My Tribe

I originally wrote this as a guest post for the popular secular-Jewish blog “Lubab No More.” Sadly, Lubab No More is no more, so I’m reposting the essay here, for reference.

Have you ever had an admirer who watches you from afar, looking for cues and good ideas to emulate? Sweet, isn’t it?

Today I’d like to tell you some of the reasons why the Mormons feel like they have a special affinity with the Jews, and you can tell me (in the comments) whether this makes sense or whether it’s completely nuts.

First of all, the Mormons believe themselves to be another tribe of Israel. The reasoning behind this is a little complex (let’s save it for “advanced topics”), but it has historically led to the amusing Mormon practice of referring to non-Mormons as “gentiles.” I remember back in grad school on of my professors telling me he found Utah hilarious because it was the only place in the world where he was called a “gentile.” His experience was probably based on a misunderstanding, yet it’s not entirely unexpected.

The Mormons’ historical claim to being a tribe of Israel is pretty tenuous — and their theological connection with Judaism is even more tenuous (the two sets of beliefs are very different) — yet even if it amounts to no more than terminology, it still warms Mormons up to the idea that they’re a tribe like the Jews. And sometimes just believing something encourages people to make it so.

Probably the most important real parallel is the Mormon exodus. The Mormons crossed the wilderness as a group (back in the days when it was no small feat to do so) to build their own society in a hostile landscape that they saw as their promised land. This trek — plus a few generations when the Mormons were a fairly isolated group in Utah — forged an identity as a people. (Note that because the Mormon population was isolated during a critical growth period, many sociologists see Mormonism as an ethnicity.) As I’ve said in earlier comments here, you may think it’s crazy that a group with such a short history could have a strong attachment to their heritage. but consider the fact that the U.S.A.’s history as a nation isn’t much longer than Mormon history, and look how fiercely proud the Americans are of their national/cultural identity. Mormon history may be short, but it’s memorable, to say the least.

There are also practical similarities in religious observance department: strict gender roles, a modesty code for women, rules about what one can/can’t do on the Sabbath, requirements of wearing certain articles of clothing, and a strict dietary code. Keeping the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” is far less elaborate than keeping kosher, but it is no less a mark of whether one is observant/religious or not. These similarities may seem superficial, yet the parallel become more apparent when you read (in blogspace) about the experiences of non-believers raised Mormon compared to the experiences of non-believers who were raised frum. (See also my online novel Exmormon for more details and stories about what growing up in a Mormon family is like.) In both cases, spouses and other family members are often as upset about seeing the non-believer break key mitzvot/commandments as they are about the non-belief itself. And in both cases, non-belief/non-practice is often seen by religious family members as a rejection of one’s family and identity.

Thus we have another tribe whose identity is centered around a religion, and who — like the Jews — are a minority everywhere in the world except in a small homeland. So it’s natural for Mormons to look at the Jewish example when it comes to questions about identity (here’s a recent example on a popular Mormon blog) and questions about culture. The Mormon lit community routinely uses Jewish literature as an ideal to emulate, both in terms of serious literature (see the comments on this post and this post for typical examples) and popular stuff (the Mormons love Fiddler on the Roof, and admit to having “Fiddler-Envy“).

Then there’s politics. I was telling a friend of mine recently about how — after being the most loyal stalwarts of the Religious Right — the Mormons were shocked to discover they weren’t really part of the club when they saw how Mitt Romney’s religion was treated by the Religious Right’s Evangelical core. “What? The Religious Right is intolerant?” laughed my friend, and she went on to explain that this is the main reason why the Jews tend to vote Democrat — they realize they’re better off under a government that believes in pluralism. I’m hoping it will finally sink in to the average Mormon that they really are a minority, and perhaps one day they’ll catch this same clue.

So what do you think? Does it make any sense to imagine we’re fellow tribes?

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17 Comments

  1. 1
    Kullervo says:

    Well, it doesn’t usually make sense to Jews.

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  2. 2
    chanson says:

    Very true. ;)

    Yet I got a very positive response from the Jewish readers of the original post.

       0 likes

  3. 3
    Kullervo says:

    At least, the Orthodox Jews I have known have been fairly boggled at the one-sided affinity and self-identification that Mormons have for Jews. They pretty much think the similarities are hilariously superficial if not completely contrived.

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  4. 4
    Kullervo says:

    Muslims I have talked to are also generally not convinced that they have very much in common with Mormons.

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  5. 5
    chanson says:

    Oh, man! Everybody hates us, nobody likes us, guess we’ll go eat worms… ;)

       0 likes

  6. 6
    Seth R. says:

    Kullervo, I would dispute the Muslim comment.

    BYU has a pretty hard-core Muslim outreach element. I saw quite a few headscarves at BYU and the Muslim students there often spoke of how their parents were much happier sending them to BYU than to the godless moral sinkholes they saw on other campuses (yes, I’ll get crap for that remark – I’m at peace with this).

    Like Mormons, Muslims tend to be more concerned with actions than confessions of belief. So the points of commonality are more than a mere theology review would otherwise indicate.

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  7. 7
    chanson says:

    Right, that’s the point of my article and the follow-up by E. L. Fay. Often similarities in attitude and day-to-day practice outweigh differences in theology, at least when it comes to understanding one another’s perspective.

    And I won’t give you crap for the “godless moral sinkholes” remark — I’m not sruprised if that’s the way they see it, even if I totally disagree with their assessment (and with the “morals” based on “The Book” underlying that opinion).

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  8. 8
    Kullervo says:

    Seth, I’m just speaking from personal experience. There were loads of Muslims in Germany on my mission.

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  9. 9
    Kullervo says:

    And “we have moral values in common” is nowhere near the same thing as “we have a special kinship,” or even the same thing as “we have much in common.”

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  10. 10
    Andrew S. says:

    Cool post, Chanson!

    I think that the key points aren’t that we *actually* need to have anything in common with Judaism (as Chanson said, it’s all varying levels of tenuousness)…but the idea is that we *construct* and *perceive* a common identity, whether it is from superficial linkages or not. And I mean, Judaism’s not a bad thing to try to find kinship with.

    I think that one meaningful commonality — even if it’s perhaps only coincidental and not indicative of larger trends at all — is both Judaism and Mormonism’s ability to instill a culture into its people. So, you can have secular Jews or atheist Jews because Judaism is not *just* a religion. Similarly, we can have atheist Mormons or secular Mormons, because Mormonism is not *just* a religion. I don’t think we quite have the several-thousand year ethnicity bonus that the Jews have, and I don’t think that being historically holed up in Utah for a significant period of time makes an ethnicity (especially since the church has thrived based on the constant addition of new blood…;), but even if we aren’t an ethnicity, surely we can have a culture.

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  11. 11
    Kullervo says:

    I think that one meaningful commonality — even if it’s perhaps only coincidental and not indicative of larger trends at all — is both Judaism and Mormonism’s ability to instill a culture into its people. So, you can have secular Jews or atheist Jews because Judaism is not *just* a religion. Similarly, we can have atheist Mormons or secular Mormons, because Mormonism is not *just* a religion. I don’t think we quite have the several-thousand year ethnicity bonus that the Jews have, and I don’t think that being historically holed up in Utah for a significant period of time makes an ethnicity (especially since the church has thrived based on the constant addition of new blood…;), but even if we aren’t an ethnicity, surely we can have a culture.

    Not as long as Mormonism is defined my membership in an organization.

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  12. 12
    Kullervo says:

    by, not “my”

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  13. 13
    Andrew S says:

    except Mormonism isn’t defined that way, except to file keepers in HQ.

    And even with those file keepers, it seems they never want to let you out, going so far as to fumble with resignation letters when they are received, so they keep many more people on the lists than identify as Mormon.

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  14. 14
    Kullervo says:

    Mormonism isn’t defined that way, except to file keepers in HQ.

    And basically all of it’s members. And the organizational hierarchy.

    Look, I know there is a periphery, but for the most part “Mormonism” means “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” And there is absolutely nothing like that in Judaism or Islam. There is no monolithic organization that is functionally the alter ego of the religion.

    The few Dry Mormons and excommunicated Sunstone Mormons who want to hang on to the label and have the beliefs without the club membership are just not significant enough to be even in the same neighborhood as Judaism and Islam.

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  15. 15

    I have my doubts about Mormon ethnicity. Speaking from purely personal experience, I don’t consider myself Mormon in any meaningful way and could drop everything that could be considered unique to Mormon culture and never miss it. Current LDS culture is only a short hop and a skip from being mainstream USian culture. What is there to miss? Primary/Propaganda songs? Attending too many meeting? Pioneer day? Soporific temple rites? Bad deserts?

    For me, my ethnic Mormon identity seems rather shallow. Perhaps it is because—as Kullervo said—I always roughly defined being Mormon as believing LDS doctrine and participating in the LDS church. Now that I don’t do either in any meaningful way, the most connection I feel to Mormonism can be summed up as “former Mormon”.

    I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with those who agonize more about leaving LDS culture behind.

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  16. 16
    chanson says:

    Jonathan — I recognize that Mormonism hasn’t produced great works like some older and larger cultures. But still it has a body of traditions, daily practices, stories, ideas, etc. that I grew up with and are a part of my family.

    It’s my impressin that some people and families are more interested in oral history and traditions than others. That’s fine if you’re happy to forget it all — a lot of people feel that way. But I’m certainly not agonizing or asking for sympathy regarding my continued interest in the fun of the Mormon perspective! :D

    p.s.: I’m currently on vacation in Italy, which is why I’ve been less active on the Internet lately.

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  17. 17

    [...] Mormons. Naturally, I think that Mormons — being a minority religion, like the Jews — need to understand the importance of protecting the rights of minorities. The problem is not merely the fact that the Evangelical Christians think that Mormonism is a [...]

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