Some Lessons Orthodox Judaism Can Learn From Mormons

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Recently, I read an incredibly insightful article in The Atlantic about Mormons and their approach to Facebook and the Internet for their missionaries. I highly recommend the article. I’ve written in the past that I think there are many similarities between Orthodox Judaism and Mormonism. Whenever I see an article that talks about how Mormons deal with social issues, I try and see if there is anything we can learn from their approach.

In this instance, I was blown away by some of the things I read in the article. Indeed, there is a lot for us to learn.

For starters, their three concerns over Internet use are the same as ours. Wasting time, pornography, and safety. These concerns come from Mormon authority figures. But the younger people wonder how those are any different than the concerns of every day life. I’ve heard the exact same arguments in our community.AP060427034115m

Both communities value using books to study their texts. Computers and digital devices are seen as the less preferable way for younger people to study. Computer and Internet use is either extremely limited or prohibited altogether.

But here is where we diverge. Some influential Mormons thought that it might be wise to equip missionaries with digital devices and Facebook accounts to help them convert the unconverted. But before they made a policy decision about it, they actually tested the proposal. A group of missionaries was chosen for the trial. Some were given digital devices and Facebook access and others just used the old fashioned equipment. The results were conclusive. The devices helped significantly.

We don’t have real missionaries and we have different goals. But so much of our policy is based on long-held assumptions or old ideas. We certainly don’t test new ideas. We just have faith that our rabbis are smart enough to know what’s best without hard data. We need data. Let’s test whether limited Internet access and digital libraries will help our Yeshiva students and Kollel members be more productive and more prolific. If it helps, then we should implement it. If not, leave the status quo. We rely too much on faith in people and not enough on data. We don’t even try to obtain data, let alone use data in our policy making.

Mormons also have a sense of nostalgia for the old ways and so there was some resistance to new ways. This is familiar to us as well. But Mormons are also very goal oriented. They want results. And if the new way yields better results, the nostalgia is no longer worth preserving. The reason we cherish old ideas is because we think that they are good ideas. But if better ideas come along, we should adopt the better ideas.

Above all, it seems, Mormons are optimistic about how technology will help them. They aren’t afraid that Mormons will read about Judaism or atheism and jump ship. They have confidence in their religion, despite its challenges in the face of modernity. They believe technology is here to help them. So far, it is helping them.

Another principle that sounded familiar to me, was the self sacrifice that Missionaries make for the sake of their beliefs. It really hard to go to an unknown place and teach uninterested people about your religion. The missionaries are not given a stipend by the Church and live very meager lives. But they all say that it was the happiest time of their life. We have a similar ideal, but our communal wealth and standard of living has changed much of that in recent years. I can still hear my 9th grade rebbe talking about his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Ruderman, reminiscing that in Slabodka they ate one meal a day. It was “stale black bread and an onion.” Our children live in luxurious palaces compared to the children of our great grandparents. But we still theoretically idealize the simple life. Just so few of us live it.

It’s worth mentioning that the Mormons have a central authority that makes determinations for all Mormons. Apparently, everyone listens. We have the opposite. We no central authority, yet some rabbis act as if they are a central authority, and like half the people listen to any particular proclamation because they consider it binding authority. It can be helpful to have a voice that sets universal policy. But we don’t have that in contemporary Judaism. For better, or for worse. Although, some people in our community think that they are that person even though they are not. In the Chasidic groups feature this sort of authority and in some ways it is helpful but in other ways it is harmful. It’s so different from the Mormon model because Mormons are far less insular, so the comparisons between Mormons and Orthodox Jews are more apt when we are comparing to less insular groups like Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox. And so, it might be helpful to have increased efforts to set universal policy for subgroups within non-Chasidic Orthodox Judaism that makes sense for each subgroup. Mormon policy is generally very driven by popular opinion and apparently hard data.

I also want to comment on the Mormon rule that requires that every missionary be accompanied by his missionary partner at all times. Each pair of missionaries must always be together. They use this as a tactic for preventing sin. Most people sin in private so the Mormons don’t give their young adults an privacy.

I was thinking how useful this would be in our community in preventing all kinds of abuse and it might also help with personal religious struggles. Children and teens should be trained to always walk in pairs. Don’t go anywhere alone. This would definitely curb sex abuse. Of course it wouldn’t be possible to do this at all times, but it’s an idea worth considering in some contexts. It would probably help prevent at least some abuse.

Finally, the article does not mention this, but it’s relevant. Reading about the challenges of Mormonism in the modern world and some of its extreme and irrational views, reminds me of Orthodox Judaism. The interesting thing about Mormonism is that it’s actually the fastest growing religion in more than half of states in America. I think this means something. People are becoming Mormons. Is this in spite of their more fundamentalist beliefs? Or is it because of their more fundamentalist beliefs?

I believe the answer is that Mormons project a successful, healthy, happy, clean-cut, family centric lifestyle. That is what people want. And if it takes some wacky beliefs to obtain all that, people will buy in. Perhaps some people are not as devout as others when it comes to the beliefs, but they are attracted to and live the Mormon lifestyle. Arguably, it’s harder to live as a Mormon than it is to believe as a Mormon. But people do it. They do it despite the challenges to modernity and the irrational beliefs. People can handle all that as long as they are getting the benefits of Mormon life.

This is the key to our sustainability as well. We cannot make it just about beliefs. We must promote a happy, healthy, successful lifestyle as well. I don’t believe we are doing enough in that department. We might be selling it to non-Orthodox Jews and even selling it to ourselves. But we have a lot of work to do before we can sell it with complete honesty. We can certainly do a better job socially and we can certainly do a better job to foster a more idyllic family life. Further, less focus on beliefs and justifying beliefs, and heretical beliefs, might be wise.

On the flip side, it seems we too can thrive without changing our more fanatical beliefs. This goes a bit against my personal leanings, but it seems that normalizing wacky beliefs is less important than I thought. It’s true that we can offer a more reasonable set of beliefs that remain true to Orthodox Judaism than what is commonly held now. But it may not be as great a factor as quality of life. So while I will continue my efforts to create acceptance of more rationalist beliefs in Judaism, I think our collective efforts are better utilized in improving day to day Orthodox Jewish life and its challenges like cost of living, abuse, parenting, education, and other issues that arise from a social context and not a theological context.

We can learn from everyone. In particular, I think Orthodox Judaism in America can learn a lot from Mormons. At the very least, I think this is another discussion worth our time and effort.

Link: The Atlantic

  • MarkSoFla

    “Each pair of missionaries must always be together. They use this as a tactic for preventing sin. Most people sin in private so the Mormons don’t give their young adults an privacy.”

    What about the kinds of sins that can only be committed by two people together?

    • They can’t prevent everything!

      • MarkSoFla


  • G*3

    > Let’s test whether limited Internet access and digital libraries will help our Yeshiva students and Kollel members be more productive and more prolific.

    More productive? What are they producing? How many more seforim of strained chidushim and convoluted vertlach do we need?

    Anyway, the point of Kollel is not to produce anything concrete. If it’s for anything, it’s to rack up points in Heaven for Klal Yisrael, for which purpose the academic quality of the learning and breadth of knowledge of the learner is irrelevant. In fact, now that I think about it, what’s praised as the most spiritually uplifting isn’t the guy who gets everything the first time around. Sure, he’s impressive, an iluy, but it’s the guy who sits and struggles with the meforshim who’s racking up the most points. In which case, knowing less may actually cause yungerliet to be more productive.

    > The reason we cherish old ideas is because we think that they are good ideas.

    In the frum world, we cherish old ideas because of the mistaken belief that all of these ideas were handed down to Moshe on Har Sinia.

    > The interesting thing about Mormonism is that it’s actually the fastest growing religion in more than half of states in America.

    And you think that’s because people like the Mormon lifestyle? Your probably right, but can people really look at the nice lifestyle and conclude that Joseph Smith was a prophet instead of the con-man and cult leader he obviously was? Do you think they convince themselves in order to justify the downsides of a Mormon lifestyle?

    More importantly, should the frum world be selling its lifestyle as a reason to be frum? It seems underhanded, a bait-and-switch tactic. Show off the nice lifestyle, and once the mark is hooked, only then slowly reveal the ridiculous things you have to profess belief in to be part of the community that supports his new lifestyle.

    • I’ll address your last point. My point was that it’s not bait and switch if less emphasis is placed on beliefs and we actually deliver the lifestyle.

  • ednastvincent

    I’m with you. I love Mormons. Strangely, for them, when you grow up in an out of town community (meaning, anywhere outside Utah), there is more demand for ideological purity. People meet with their Bishop (this is a rotating position) every 6 months and he asks them explicit questions about their lifestyle and beliefs. If you fail that interview or admit to heterodox thoughts or behaviors and if you fail to show up at church, you could be put on probation. In Utah, lots of people are Jack Mormons. They come from Mormon families and they are Mormon by culture, but they don’t necessarily follow the rules and no one feels a need to kick them out.
    Other interesting things about Mormons — like us, they don’t think everyone else is going to Hell. They promote their religion *even though* you can get to Heaven without being Mormon. Unlike us, they don’t believe in day school — everyone should go to public school and be a shining example of Mormon values. They have a form of shomer negiah, but you are allowed to have boyfriends and even hold hands with them at some point.
    Unlike us, they have a prophet who is in direct contact with G-d. This makes it possible to change things (like racism) through revelation. Unlike us, they think G-d has a physical body. They also think G-d is married. They also think that G-d was once a human being in a different universe.
    If you think there is only one G-d for our universe but there are other god for other universes, is that shituf or avodah zara or something else entirely? I’ve never been able to understand where Mormonism falls in Jewish categories for other religions.

  • Shades of Gray

    This reminded me of a post from last June(“Modesty Messages from a Mormon”):

    “In many ways Mormons are like American Orthodox Jews. We share many values and our lifestyles are very similar. One thing that we share is the emphasis on modesty…One thing Mormons do at the tender age of 19 is they go on Missions. We have Project SEED programs. It’s basically the same idea…”

    “It’s true that we can offer a more reasonable set of beliefs that remain true to Orthodox Judaism than what is commonly held now. But it may not be as great a factor as quality of life.”

    There is merit in focusing on social issues(the intellect vs. social or emotional is also brought up in discussions of causes of the OTD phenomenon).

    It’s also worthwhile noting in connection with “what is commonly held now” that during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the makeup of the yeshiva world was different, and certain ideas were more acceptable. In the October, 2013 Torah Umaddah Journal( “History and Nostalgia: The Rise and Fall of the Yavneh Organization During the late 20th century”, pg. 214), Dr. Yoel Finkelman interprets the evolution of both the right and the left, that ” the right was not defeating the left, but the two sides of Orthodoxy were growing simultaneously, were constantly defining themselves through their disagreements with the other”.

  • Shades of Gray

    “We don’t even try to obtain data, let alone use data in our policy making.”

    From an excerpt of Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried’s article in the Summer, 2013 Hakirah, “Absent proper research, the community is unable to construct a methodically sound and consistent approach to addressing any of its challenges. In order to demonstrate the value, and in fact the necessity, of quality research in addressing community challenges, I offer here an in-depth, research-based analysis of the “children at risk” phenomenon. This discussion is intended to serve as an example of how a given challenge can be explored in a manner that leads to meaningful opportunities for legitimate solutions. I trust the reader will find this a valuable exercise.”

    Also see “More Information, Please” by Jonathan Rosenblum in Mishpacha(1/30/08), “Yet it remains crucial to get some hard data, based on high quality research, to understand the interrelationship of different factors, and which ones are most prevalent”.

  • IH

    An interesting data point from Putnam & Campbell’s American Grace:

  • IH

    I’ve only scanned the Atlantic article quickly, but it seems to paper over the historic role of women in this activity and the changes that are happening. See this NYT article from about a little over a year ago: “More Mormon Women Enroll as Missionaries”

  • cipher

    Please tell me you don’t want to start going door-to-door.

    Also, you realize that Mormons, like frum Jews, have a history of ostracizing those who dissent from the status quo?

  • DF

    Good article, but there are so many unbridegeable differences between orthodox Jews and Mormons, so as to limit – not to say preclude – us following their examples on anything.
    Agav, I would refine the comparison a little. For every Christian sub denomination, there is a comparable Jewish one.
    Catholics – Orthodox
    Protestants – Reform
    Amish – Chassidim
    Mormons – Chabad

    • Aside from the part of missionaries being similar to shluchim I think Mormons are very similar to Modern Orthodox. They have BYU. We have YU. 🙂

      • L10

        I agree with DF, and in fact the first thing I thought of reading your post, Rabbi Fink, was about how Chabad was the first frum group to embrace the internet for its purposes! Well, I’m not sure I agree with DF on everything – I would say that perhaps “Modern Orthodox” – “Jesuit” and I don’t know that Reform is Protestant as much as perhaps UU. But definitely the Chabad comparison is apt. And BTW I’m sorry, but I’m not taking any advice on lifestyle from as sexist a culture as LDS…we need less of that in MO, not more. 🙂

      • DF

        Intressante. There is definitely a kinship [superficially – not actually] between the Mormons and us heimishers. But the reason I find them more closely aligned with Chabad is because
        1) both were molded by charismatic leaders to a greater extent than other Christians or orthodox Jew
        2) Both believe themselves to be part of the greater whole, but both are suspected by others as being a cult. [famous joke they say, what’s the closet religion to Judaism? Not Islam – chabad.]
        3) Both are big into missionaires, though Chabad calls it outreach
        4) Both were earley adopters of technology for religious purposes.
        Anyway, its fun to hack around on a light subject once in a while.

        • I see what you’re saying from a structural perspective, I was thinking more along the lines of lifestyle.

  • Woodrow

    Not really analogous because
    1) different markets- to gain “converts” Orthodox Jews have to appeal to liberal Jews who aren’t particularly interested in being frum- and strict conversion rules make non-Jews essentially off limits. So orthodox Jews can only grow through having more children than anyone else, not through converts in any sense of the word.
    2) living as an Orthodox Jew is MUCH harder than being in Mormon in day to day ways (shabbat,kashruth) at least if you’re not used to it and/or don’t live in place with major Orthodox community.
    3) as a result of 1 and 2, I suspect orthodox Jews more geographically concentrated than Mormons

  • Jonah Halper

    I don’t have the source for this, but Seth Godin discusses how Mormons do tremendous amounts of analysis and testing. For example, they discovered that by asking whoever answers the door if they would be willing to say a prayer with them, those who agreed to it were exponentially more inclined to convert. Instead of 1 in 1,000 the number goes down to 1 in 7 (not accurate numbers but I remember a remarkable contrast). So they implemented a strategy to always ask to say a prayer and not waste time on trying to convert those who would be less likely interested. Brilliant stuff.