This week I received the following question from a Jewish teacher who is seeking a greater understanding of the LDS faith: which Jewish movement most closely approximates the Mormon view of obedience to God’s law? In framing my answer, I will avail myself of Professor (and Conservative rabbi) Elliot Dorff’s helpful analysis of the Jewish movements’ views of halacha (religious law). For Orthodox Jews, Jewish law is both binding and fixed. Conservative Jews believe that it is binding but not fixed. The Reform movement believes that each Jew determines for himself how to make Judaism relevant to his life, while Reconstructionist Jews believe that the entire Jewish tradition was created by human beings and can therefore be modified to meet contemporary needs. While there is no LDS counterpart to Judaism’s set of 613 commandments, I believe that the Conservative view of halacha is most consonant with LDS religious practice.
If asked, I believe that most Mormons would reflexively claim that we most closely mirror the Orthodox in our emphasis on obedience to revealed divine law. However, it is the Orthodox rigidity concerning the adaptation of religious practice to modern needs (in our case through living prophets) that leads me to align LDS practice with Conservatism instead. Of course, a “Conservadox” or even Modern Orthodox view might also be just as compatible with LDS practice, depending on the individual (though I did not include these groups in Rabbi Dorff’s analysis). While this point is debatable, it is fairly obvious that the LDS view of halacha is not in agreement with the Reform or Reconstructionist movements, which view religious law as being neither fixed nor binding on individuals.
LDS halacha is divided into doctrines and practices. Official doctrines of the Church are contained in our scriptures and may also be revealed to our modern prophets. They are considered to be fixed and binding (though our leaders themselves make no general claim of infallibility). Unlike the 613 commandments in Judaism, our doctrines are usually expressions of belief (e.g., God is our Heavenly Father and we are his spirit children). However, the practices and programs of the Church can change over time according to the needs of the members. An example of a changeable practice is our three-hour block of Sunday meetings, which used to be broken up into separate meetings that had families spending many hours away from home on Sundays. The change was made 30 years ago, and I don’t know of anyone who wants to revert to the previous schedule. Our doctrine of God’s paternity is fixed, but when we meet to worship Him can change.
A famous (or perhaps infamous) example of a doctrine/practice combination is polygamy. In a nutshell, the doctrine of plural marriage states that a man may marry more than one wife if and when God authorizes the practice (e.g., Abraham, Jacob). We believe that God authorized the practice of polygamy for Church members for about 50 years in the 19th century, then revoked this permission in 1890 (this was revealed to our prophet at the time, Wilford Woodruff). While we did not renounce the doctrine of polygamy, we did discontinue the practice. President Woodruff’s “manifesto” banning polygamy was later canonized, and for many decades it has been the practice to excommunicate Church members who are polygamists. [A practice that could change, of course, if polygamy were ever reinstated].
The Word of Wisdom, our well-known dietary code (no alcohol, tobacco, tea or coffee, moderate meat consumption), is a practice that has become a binding commandment on all members of the Church. It was revealed in 1833 to Joseph Smith and canonized in 1835. However, it was only 18 years later that the revelation was made a commandment by Brigham Young, the second President of the Church. Today Church members who violate the Word of Wisdom cannot receive permission to enter an LDS temple. However, I do not classify these prohibitions as fixed doctrines since some righteous biblical figures (e.g., Noah) drank wine.
Why do Mormons believe they should obey God’s laws as they understand them? Because He has asked us to be obedient. We do not (or at least should not) view God as being harsh and unforgiving. We believe in a merciful God, a loving Father whose work and glory is “to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). While we strive to do good throughout our lives, it is only in and through the grace of God that we are saved [2 Ne. 10:24]. Nevertheless, we don’t believe that mercy can rob divine justice [Alma 42:25]. When we sin, we need to repent and do better. Judaism, of course, also believes in tshuva [repentance] and in doing good works in order to repair the world. While Mormons believe that God is kind and loving, they don’t believe that they can repeatedly and deliberately sin throughout their lives, refuse to repent, and then expect that divine mercy will wipe their slates clean at the Final Judgment. While judgment is God’s, not ours, we are taught that He expects us to obey him to the extent we can ascertain His will here on earth. We can’t enter heaven on our own merits, but we can show our love for God through obedience and seeking to develop God-like qualities. Although their halachic views may diverge, there are a number of godly people in every movement and denomination. A number, thankfully, that is not fixed.
I will be lecturing on Jewish themes in Mormon history and doctrine this Thursday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Monica Stake Center (3400 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles). The lecture is free and the public is invited.