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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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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 (The Facebook of Mormon). 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.

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.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.

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