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July 21, 2010

Scholars and Elites

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/scholars_and_elites_39100721/

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In keeping with the temple theme of Tisha B’av week and with this blog’s primary purpose of clarifying misconceptions, I would like to respond to a statement made by the erudite Rabbi Elliot Dorff in his insightful book “The Jewish Approach to Repairing the World.” Rabbi Dorff recently spoke on Jewish ethics at a luncheon sponsored by a group of prominent LDS businessmen and attorneys, and I regard him as a priceless resource for the local interfaith community. I read two of his books during my vacation last week, and the single most interesting concept that I took away from this book was that Jews who convert to other faiths retain all of the responsibilities but none of the privileges of being Jews.

That said, the following sentence gave me pause: “...many [religious] traditions presume that only the elite will know the texts, and some (like the Mormons) even bar anyone but the elite from knowing the secrets of their religion.”  With all due respect to Rabbi Dorff, two corrections are necessary. First, Mormons have a lay clergy, and like Jews they are commanded to study and master their sacred texts, which like the Talmud also go beyond the Hebrew Bible. We have scripture study programs for children, teenagers, college students and adults, and we are commanded to study our doctrines. An interesting experiment would be to compare an average lifelong Mormon’s knowledge of the Bible (both Testaments)  and LDS scriptures to an average lifelong Orthodox Jew’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. A church without seminaries or professional clergy, and with five canonized books of scripture, depends on studious members to teach its doctrines. Sermons, Sunday School lessons, and prayers are all offered by people who spend their workdays as doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, and chimney sweeps. 

The second point of clarification is that Mormon temple worship, which involve sacred (or “secret”) ceremonies, are not for “elites.” Every day people of all classes, incomes, and races worship in our temples. While non-members are not allowed into temples after they are dedicated, any member 12 years or older can enter them if she can attest that she is keeping the commandments of G-d. This she does in two interviews with ecclesiastical leaders, who ask her a well-known set of standardized questions (they cannot add or subtract questions from the list). Among the requirements are paying tithing, living a chaste life, refraining from alcohol and tobacco, honoring family commitments, and professing a belief in G-d. If she is keeping these commandments, she receives a “recommend” and can enter the temple. The only qualification she needs is not money, class, or a graduate degree, but righteous living. While living in Israel, I often visited the Druze communities on the Golan Heights. Their religion does restrict knowledge of “secrets” to an elite group of older men, who are not allowed to discuss their religion with non-initiated Druze, regardless of how pious they may be. This is certainly not the case with the LDS faith. If a scholar like Rabbi Dorff has the impression that we are an elitist faith, then we have a great deal of explaining to do.

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