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The Mormon Orthodox Connection

As I’ve been reading Jewish Atheist, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the Orthodox Jewish community and the Mormon community. The social dynamics created by seeing one’s own people as chosen by God and seeking to be “in the world but not of the world” play out in much the same ways in both communities. Orthodox Paradox, a recent article in the New York Times, brought that home.

The author, Noah Feldman grew up in an Orthodox community and attended 12 years at an Orthodox school. He later left Orthodoxy and married a goy, Dr. Jeannie Suk. They attended his 10-year high school reunion while still unmarried. They both stood in for a group photo of the graduating class and their spouses. When the photo came out in the alumni newsletter, both he and his girlfriend had been edited out.

Since then, the alumni newsletter has failed to publish news about this alumnus and his family, failed to treat him like other alumni presumably because of his choice of marriage partner. The editors of the alumni newsletter seem to feel that acknowledging the life of this non-Orthodox alumnus would be an endorsement of his choices.

I’ve seen shunning in the LDS community which partakes of the same spirit:

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: At what point does showing that love cross the line into inadvertently endorsing behavior? If the son says, ‘Well, if you love me, can I bring my partner to our home to visit? Can we come for holidays?’ How do you balance that against, for example, concern for other children in the home?’

ELDER OAKS: That’s a decision that needs to be made individually by the person responsible, calling upon the Lord for inspiration. I can imagine that in most circumstances the parents would say, ‘Please don’t do that. Don’t put us into that position.’ Surely if there are children in the home who would be influenced by this example, the answer would likely be that. There would also be other factors that would make that the likely answer.

I can also imagine some circumstances in which it might be possible to say, ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your “partnership.”

There are so many different circumstances, it’s impossible to give one answer that fits all. (Same-Gender Attraction)

I can empathize for everyone in this situation. The community must choose between showing unconditional love for one of its own and living according to rules it believes are God given. The outcasts feel rejected for their choices which reflect the most intimate parts of who they are.

As a former Mormon, I found myself nodding in recognition as I read the author’s experience in and out of the Orthodox community.

Though modern Orthodox Jews do not typically wear the long beards, side curls and black, nostalgic Old World garments favored by the ultra-Orthodox, the men do wear beneath their clothes a small fringed prayer shawl every bit as outré as the sacred undergarments worn by Mormons.…

The dietary laws of kashrut are designed to differentiate and distance the observant person from the rest of the world. When followed precisely, as I learned growing up, they accomplish exactly that. Every bite requires categorization into permitted and prohibited, milk or meat. To follow these laws, to analyze each ingredient in each food that comes into your purview, is to construct the world in terms of the rules borne by those who keep kosher. The category of the unkosher comes unconsciously to apply not only to foods that fall outside the rules but also to the people who eat that food…

…the erotics of prohibition were real to us. Once, I was called on the carpet after an anonymous informant told the administration that I had been seen holding a girl’s hand somewhere in Brookline one Sunday afternoon. The rabbi insinuated that if the girl and I were holding hands today, premarital sex must surely be right around the corner.…

Marrying a Jewish but actively nonobservant spouse would in most cases make continued belonging difficult. Gay Orthodox Jews find themselves marginalized not only because of their forbidden sexual orientation but also because within the tradition they cannot marry the partners whom they might otherwise choose. For those who choose to marry spouses of another faith, maintaining membership would become all but impossible.…

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Secret Ceremonies

In reading the reviews on Amazon for Secret Ceremonies which I mentioned in my last post, I discovered that Deborah Laake, the author, had committed suicide in 2000, seven years after the book was published. I remembered thinking as I read her book in the aisles of the library where I worked that God would certainly judge the author harshly for revealing the secrets of the temple ceremony. I mentally consigned her to the telestial kingdom and wondered how she could be so foolish. The leadership of the church seemed to agree with me: she was predictably excommunicated.

Now I see her with much more understanding and nuance. Terry Greene Sterling wrote a piece for Salon depicting Deborah Laake, her colleague from the Phoenix News Times, as a haunted woman who battled with a depression which eventually took her life. Perhaps the Mormon church doesn’t deserve the full blame for her painful life, but I don’t doubt that it exacerbated her problems. That the leadership of the church wouldn’t allow her to eulogize her mother or sit with her family in the front of the church during her funeral (and that her family didn’t insist therefore on holding the funeral elsewhere) is a familiar refrain.

Her book may be skewed—I haven’t read much of the book in a long time—but I think it represents her honest experience of the church. It belies the myth that the Mormon church is a universal good. The church leaders taught and followed precepts which degraded human dignity. They may have thought that they were helping her, but they where blinded by cultural prejudices which prevented them from loving her and find a way to help her. They put survival of the church above the welfare of this human being. I can’t help but wonder if Deborah Laake would have been better off having never set foot in a Mormon church.

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Ritual Violence

There is violence inherent in rituals which separate “us” from “them”. Mormonism is full of those rituals. They create artificial connections and distinctions. Baptism separates members from non-members. Priesthood ordination separates active male members from women and unqualified men. The Washings and Anointings and the Endowment separate the Lord’s Anointed from the the unwashed masses. Sealing sets a distinction between those who have fulfilled all ritual requirements to be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom from those who have not because they are unmarried or married outside of the ritual. Each step along the way confers to the individual an arbitrary reason to feel special and distinct and to feel superior to those who have not taken that step.

In Margaret Toscano’s interview for The Mormons, she tells the story of her excommunication. When asked if her excommunication had affected her relationship to her family, she said:

That’s probably the most painful part about the excommunication is the way in which, if you’re a part of a large Mormon family, it really does hurt your relationship with your family.… One of them, my sister Janice Allred, was also excommunicated. But the way that my family has dealt with this is by silence. We don’t talk about it. It’s this thing in the corner that you never talk about. That makes it really bad.

… This kind of situation for a Mormon family is very difficult, because it creates a contradiction that the family doesn’t want to admit is even there. The contradiction is that if you’re an active, believing Mormon family, you can’t say the church did something wrong. So on one level they’ve got to say the excommunication was right. On the other hand, there’s a part of them—they know me; they know my other sister, and they know Paul. They can’t say—at least most of them won’t say—that we’re bad people. So how do you deal with this contradiction? You know, did we deserve the excommunication? Didn’t we? They don’t even want to think about it.

… For me the really painful thing is that there’s this distance, where you’re no longer part of this assumed believing connection; that it creates a barrier. To me that’s the worst part of it. The other parts that are painful, of course, is that as with most religious communities, basic family rituals are centered around the church, so when you’re excommunicated, you no longer can participate in those family rituals, and that is very painful. Blessings of children, births, marriages, deaths—these vital things that bring us together as families and where even if you haven’t seen a family member for a long time, you connect again at these moments—you’re excluded. I have times now where my family members don’t even tell me about things that are happening, because I can’t participate. So you become an outcast in some ways that is really painful.

Probably the most painful is in death, I think.… My younger sister passed away a little over a year ago. She died of cancer. One Mormon ritual is that when a person dies, you dress them in their temple clothing before you bury them. My brother-in-law, who’s a very active Mormon, very patriarchal, if I can say that, he did not want my sister and myself to be part of that. He didn’t want us to help dress her body, and that—I mean, that cut me so deep, I haven’t gotten over it. I don’t know if I ever will, because this way of saying goodbye to somebody you love, and the idea that somehow I’m unclean, I’m somehow polluted—and he just wanted me to accept this. That was very painful. It’s very, very painful. That’s probably the worst part of being excommunicated.

Judging only from what was said by Margaret Toscano, the rituals of the church separated her from participating in communal grieving. I don’t blame her brother-in-law because he was only following the ritual ban on the participation of the uninitiated or excommunicated.

Mormon ritual got in the way of human compassion and the process of grief. It severed the family in one of its most vulnerable moments. Of course Margaret Toscano was given a path back to full fellowship with the Church and she chose on her own not to take it, but why should that have anything to do with her relationship to her family?

Other examples abound. Mormons probably all know someone who wasn’t able to attend a marriage ceremony because they hadn’t met ritual requirements. Many of my own family and friends couldn’t attend my wedding for that exact reason. Now that I no longer number myself among the faithful, I will not be ritually qualified to fully participate in the celebration of any new child born into my family by standing with the men in my family and blessing the newborn. The women in my family never were able to do so. The ritual has no meaning to me theologically, but it is meaningful in that it is a part of my family’s life. I am now excluded—certainly by my own choice, but also by others who choose to give Mormon ritual rules priority over family relationships—from being a full participant in the life of the family. The church is interjecting itself into the life of the family. What should be family moments have become church rituals. Full family membership has become contingent on church fellowship.

Mormon ritual creates artificial distinctions within the family and is therefore a kind of violence against it.

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