Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! – Isaiah 5:20, 2 Nephi 15:20 (Book of Mormon)
AY! My name is Joseph Smith, and I’m going to f*** this baby! – verse from the song “Joseph Smith, American Moses” in The Book of Mormon musical
One of the Jewish community’s many virtues is its expression of righteous indignation. Whenever anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the public square, you can bet that organizations like the ADL and AJC, as well as prominent rabbis and other leaders, will confront it and denounce it. Jews are well-known for their self-deprecating sense of humor, and are better than anyone else at laughing at themselves, their religion, and their culture. When non-Jews attempt to poke fun at them, Jews generally laugh along with them as long as the humor is in good taste. Mormons also tend to be thick-skinned, and are usually good-natured when their beliefs become fodder for jokes. However, judging from their reaction to the vulgar, anti-Mormon musical The Book of Mormon, Mormons do not yet feel comfortable expressing righteous indignation in public, even when it is obviously warranted.
Since I do not plan to see the musical, I researched the songs and storyline before writing this essay. I’m not easily offended, but I was appalled at the vulgarity and at the way in which anti-Mormonism makes even racism palatable. Try to imagine the opening night for a musical parody that depicts Africans as AIDS-infected, misogynistic villagers who sing a song (“Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a parody of “Hakuna Matata” from Lion King) whose title translates to “F*** you, God.” There would be protests up and down Broadway, and the musical’s run would be pretty short. However, if you add Mormon missionaries to the mix and use this outrageous depiction to skewer Mormonism, suddenly it becomes acceptable, even laudable.
Two things are obvious from even a cursory review of the musical: Its creators hate religion, and they hate Mormonism. No one with any respect for the sacred or the divine would write lyrics like “F*** you God in the a**, mouth, and c***.” There is no context in which this is anything less than religious pornography. Adding a catchy tune and voices to this smut doesn’t change anything. Ditto for a schmaltzy, predictable ending.
Unsurprisingly, the musical’s creators are all hostile to religion. Trey Parker believes all religions are silly: "All the religions are superfunny to me......The story of Jesus makes no sense to me. God sent his only son. Why could God only have one son and why would he have to die? It's just bad writing, really." Matt Stone, though ethnically Jewish, is an atheist. Here’s Robert Lopez’s insightful take on LDS beliefs: “The reason why we both wanted to do Mormonism from the beginning is that we all felt that way about religion. There is something supremely, ridiculously fake about it, but it helps people live their lives better, and there is something emotionally true about it … But you don't think God talked to this guy and had him bury some plates in the ground, that's ridiculous. But if believing in a goofy story helps a bunch of people lead lives in a meaningful way, then it is true, and that's where we started from."
What is incomprehensible to me on a personal level is to read comments from a few Mormons who have seen the show and find positive things to say about it. When I worked in the Jewish community, I was always disappointed to see Jews serve as spokesmen for groups and organizations that actively worked against Israel and the Jewish people (e.g., BDS groups). They are referred to in some Jewish circles as “self-hating Jews,” a term I always recoiled at. I could never bring myself to use it, because I never experienced the visceral reaction that those who used the term did upon seeing fellow members of the tribe behave in such a disgraceful way. When I see these Mormon mouthpieces praise a blasphemous, sacrilegious, vulgar show that is hostile to their faith, I get it; Like my Jewish friends, I experience a total disconnect. I have no idea where these people are coming from, or why they would want to support the efforts of people who hate their religion. All of us want to be liked and accepted by others, but sometimes it’s important to be in, not of, the world.
A word of explanation is probably necessary here: I am not a vulgar person, I do not swear, and I included the original lyrics above (albeit with asterisks) only after long deliberation on my part. I apologize to anyone who is offended by them, but in the end I thought that it was necessary to include the original words in order to make my point.
Like most Mormons, I do have a healthy sense of humor in the religion department, and am happy to laugh at the latest polygamy jokes. I am also pleased that my church has chosen to take the high road by paying for ads pushing the real Book of Mormon in the musical’s playbill. However, as they say in Hebrew, yesh gvul (there’s a limit). I dearly wish that there were a Mormon ADL right now to point out that Mormon-bashing (as a subset of Christian-bashing) remains the only acceptable prejudice in this country. If there are any Jewish readers who want me to lighten up, imagine Moses delivering the Joseph Smith line cited above in a Broadway musical entitled “The Torah.” Not so funny now, is it?
To be clear, I can understand why Mormons want to go to the musical. They may be curious, they may think it’s only a little risqué, or they may think that a show that’s won 9 Tonys must be worth seeing. I am genuinely baffled, however, by my coreligionists who come away from the show with good things to say about it. Thankfully, their numbers are few. I’m more than willing to laugh at LDS culture with people who do so in good taste and with at least a modicum of respect, but as for The Book of Mormon, I’ll stick to the original.
I will be making presentations on Mormonism in Los Angeles at Sinai Temple (dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe, Oct 18th @ 7:30 p.m.) and Temple Isaiah (dialogue with Rabbi Zoë Klein, Oct 24th @ 6:00 p.m.). The public is invited.