Shaya Cohen -


An Orthodox Jew Goes Into an LDS Temple…

One of the great challenges of anyone’s life is to be able to understand how other people think. We cannot hope to change this world unless and until we are able to see things from the perspective of others, even – and especially – people who are quite different from ourselves.

I had quite an extraordinary day this week, and I needed to write on it… an old college friend, “Wayne”, who is a deeply thoughtful and inquisitive member of the Latter-day Saints* mentioned that the prominent LDS Temple on the DC Beltway has completed renovations and is hosting tours – first for invited guests, and afterward the general public. Thanks to Wayne, we were invited!

What was incredibly serendipitous is that of all the possible tour guides (they start 1 hour tours every 5 minutes), ours was no other than one of the LDS Church’s twelve apostles, Elder Gong. Wayne was humbled. I, on the other hand, was delighted; it was a great opportunity for me to learn and connect.

A little background is in order: I was raised in Idaho and Oregon, so I have always known members of the LDS Church. Without exception, up until college every LDS member I ever met was always friendly and lovely to be around. By contrast with my own family (which considered verbal combat to be the noblest of all bloodsports), LDS folks are bland to a fault. But they never – ever – tried to get us to become like them, which always made an impression. I was raised within a single orthodox Jewish family which never properly connected to a community, so we were constantly aware that we were different from everyone we knew. My childhood included other kids asking why I killed Jesus, and certainly people who tried to influence me in a myriad of ways. But not the LDS people. They were the nicest people that we knew.

Wayne explained it to me as follows: according to LDS doctrine, Judaism – Torah Judaism – must be able to stand on its own, and remain a viable faith within itself. They are waiting for the “sons of Levi to offer up an offering in righteousness”, which in their minds means observant Jews have to be here, partners with Christians, but with their own distinct role to play. Which means that Latter-day Saints are not supposed to actively proselytize among observant Jews (though apparently not everyone who tries to convert people knows it, and they might need a reminder).

The LDS Church see Christianity as an extension of the covenant with Israel to the larger world which is, oddly enough, compatible with Torah Judaism. After all, we do not proselytize at all, but we hope that our actions and words will influence the world in a positive way so that everyone will seek to have a positive relationship with G-d and with each other. In other words, as long as it does not seek to undermine or harm Judaism, then the LDS faith is – from my perspective – a perfectly acceptable religion for the rest of the world. There is no idolatry involved, no worship of images or natural forces, no paganism. And one cannot argue with the results: LDS are the antithesis of a “holy war” kind of faith, and truly practice what they preach. LDS people are deeply, sometimes even a bit creepily, nice. That is no small accomplishment. After all, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is at the core of the Torah, and the LDS do it as well as anyone.

On the drive down, Mrs. iWe and myself had a lengthy conversation with Wayne, walking through what actually goes on in the Temple (to the limits he is allowed to disclose to those who are not within the church). And we were constantly reminded of the differences between Jews and others when it comes to the nature of questions that we ask. I have found, through years of conversations with Jews and others that Jews simply think about things differently: we obsess over details, the “right” ways to do things. This is reflected in the incredibly detailed oral law that helps us understand how to perform the commandments. I’d wager that if you proposed to a typical orthodox Jew that “G-d wants, more than anything, that we meticulously learn and observe His commandments,” you would find very broad agreement.

Not so for non-Jews, even (or especially) those who consider their faith to be ultimately sourced from the Torah – all of Christianity. Non-Jewish faiths tend, in my experience, to be more focused on the forest than on the trees – very interested in symbolism, but without any of deep reading of text that underpins orthodox Jewish practice.

Actually, I should walk that back, somewhat. Orthodox Judaism’s deep reading is into the oral tradition itself – but less so the Torah, the Five Books. Our scholars learn the Torah at a young age, and usually move on to the oral law still while children. As a result, careful textual analysis of the Torah (beyond reading and repeating the words of the commentators) is not common. Most of the mental effort among Jewish scholars – which includes the vast majority of practicing Jews – is devoted to the oral law, to the commentators like Rambam and Rashi, and to very focused understanding of precisely how we are meant to perform the commandments that G-d has given us.

In my own work, I have focused considerably on the Torah itself, seeing in its text endless detail and dimensions that have never been fully explored. I am interested, above all, in studying G-d’s words to understand why we have the commandments that we do. I do this because the answers astonish me, and help me see things that nobody else – Jew or Christian – has seen. Which suggests, in turn, that the normal Jewish answer of “G-d wants us to meticulously obey Him in every observance,” is not wrong – but it might be incomplete.

[Note: Everything I write in this piece about “how Jews think” is really how I think (though many may share my views): Jews come in a wide range of approaches to Torah and to G-d. My approach is what I understand to be correct, and I try to be as true to the Torah as possible. But please understand that even though I may say “Jews think,” that statement is never universally correct.]

All of this background is to help explain my perspective as I walked through the LDS temple, guided by one of their Apostles. Because the LDS are, like all of Christianity, a faith that holds the Torah, the Five Books, to be within their canon. That single text has led to the creation of countless different religious branches, each trying to make sense of the Torah within their own worlds, along with subsequent texts and the yearnings of the human heart.

So, for example, Latter-day Saints trace their Temple to the tabernacle, the mishkan, which the Jews built in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. The mishkan ended up finding a permanent form in the temple of Solomon – which is what the LDS use as inspiration. It surprised me that they did not seem to use the Second Temple of the Jews, the one of the time of Herod and Jesus – perhaps because they see that Temple as already corrupted in some ways.

I have more than a passing interest in the Jewish Temple – I wrote a book on the underlying meaning of its core, the Mishkan. Jews have tried, for millennia, to better understand the function of the Temple. And though most have simply concluded that as long as we perform the commandments, we are doing our job, there has always been at least a quiet curiosity about what each feature and sacrifice is actually supposed to mean – why G-d commanded them in the first place. One answer is broadly accepted because it is in the plain text of the Torah: the Mishkan was created so that G-d can dwell among us, His people. So there is broad acknowledgement that the purpose of the Mishkan and the subsequent temple was always to help bring man and G-d closer to each other.

That much, I think, is an understanding that is shared between Jews and Christians, including Latter-day Saints. But between all of them, only the LDS actually still have temples today! (Conservative and Reform Jews often see their synagogues as ‘temples’ that negate the need for the original.) Torah Jews want the temple to be rebuilt, though sometimes only in an abstract sense, and with a general unspoken reluctance about animal sacrifices. While most Christians, as I understand it, consider that Jesus fulfilled the purpose of a temple, rendering the actual structure and its practices essentially obsolete.

But LDS take an entirely different tack: they agree with other Christians that Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection complete the requirement for any of the physical offerings of the Temple, but they believe that a Temple remains important for its role in reconnecting us with G-d. They see the journey of growing to a connection to G-d to be an essential journey. So within their temple, they start with a symbolic birth through baptism, in a stunning baptismal room, with the bath (which looks like an exquisite hot tub, with a viewing gallery) mounted over 12 oxen representing the twelve tribes; an anointing of the body for holiness, the Garden of Eden, the choice of Eve, and onward in a journey of connection with G-d. The goal, as they see it, is to enable every person to be able to connect with G-d. And here’s the kicker: it is integral to LDS faith that a key purpose – the “work” – of an LDS believer, is to take each and every person through this process, either in person as an LDS member, or by a living proxy for the dead. Which is why the LDS have the best genealogy databases in the world; they want everyone to have this opportunity – billions of people. They believe that if they could do this for every person who ever lived, then Jesus would return and the world would be fulfilled.

And this is where the deviation from Judaism becomes most prominent (all specific practices aside): LDS are really and truly interested in what happens after death. It is, in a nutshell, an essential purpose of life – to secure eternity for people to be together and with G-d in the afterlife. They believe that to be dead and not connected to G-d or family is excruciating; as a spirit you retain free will – agency – but lack the body that has the means to exercise that agency. So the living have to do it for you. Which means that the living are spending much of their spiritual time thinking about the afterlife.

From my Jewish perspective, it feels alien. The Torah itself is entirely silent on the subject of what happens after death, and the obvious explanation for this is that we are supposed to live in and for this world – not the next. Whatever might happen after we die should not be the motivation for what we do here: our relationship with G-d is tied to what we do. We do know that each person has a divinely-gifted soul – so presumably our souls revert to G-d after our bodies expire – where any number of things might occur. But lacking specific information from the Torah, Judaism is very explicitly about not dwelling on the possibilities. Our jobs are in front of us, now.

But we also know that there was one civilization that was even more obsessed with death than are LDS: the ancient Egyptians poured every ounce of their excess wealth and time into investing in the afterlife: pyramids and all they contained. We often underestimate how long and deep that tradition was: Cleopatra lived closer to the time of the first Pizza Hut than she did to the first pyramid – by almost a thousand years.

And there is nothing in the Torah that is more explicit than the division – the opposition – of Israel to Egypt. In every respect, Egypt is the mirror image of Israel, the paragon of what we are not supposed to be. So the concept of aligning ourselves with a more-Egyptian mindset about the afterlife reflexively pushes this Jew away; it just feels wrong.

There are other, broader, differences as well – differences that the LDS also share with other Christians. The god of Christianity is a father figure, perhaps a king. To Christians, we are G-d’s children, with all that entails. This allows us to feel sheltered, secure even though we may not know very much. It is a comforting (if perhaps infantilizing) perspective.

The Judaism of the Torah has a different goal: Though there are elements in the Torah of the Jewish people as G-d’s children, in general G-d has created the world for us to be his partner, and even, for those who are married, G-d’s spouse. And in any such relationship there is give and take between the partners, and there is a sense of an equilibrium, albeit a dynamic and frightening one. Judaism has enshrined, unlike any other faith I know of, both questioning and challenging G-d. Those questions and challenges are part and parcel of every conversation we have, especially when we are in perilous situations. We never simply throw our hands up and proclaim that whatever spot we are in is “Allah’s will,” or pray that, “Jesus take the wheel.”

This is because we Jews have learned, both from the text and from history, that G-d will not always intervene to save us from peril in this world; it is incumbent upon us to be change agents in our own rights, to take responsibility for the world G-d has given us.

One result is shown through how we were shown marriage at the LDS Temple. They have altars (nice plushy ones) across which a couple can gaze into each other’s eyes – and through the mirrors behind them, see an infinity of reflections of the two of them projecting a sense of endless time together. LDS have a ceremony for “sealing” people together, ensuring their connection for eternity. This sealing happens after a person has gone through the spiritual journey and baptism. There is a very distinct sense of “happily ever after,” in that room, because couples that are sealed to each other (not everyone chooses this!) are specifically not “till death do us part.” Their marriages are eternal, continuing on for an infinite time after death.

Judaism turns this on its head. For us, all of life is a journey, and marriage is a gateway to a maximized relationship with G-d – not the other way around. Without trying to understand another person – one who is quite different from ourselves – then we cannot try to grasp a connection with the divine, who is surely at least as different from people as man are different from women. This ties back to the underlying assumptions: are we children of G-d, or are we G-d’s partners? If the latter, then marriage comes first. In the LDS Temple, the baptism precedes marriage.

Then, too, if we are children, then the text can be read simply, with straightforward moral lessons. On the other hand, if the text is shared within a marriage or partnership, then there are endless wrinkles and different perspectives that can be considered.

So the Celestial Room in the Temple, which is an absolutely stunning and glorious gold-and-filigree room that continuously draws the eye upward, is a room that makes you feel like you are in a perfect, quiet space within which we commune with “the still, small voice”. It is meant to connect people to a feeling of being connected with G-d, and it is indeed quite an incredible feeling.

My wife made an interesting observation which I shared with the group: that in prayer we seek to hear the “still, small voice,” but within Judaism we try to tease that signal out of the ambient environment – not with a complete absence of other sound. For us, G-d is found in communal prayer, and even the quietest parts don’t hold a candle to the Celestial Room where I could (and did) literally hear when someone across the room turned their neck with a faint joint-popping sound. If the Celestial Room is like heaven, then heaven is – to me at least – disturbingly uneventful.

Indeed, LDS members do not argue with each other about doctrine, at least in any way that I can discern. There might be something along the lines of, “That is very good. I have also heard it a slightly different way…” But there is nothing at all like the raging arguments that have dominated Jewish scholarship through history. Indeed, all of the Talmud (Mishna and Gemara) is a recorded series of arguments between people. Argumentation is the way in which we figure out what is more correct. And while Judaism wants people to be nice to each other, when it comes to an argument, as long as we are doing it “for the sake of heaven” and not for ego and the desire to be right at all costs, then all bets are basically off. This is antithetical to an LDS worldview. And it might help explain why Jews find G-d amidst a noisy synagogue or Western Wall, while LDS perceive the experience of connecting with Him as a room that is as quiet as anywhere I have ever been.

The entire building has virtually no windows, letting in almost no exterior light. It was disorienting, probably by design: the space is out of normal space, so you have no idea which way is North or South. Though we climbed 6 flights, I could not have told you at any time which floor we were on. Time does not seem to run along like normal, nor did I feel any impatience – I did not so much as glance at my watch the whole time. We had no idea how long we were there; it was really a timeless place. The architects did an astonishing job; I have never been in another building like it.

The Temple inside was extremely well lit; it was lovely and impressive in every place and in a myriad of ways. Elder Gong asked me for my impression and I demurred, saying that I needed to think on it some more. What I did not say is that, to a Jewish sensibility, the Temple screamed “goyish.” I am not quite sure why; it may have been the feeling that somehow, the building is an institution above all else. The building itself lends importance and majesty to a relationship with G-d, but people seem to remain far enough below G-d’s level that it seemed to me to block an accessible relationship based on partnership (rather than as nameless children).

Perhaps my reaction was to the insistence that everyone is equal in the eyes of G-d, so everyone has to dress exactly the same (all wearing simple white garments), stripping off their individuality – when I think of the Jewish people as aspiring to quite the opposite goal, each of us trying to connect to G-d in ways that are deeply personal. Indeed, I am quite sure that mankind is not equal in the eyes of G-d: we are commanded to love each other, but it is empirically obvious to me that G-d Himself does not love each person equally (the Torah clearly shows G-d showing specific favor). G-d values us based on our choices, even though we are commanded find value in each person by loving them.

But perhaps the biggest “goyish” flag for me was the color scheme. Gold filigree and a fantastic multi-arch theme was all impressive – but the wall-to-wall carpets were all very light, almost-white colors, colors that no Jew would ever put in their house or place of worship. There is something deeply impractical about white carpets, something that immediately made me know that I was far away from a place that felt like home. I know that sounds silly, but it jumped at me.

Yet a lot of the architecture resonated beautifully. With every detail, the constant desire to look and reach upward was impressive and deeply consonant with Torah imagery. Light came from everywhere; Elder Gong approvingly shared an observation by a CBS film crew: that at most places in the building there are no shadows, not even cast by a person as they walk across a room. In a great many respects, I can see and appreciate LDS as a faith that truly seeks to expand awareness of a covenant relationship with G-d to the entire world, as opposed to the Jewish lighthouse concept – distinct from the world, but as a light unto the nations. And I appreciate that the LDS, as well as more mainstream forms of Christianity, are developments from the Torah even though Christianity was formed, to some extent, in reaction to the Judaism of that age.

Nevertheless, I generally feel that the LDS suffer from having read the Torah too superficially, without careful attention to the symbolism within the text itself, the tensions and themes that have been there, but unearthed, for thousands of years. This is a criticism I would level at Christianity in general, of course, which often seems to stop reading the Torah after Eden (even though neither the expulsion from Eden nor Original Sin are ever mentioned in the text again). But my fellow religionists are equally guilty, albeit in a slightly different way. We Jews tend to internalize the versions we teach children, and then go to great lengths to defend those approaches to the text, even to the point of ignoring the words that the text actually uses. The arguments can be quite sophisticated and intricate, but they are built on a foundation of a child’s understanding, which is far more handicapped than we need to be.

I sensed the deep enthusiasm LDS practitioners have for living with your loved ones for all eternity in the afterlife; it is very real. And although I adore my loved ones, I admit that even I am taken aback by the concept of eternal coexistence, even in resurrected form; eternity seems like quite a long time, does it not? Indeed, to my understanding, this is both a core attraction of LDS faith, and the reason why some choose to leave it: what if you don’t want to be with your spouse or extended family for all eternity?

I spoke with Elder Gong several times on our tour. He was a profoundly impressive man, displaying the kind of inner serenity that I have perceived with other holy men I have known. He was, nevertheless, quietly defensive about the work of the Temples (170 active LDS temples worldwide now), in front of Christians who were not obviously at peace with baptizing the dead. He picked his words quite carefully, as anyone in that position surely must.

LDS baptisms of dead Jews should be an irrelevant curiosity to most Jews (though some see it quite differently than I do). But I understand that among many others in the world, this is a sore subject, to put it mildly. Anti-LDS actions by government in America who have feared and hated the LDS have been outrageous, even tyrannical. In 1890 the Supreme Court upheld the complete dissolution of the LDS Church, and the seizure of its properties. There was clearly an expectation that this would be the end of the LDS, which has manifestly not happened. But many of the institutions that Jews have built in order to keep our educational system strong are absent within the LDS community. There are, apparently, no dedicated LDS schools until you get to college and BYU (and a few affiliates). The Latter-day Saints have consistently and quietly gone about their business, taking the hits and keeping on. I say “quietly,” but it has always been clear to me that the location and magnificence of the DC Temple is there to extend a prominent middle finger to a federal government that tried to destroy them time and again.

There are about 16 million LDS at the moment, meaning people alive today who at some time in their lives identified themselves as Latter-day Saints, or whose parents, when they were children, asked for their names to be included on the church’s records. Apparently, even among practicing LDS members, as many as 50% of each generation becomes less active or leaves the faith outright. There were only 2 million Latter-day Saints in the world in the 1960s, mostly in Utah. Now the majority live outside the United States (and only about 1/8th in Utah). Latter Day Saints have many children, but they also proselytize very actively. It is a community that’s undergoing constant change, which you might think would be more concerned about holding on to its traditions. Given the growth and turnover it seems likely that only a small fraction of Latter-day Saints worldwide have an LDS grandparent. So Latter-day Saints are still a community of relatively little deep tradition.

When I talked about our visit and this piece with others, they suggested that there is something “cultish” about LDS. I don’t see it. Seen from the outside, I think that all non-pagan faiths are somewhere between kinda nuts and outright kooky; for those who do not understand a faith on its own terms, everything that is different must be wrong. And we are all, to some extent, defensive about what we do, so it is understandable, though surely not commendable, that outsiders often label other faiths as cults.

I have written before on how every person has their own G-d, in some way, because our conception of G-d is formed through our own unique relationship with the divine. G-d is formed in our consciousness and lives in our hearts – and since no two people are identical, no two conceptions of G-d are truly identical. Nevertheless, there is enough commonality within a given faith that we can say that we are connected to the same deity, albeit, perhaps, to different aspects of that same proverbial elephant. The G-d of the Jews connects to all Jews in ways that are different, but common enough that we are pretty sure we really share the same G-d.

But it struck me that the further one moves away from the Torah, the more different the deity really is from the G-d of the Torah (the G-d I yearn for). The alien nature of the LDS Temple made my wife and I both realize the gap between the G-d we know, and the G-d that others know. We should take every opportunity to reinforce commonality between all “good” faiths, of course, but whether or not we actually share a deity is very much an open question.

There is a paradox implicit in the LDS faith: their Temple is only for their practitioners (going to the Temple, especially if it is not nearby, may only happen a few times in a typical life – while churchgoing is weekly). What goes on inside is a closely-held secret, and revealing it to outsiders is forbidden. Non-believers are not welcome except, as in this case, where the building is “deconsecrated” so it is not an operational Temple. This is for the LDS Church, which seeks to be essentially a universal faith.

Judaism, on the other hand, does not aspire to be a universal faith. But our temple was meant to attract people to it, even those who are not Jews, and whom we do not even expect to become Jews. “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) It is paradoxical to me that LDS, which seeks to be universal, are exclusive about their practices, while Judaism, which is meant to be only for people who choose that specific kind of relationship with G-d, nevertheless opens its playbook (the practices and sacrifices in the temple) to be available to all the world. Go figure.

It was a most informative and fascinating day!

*“Mormon” is not a welcome moniker, so even though I was raised using it, I am respecting their preference by using “LDS” instead.

Comments are welcome!