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.
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.
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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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