctrinally accurate answers that can easily be shared with people seeking more information about Mormons’ beliefs. All of the questions have been sent to me in the last few months.
Q: Do Mormons believe that they’re Jews?
A: No, but they do believe that they’re modern-day Israelites. Genesis records that the Torah and the Law of Moses were given anciently to the entire House of Israel at Sinai; 10 of the 12 Israelite tribes were later lost to history. For us there are two gatherings of Israelites going on in these latter days: 1) the physical gathering of millions of Jews to Israel (and, I would argue, the United States), which was made possible by the dedication of the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jewish people by LDS Apostle Orson Hyde on the Mount of Olives in 1841; 2) the spiritual gathering of the rest of the Israelite tribes, beginning with Ephraim, the birthright tribe (we agree with the prophet Jeremiah that Ephraim became the birthright tribe in Israel following firstborn son Reuben’s sexual transgression - Jer. 31:9). Today the church calls men to be patriarchs, whose sole duty is to give members blessings declaring the Israelite tribe in which they will receive their spiritual inheritance. This tribal designation may or may not represent a member’s literal bloodline, just as Jewish converts can be adopted into the “tribe.” Not surprisingly, most church members, at least in North America, have been identified as Ephraimites, members of the tribe that initiated the latter-day spiritual gathering of Israel.
To recap, previously-scattered Israelites are being gathered once again in the latter days. Mormons believe that they are modern-day Israelites who are bringing to pass the spiritual gathering of Israel beginning with Ephraim, the birthright Israelite tribe. Jews are being physically gathered to Israel and, in my view, to the United States as well. Here it must be noted that some Mormons are identified by patriarchs as members of the tribe of Judah, and may choose to identify themselves as “Jews.” In my opinion, this creates confusion and should be avoided. Contemporary Jews do not accept Jesus Christ as the Savior and do not believe in modern temples, prophets, or priesthood, which are all basic LDS beliefs. However, the debate over whether a believing Christian can identify herself as a Jew is not one I care to join.
Q: Do Mormons believe that Jews will go to hell for not believing in Jesus?
A: Nope. Truth be told, we don’t even believe in the traditional concept of hell as a place of endless torment. In our theology, almost everyone will be rewarded to some degree in the afterlife. While we do believe that in order to live again in God’s presence it is necessary to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ, death is not the finish line for us. Most people who have lived on earth have not had a chance to accept the gospel, and we believe that they will have a chance to do so in the next life. We also believe that every child of God will be rewarded for the good that he has done while on earth. Finally, we believe that the judgment of souls is God’s prerogative, not ours. Everyone on earth, including Jews and Mormons, will have a chance to accept or reject God’s truth at some point before the Final Judgment, which will be administered by God. It is my firm belief that all lovers of truth, regardless of religious affiliation in this life, will have little to fear in the next. Mormons are interested in teaching our truths to the world. We are not interested in judging it.
Q: Do Mormons wear sacred undergarments?
A: Yes. Adult Mormons who visit an LDS temple for the first time in order to make sacred covenants with God are given a temple “garment” and instructed to wear it day and night for the rest of their lives. [Replacement garments are available, and most members have many pairs]. The garment represents the covenants made in the temple, serves as a symbol of modest dress and living, and provides spiritual and physical protection to the wearer. Comparisons are often made to the Jewish tallit katan with tzitzit, which can be worn by Orthodox Jews over or under their clothes to remind them of God’s commandments. Mormons also are reminded of the garments worn by Aaron and the Israelite priests (Exodus chapter 28).
Due to the sacred nature of garments, discretion should be used when attempting to discuss them with an LDS friend.
Q: Do Mormons believe that they can become gods and goddesses in the afterlife?
A: Yes, B’Ezrat Hashem (with God’s help). For me, “exaltation” is the most beautiful and elegant teaching of our theology, and I wish that more people were aware of it. The Mormon ideal is for a man and woman to marry in an LDS temple, where they are “sealed” together forever by the power of the priesthood. If they live righteously, through God’s grace they will be allowed to live in His presence in the next life and continue to learn and progress until they create an eternal spirit family and worlds of their own (which we believe is one of the promises that was made to Abraham). I can’t express it better than the church’s authoritative “Gospel Doctrine” Sunday School manual: “Exaltation is eternal life, the kind of life God lives. He lives in great glory. He is perfect. He possesses all knowledge and all wisdom. He is the Father of spirit children. He is a creator. We can become like our Heavenly Father. This is exaltation…Exaltation is the greatest gift that Heavenly Father can give His children.” Of course, becoming like God does not mean that we can ever take His place, any more than a son replaces his father when he has his own children.
Mormons believe in working hard in this life and the next: for those who ultimately make the cut for exaltation, many eons of learning undoubtedly await. On a personal note, I am inspired more by thoughts of eternal progression than by dreams of eternal rest. Thanks to a remarkable spiritual experience in Petra, Jordan, I do know without any doubt that we live after we die. When my soul continues its journey in the next life, I want to continue to live with my family members and to learn, to work, to create, and to love forever. I am neither a harpist nor a singer, and have no desire to be either one in the eternities. The LDS belief in exaltation is a tremendously inspiring one for many members, including me, even though in all honesty we cannot begin to comprehend it.
I will be speaking at the San Antonio (TX) West Stake’s Education Weekend on April 15 and 16.
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.