December 2, 2011
Mormon temples and Mitt: answer to a rabbi’s question
In his thoughtful letter to the editor of The Jewish Week, Rabbi Mordecai Schnaidman poses three serious questions about LDS beliefs. He asks them in the context of determining whether Mitt Romney’s faith should render him unsuitable for the presidency. This is not a political blog, and I have no interest in advocating Mitt’s candidacy here. However, I think the rabbi’s questions merit honest answers, and I’d like to offer some in the next two posts. In doing so, I recognize that clarity often trumps agreement in matters of theology.
Q: Much of the Mormon faith is kept hidden even from most Mormons who are excluded from participation in rituals and observances conducted in the secluded and off-limits areas of its temples. How can the general public determine whether this faith will affect a person’s political life if it is not totally available for study and scrutiny?
A: Given that non-Jews are not permitted to study Torah in Orthodox yeshivas or study kabbalah in a traditional Orthodox setting, I’m somewhat surprised to see the question of religious exclusion posed by an Orthodox rabbi. That said, he is correct that non-Mormons are excluded from our temples; however, Mormons are not.
Some Mormons like to say that the temple is “secret” or exclusionary in the same way that only Jews were permitted to gather at ancient Jewish temples. There are two problems with this argument. First of all, non-Jews were permitted to bring animal sacrifices to the temple. Second, while the high priests, Cohanim and Levites were assigned duties that could not be performed by other Israelites, those duties were clearly spelled out in the Torah. In other words, while the high priest was the only person in all of Israel who could enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, everyone knew what he would be doing there. By way of contrast, the LDS Church does not publish details of its sacred temple ordinances. Mormons are right to insist that those ordinances are sacred, not secret, but if they’re going to reference ancient Jewish temples, they should do so with the understanding that what went on those temples was common knowledge.
If he can meet these requirements, he will be issued a temple “recommend” that allows him to enter any temple worldwide and participate in any rituals that are performed there. Mormon leaders at all levels have urged church members to obtain and use temple recommends. If a Mormon wants a temple recommend but does not have one, it is because she is not observant enough. In other words, she is not excluded from the temple, but excludes herself from the temple. Temple ordinances are at the center of LDS worship, so this self-exclusion is a very serious matter indeed.
In Jewish terms, imagine that only observant Jews (adult men and women) can study kabbalah. Moreover, the observance level of Rabbi Schnaidman (an Orthodox rabbi ordained at Yeshiva University) is required to study. To determine worthiness, a Jew wanting to begin the study of kabbalah needs to have an interview with his local rabbi and answer a standardized set of questions to determine his observance level. Anyone meeting the universal standard set by Rabbi Schnaidman is given a certificate and allowed to study kabbalah with any qualified rabbi worldwide. However, anyone confessing to, say, a weakness for cheeseburgers is not given a certificate. If Rabbi Schnaidman turned away a woman from his kabbalah study group who did not have a certificate, would it be honest to say that he had excluded her, or that she had excluded herself by failing to meet the standard that she knew was expected of her if she wanted to hear the good rabbi teach?
The sad truth is that if Rabbi Schnaidman wishes to know the details of our temple ordinances, they are all available online. Ex-Mormons and other malcontents mistakenly believe that by “exposing” and mocking our most sacred ceremonies, they will somehow damage the church. Every word of every ordinance is available for scrutiny by those wondering whether LDS temple ceremonies can somehow skew the judgment of Mormon politicians. Anyone reading transcripts of the ordinances will soon note the absence of tax plans and fiscal policy proposals. Instead, he will learn that Mormon temple-goers are earnestly engaged in performing proxy immersions for their deceased ancestors, receiving symbolic washings and anointing similar to those given to Aaron and the priests in ancient Israel, contracting marriages that they believe will last forever, and making promises to God to be chaste, avoid unholy practices, and obey God. I am not encouraging my readers to visit the anti-Mormon sites, but Mormons certainly don’t have anything to fear if they do.
A final word of caution to anyone who believes that the beauty or essence of LDS temple ceremonies can be found in transcripts or reenactments. If an alien were to come to earth and ask to see a transcript of our most important ceremony, he would probably be given something that reads like this:
Priest: And do you take this woman to be your lawfully-wedded wife?
The couple kiss, walk down the aisle, and have rice thrown on them.
Not terribly compelling reading, is it? If the alien relies only on the transcript, he will never understand why that moment is the highlight of most parents’ lives, why those words have brought many a father and mother to tears, or why many people will travel across the country or the world just to hear those words spoken. If he wants to understand the essence of the wedding ceremony, he should either attend one or sit down with those who have participated in one for a frank, honest discussion. Words on a page can’t begin to capture the emotion surrounding a wedding.
In the same way, non-Mormons should understand that Mormons attempt to prepare spiritually before going to the temple. Once there, they participate in temple worship in a spirit of prayer alongside like-minded Mormons. Temples are quiet places where conversations are whispered and the mind wanders naturally to celestial topics. If non-Mormons want to understand what goes on in LDS temples, they should talk with temple-going Mormons. While they won’t discuss specifics, Mormons can share with them their feelings about temples and temple worship. Jews can also learn of the many Israelite themes in temple architecture and ceremonies.
To recap, non-Mormons can’t make certain vows and promises to God in LDS temples because they haven’t yet made and kept certain promises with Him; the only Mormons who are denied entry to temples are those who are not sufficiently observant; and the only way to understand LDS temple ceremonies is to talk with temple-going Mormons about their significance. If Rabbi Schnaidman is truly interested in learning more about these ordinances, he’ll find no shortage of Latter-day Saints both ready and willing to help.