Since I will be celebrating Christmas with my family next week in Michigan, I decided to spend Christmas Eve with observant Jews attending the annual Orthodox Union’s Torah Convention. The first Christmas Eve OU event that I attended was a 2006 debate on Orthodoxy between Dennis Prager and my good friend Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Tonight a few dozen people gathered at the regal home of Dr. Steven Tabak and his better half Linda to hear two of America’s great rabbis share their thoughts on defining Jewish values. They discussed several topics that are of interest to Mormons, and the LDS Church was mentioned several times. The discussion lasted two and a half hours, and was so wide-ranging that the rabbis only managed to address one of three questions that the eloquent moderator, Rabbi Adir Posy, had planned to cover. No one present seemed to mind.
Rabbi Steven Weil, the OU’s National Executive VP, began his presentation by identifying Jewish parents as being primarily responsible for the transmission of Jewish values and moral character to their children, with schools and synagogues serving as concentric circles around the parents. This responsibility requires parents to behave in an ethical manner so that their children will be drawn to Judaism; hypocrisy on their part will cause their kids to leave the faith. Rabbi Weil went on to say that it is ethical behavior, not outward signs of Orthodoxy like Sabbath observance, that truly characterizes an Orthodox Jew. He could have easily made the same speech to Mormon parents.
The other presenter was Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a member of the Beth Din of America (the nation’s largest Jewish law court in the country). I had heard Rabbi Broyde speak on the halachic principle of dina d’malchuta dina (equivalent to the LDS Twelfth Article of Faith), and was eager to hear his thoughts on this topic. He focused on economic issues related to living an Orthodox life, lamenting the fact that many Jewish institutions granted Jewish immortality (i.e., honors including having their names engraved on buildings) to big donors instead of adhering to the past practice of honoring learned rabbis, scientists, judges, etc. Needless to say, a lively discussion ensued between several audience members and the rabbis.
The rabbis were kind enough to include me in the discussion by mentioning that both of them have engaged in dialogue with LDS leaders and praising Mormons’ desire to work with Orthodox Jews on school vouchers and other issues of interest to both communities (the LDS Church does not take an official position on vouchers). They also mentioned Mormons while addressing two issues: tithing and excommunication of unethical members of their community. Both rabbis appeared to advocate an arrangement of lifetime tithing for the Orthodox in exchange for the provision of certain services, including tuition for their children at Orthodox day schools. They pointed to the LDS Church as a model to be followed in this regard (i.e., the building of chapels, temples, universities). Rabbi Broyde then initiated what became an intense discussion of what to do with donations given by people who had engaged in criminal and/or unethical behavior. He went on to point out the difficulty of applying the LDS practice of excommunicating members guilty of serious sins to the Bernie Madoffs of the Jewish community.
When an audience member asked whether Mormons debate similar issues, I was asked to respond. While Latter-day Saints do pay tithing and are required to be honest in their business dealings in order to enter an LDS temple, there is very little debate within our community on the suitability of individual members to give money to our church. Our leaders’ general policy, as stated by Joseph Smith, is to teach members correct principles and to let them govern themselves. However, I assured those present that people of all faiths do wrestle with these issues. By way of example, I shared with them my personal boycott of Marriott hotels, which bear the name of a prominent Mormon family, due to the pornographic TV channels and alcohol that they make available to their guests. Eight years ago I discussed this issue with an official spokesman for Marriott hotels, and he confirmed that the money from pornography and alcohol was not segregated, but made its way along with other revenue to the bank accounts of the company’s board members, including Marriott family members. Since that day I have never paid for a stay at a Marriott hotel. The Marriotts are prominent donors to Mormon causes, and as far as I know their donations have never been refused or questioned. [I am not suggesting that they should be; my boycott is a personal one].
The first Christmas Eve was memorable because of one Jewish baby, and tonight was memorable because of the efforts of many Jews to define and engage their tradition with intellect and passion. I’m grateful that they allowed me to participate in this dialogue, and look forward to attending the convention’s Christmas Day lectures.
Merry Christmas to my Christian readers and Merry Shabbos to my Jewish ones.
I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on January 12 at 7:00 p.m. I will also be speaking with Rabbi Alan Cohen in Kansas City on January 16. Single LDS women who love Jews are especially encouraged to attend.