July 19, 2010
Tisha B’av, Mormons and Temples
With the fast for Tisha B’av set to begin right now, I join the worldwide Jewish community in mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples on the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. A Mormon’s concern for Israelite temples should not be surprising to anyone familiar with our temple-based religion. While Mormons and non-Mormons worship on Sundays in the LDS chapels that dot the earth, it is in the 133 dedicated temples that the most holy ordinances are performed, all centered around the eternal Abrahamic covenant. In the early 19th century Mormons were forced to abandon two temples (those at Nauvoo, IL and Kirtland, OH) in the face of severe persecution, and losing all of our temples today would be nothing short of catastrophic for Latter-day Saints. A Reform rabbi touring Salt Lake City observed that Mormons seemed far more interested in ancient Israelite temples than contemporary Jews. Indeed, it is undoubtedly easier for Mormons to identify with temple worship than it is for Jews to make sense of the rites and rituals of Leviticus.
Although I understand the irrelevance of temples to the lives of modern-day Jews and realize that Tisha B’av is an anachronism for almost all of them, I hope that at least some members of the tribe are disturbed by the flippant, sacrilegious tone of Jonathan Zasloff’s essay in the Tisha B’av edition of the Jewish Journal. His thesis? “The destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.” Professor Zasloff reasons that the survival of the Temple “would have meant the destruction of the Jewish religion,” since temple-based worship involved a “priestly cult” and “a lot of dead, bleeding animals.” In his mind, we should spend this evening celebrating the birth of rabbinic Judaism—Talmud, Rashi, Maimonides et al. While there is no question that rabbinic Judaism is one of the greatest intellectual achievements in history and has enriched the world with its wisdom and traditions, it is hard to think of a mindset that is more directly at odds with the Mormon view of kadusha (holiness) than the author’s. For us, true Israelite worship involves temples.
During a lecture I gave to a group of rabbinical students, one woman observed that the Jewish way of discovering truth in scripture involved chevruta, or study with a partner. She wanted to know how Mormons determined scriptural truths. I responded by politely challenging her claim about chevruta. After all, didn’t the classical Jewish way of learning G-d’s truths involve sending a prophet to a holy place to commune with the Almighty, then having him return to the people and declare what he had learned? Chevruta is absent from the Hebrew Bible, and the student admitted that this is a rabbinic practice. Is partner study more authentically Jewish than the calling of Moses and the giving of the Torah and other scriptures through prophets? That’s not for me to say. However, I can say that the many Jewish themes in Mormon theology almost always involve ancient Israelite practices. When the Second Temple was destroyed, along with it went the priesthood (the power to act in G-d’s name), prophets, temples, and the divine power associated with them. In a country where many if not most Jews are atheists or agnostics, where most Jews marry outside their faith, where a majority of Jews support same-sex marriage (condemned by Jewish law), where Jews are to be found in the leadership of most anti-Israel and/or anti-Zionist groups, and where a majority of non-Orthodox young Jews profess no special attachment to Israel, it strains credulity to believe, as Professor Zasloff aserts, that temple worship was less Torah-centered than its rabbinic successor. The ancient Israelites wept and mourned because they realized what they had lost. Judah ha-Nasi only decided to compile the Mishnah(part of the Talmud) when he realized that the Temple would not be rebuilt (which Zasloff acknowledges in the essay). Something tells me they weren’t just lamenting a pile of dead animals.
A female rabbi’s informal way of using a sacred temple prayer once left me and my Mormon date speechless. During a Friday evening service at which I spoke, she asked the congregation to stand and perform “the high priest’s prayer” together. Everyone slowly raised and lowered their hands several times while repeating a prayer that she had written. Mormon readers will understand why my friend and I chose to keep our arms at our sides. After the service, I found a diplomatic way to ask her why she had invited everyone to participate in a prayer that had been reserved for the High Priest of Israel in ancient times. She smiled and answered that it was “fun,” especially for the kids. Whatever one may think of the ancient temple prayers, it’s hard to justify using them as a form of entertainment for congregants.
If I had to reduce the essence of the Hebrew Bible to one verse, it would be Isaiah 55:8 - “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” May we all use this occasion to remember the ways in which G-d, through rites and rituals whose ultimate meanings were known unto Him, blessed His ancient covenant people in truly miraculous ways.