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?