June 8, 2013
How to explain LDS religious terms to Jews
When Jews share their religious beliefs with others, they don’t automatically assume that they are familiar with Judaism, and usually do a beautiful job of expressing their thoughts using secular terms that can be understood by all. However, well-meaning Mormons who discuss their beliefs with Jews often sound like they’re writing or speaking to other Mormons, not to non-Christians. Many a Jewish acquaintance or reader has contacted me after hearing a Mormon explain a religious principle using language that didn’t resonate with him or her. In my experience, this often happens when Mormons use Jewish instead of Christian terms to describe their beliefs and practices.
I recently came across an essay penned by a Mormon that referred to the LDS sacrament as our “kiddush.” According to Mormon doctrine, bread and water (the sacrament) are blessed and passed to congregants during a special weekly meeting to remind them of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Those who eat the bread and drink the water take upon themselves the name of Christ and promise to always remember Him and keep His commandments. Needless to say, these concepts are very far from the minds of Jews who recite kiddush on Shabbat or Yom Tov. The best way to convey to Jews what the sacrament means to Mormons is to explain – plainly and simply – its symbolism and sacredness. There is no need here to seek a Jewish counterpart, because there isn’t one.
For many years I have avoided referring to Jesus as the “Messiah” during religious discussions with Jews. The difference between their concept of a messiah and ours is so great that no single word (or title) can bridge the gap. Like other Christians, Mormons believe that Jesus was the Son of God who led a perfect life, founded a church, and atoned for our sins on a cross outside of Jerusalem. This belief is the cornerstone of our faith. It goes without saying that contemporary Jews completely reject this idea of a messiah, so it is neither fair nor accurate to imply that Jews and Christians share the same messianic definition.
In order to avoid confusion, it is sometimes also necessary to avoid using specifically Mormon terms to describe our practices. The most obvious – and controversial -- example is our “baptism for the dead” temple ceremony. Given their history of forced conversions to Christianity and persecution by Christians, Jews’ strong aversion to the word “baptism” is understandable (anyone ever heard of Jews objecting to proxy temple marriages for the dead?). We can explain the significance of these ceremonies to Jews until we’re blue in the face, but in the end no self-respecting Jew would consent to have his ancestors “baptized” by Christians, no matter what explanation they are given. I prefer to use the term “proxy immersions” with Jews, and have found that it is both a more accurate description and less off-putting to them.
So long as they don’t feel that they are being targeted for conversion, Jews are generally willing to listen to their Mormon friends and neighbors share their beliefs. When this is done in an atmosphere of respect, great things can happen. The main purpose of this blog is to facilitate mutual understanding between the Jewish and LDS communities, and finding out how to talk to each other about that which we hold most dear is the foundation of this dialogue. Shabbat shalom.