March 30, 2011
Niceness, by the Book
Right around the time the curtain was dropping on the opening night of Broadway’s new “South Park”-inspired musical, “The Book of Mormon,” I was in Salt Lake City, Utah, having dinner with two top-level elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, plus a few other saints (as observant Mormons are known), as well as three rabbis and a scholar of ancient Hebrew from American Jewish University (AJU). As the satire about missionaries was playing to rave reviews in New York, we Jews were engaged in a conversation completely lacking in irony in a penthouse dining room overlooking Temple Square — guests for two days of LDS church leaders from Los Angeles and Salt Lake, who hosted us with a graciousness of a sort only Emily Post could dream up.
“They are so nice,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom remarked repeatedly whenever our group had a moment alone. Nice enough to allow us to ask all sorts of probing questions about their faith, to wonder aloud, perhaps impertinently, whether they might ever allow women in their leadership. To ask pointedly why they were so bothered as to spend some $25 million on the fight against Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage. To ask how they get their kids to be so … compliant.
To each of our questions, we got a civil, even kind, if not always satisfying, response. People of faith believe what they believe, and invest — or ask their members to invest — according to those beliefs. Mormon women will not lead any time soon, we were assured, but they always play a strong role — in family, in particular. Marriage is between a man and woman and meant for procreation. The family is always primary. “It’s all about the one,” the individual, Elder Ben B. Banks told us, as he and others shared stories of reaching out to lapsed “brothers” and “sisters” through conversations in airports, or even by knocking on doors. They are not shy about their mission. We were not shy in responding according to our own beliefs and experiences. But mostly we listened.
I’d wondered before we went why we’d been invited. “Bridge building,” we were told, without a clear agenda. It’s necessary, I guess, for a group that has been known, for example, to inadvertently cause great pain in what they see as holy acts, such as performing posthumous baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims. It’s necessary, too, for a faith group whose members have clear political ambitions (think Mitt Romney), yet whose religion is hardly understood, even by other Christians. But what we saw, most of all, were people who are committed to one another, to charitable deeds, to what they call service.
There is much that Jews and Mormons have in common, in fact, in our foundation of Torah — their faith is based on the belief that Israelites landed in the ancient Americas, and their story was only uncovered centuries later in the Book of Mormon, one part of which includes the Five Books of Moses. There is also much that we can learn from one another. And when we get past what we might want to change — or convert — in the other, we can focus on the good.
On our second morning, we traveled away from the lofty sights of the Temple in city center to a warehouse district outside of town. There was another “square,” this one called Welfare Square, where literally tons of used clothing lands each day in giant bales, to be sorted and redistributed to people in need throughout the world. Where bread is baked, then bagged, and vegetables are canned — all by volunteers — where they age their cheese and separate wheat from chaff, all to provide food for free to those in need. It’s Mitzvah Day every day in Welfare Square. And if you receive help, whether in goods or guidance for employment, you, too, will be invited to join the effort, as well, for just as our tradition teaches us, “The purpose of Church welfare assistance is to help people help themselves.”
Mormons like to keep records, whether of ancient births or recent gifts. We got a list of statistics for 2010: Days of labor donated to church welfare facilities: 777,381. Number of missionaries serving in welfare services worldwide: 8,583. Number of major disaster efforts in the past 25 years: 201, including in just the past year Haiti, Chile and Pakistan. (Japan, right now, is getting just money, as they await word on how best to serve.) I can tell you how much food was distributed (63,377 tons) and how much clothing (93,196 tons). And in Welfare Square’s enormous warehouse, where workers who are refugees work alongside retirees and youth, it’s not hard to see how it all adds up.
When Rabbi Susan Leider of Temple Beth Am, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea, Rabbi Feinstein, professor Ziony Zevit of AJU and I met alone for dinner after all the touring was done, to digest what we’d seen and heard, we spoke together of the commitment to volunteerism that had so impressed us, and we asked one another: “Can you create a culture of true selflessness without a fundamentalist theology?”
It is, as Feinstein said, “an alternative sense of self,” where service to a higher being by doing good works is paramount. Where you cannot aspire to lead, you have to be asked.
There are moments in Judaism that match this, particularly at the High Holy Days, but in my experience, our lives are set on earth; we are not as hierarchical. We also give, but perhaps not as often. We donate, but do we, in any spare moment, work side by side with those in need, as Mormons are obligated to do? It’s worth thinking about. They do not question as we do, and that seems less healthy to me. But their commitment to kindness is very appealing. Would I want to move to their world? No. Still, from our visit, a bridge has been built, and I can now appreciate better, without the satire, the real, not the Broadway, Book of Mormon.