Sons and Daughters of the Law

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Bat Mitzvah for the 13 year old daughter of my friend, a former neighbor. Yarmulke-less, my wife and I sat down in Temple Emanu-El, waiting for the service to begin. Immediately I regretted declining a complimentary kippah (yarmulke is Yiddish; kippah is the Hebrew equivalent; kippot is plural) offered to me at the entrance, although I wasn’t entirely sure if I was supposed to wear it as a gentile. But, either way, no one cared except me. The many colorful kippot seemed to move about in the room like flowers in a breeze, their colors ranging from serious black to cheerful watermelon. To my surprise, many women wore them, a more recent egalitarian development.[1]

I stared at the sanctuary’s etched glass windows illustrating each of the Ten Commandments, the final etching depicting “Thou Shalt Not Covet” with a head in profile wearing a frontlet, suggesting the wearer is too engaged with Torah to even think about desiring another’s property. In the front of the room I could see through the sculpted gates of the Ark where four sacred Torah scrolls rested. One of these scrolls had been removed from a synagogue by Hitler’s soldiers and stored in a warehouse with the apparent intent to display it after the end of the war in a museum to an extinct people. It had somehow survived the Holocaust and finally found a home in this synagogue.

Easily 50% of the service was spoken in Hebrew, but you could follow along in an English translation. My wife quickly learned to turn the pages from left to right. We read the Shema, the cornerstone of Jewish life, the reaffirmation of ethical monotheism: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” Later, a female rabbi gave a commentary on the Torah.

Then Alexandra, my friend’s daughter, stood and chanted a passage in Hebrew from the Holocaust scroll. Great care was taken in handling this enormous object. At one point later in the service, she was handed the scroll and told to hold it to her heart. Tears welled up in my eyes as Alex gave a commentary on the text she had sung like an angel. She explained how this ancient and obscure text from Leviticus, dealing mostly with the classification of clean and unclean animals, remained relevant to us today, how it informed our actions as caring and moral people created by God. I wondered, will my children ever speak (or should I say “perform”) something so beautiful?

I turned to my wife. She was clearly impressed with Alex’s intelligence, as well as her diligent preparation, and was nearly as proud of her as her parents no doubt were. However, my wife didn’t share my enthusiasm for the use of Hebrew in the service. “Well, it was like reading movie subtitles,” she said. “My preference is to understand what’s being said.” I like foreign films and don’t mind reading subtitles. Then I recalled the words of Joseph Smith when he studied Hebrew under Rabbi Joshua Seixas: “My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original.”[2] I wonder if Joseph’s wife shared his opinion?

Afterwards, we went to chat with Alex’s family as others gathered round. I wasn’t sure what to say on this occasion, so I told my old neighbor how magnificent the Bat Mitzah had been, although I had a sin to confess to him. I said, “I hope God can forgive me for coveting your religion.” He was visibly moved and replied, “This is what it’s all about.”


[1] I’ve read that for some wearers, kippot function as forms of personal expression. For instance, some styles might suggest Zionist sympathies, others modernist tendencies. Children may even wear kippot with sports teams logos or cartoon characters, but this is frowned upon by some as frivolous.

[2] DHC, Vol. 2, 17 February 1836.


  1. My husband and I had our first weekend away from the kids two years ago to attend the wedding of one of my dearest friends growing up. It was in the Birkshires, and she, a lovely Jewish doctor, was marrying a handsome Jewish doctor. It was the best wedding we’ve been to, before or since. Outside, on a fall day, we waited as the vows were exchanged in private, her head veiled, and the marriage license signed. Then a more ‘traditional’ promenade of the wedding party, a nice sermon from the Rabbi, readings. The crushing of the glass, and then a great big outdoor party with great food and wonderful traditional music! Oh, and don’t forget the chair-lifting Horah! We were definately coveting her religion- the traditions, the belonging. As second-generation Mormons, we looked back at our mish-mash wedding and groaned.

  2. Mark IV says:

    Ed, Thank you for this. I’ve had experiences much like you describe. We always try to attend when our neighbors or children’s friends invite us to a Bar Mitzvah, and it has always been rewarding. In turn, our neighbors have always been honored to attend our children’s baptismal services and missionary farewell. They were also very gracious when they accompanied us to a temple open house, and had lots of curious and respectful questions later about our work for the dead.

    When I went into the Touro Synagogue I was offered a kippah, and it seemed like the natural thing to wear, just out of respect.

    I once asked my Reformed Jewish neighbor what the difference was between Orthodox and Reformed Judaism. He replied that Reformed Jews are only required to keep 5 of the 10 commandments, and you get to decide which 5. And you can change your mind next month. LOL.

    In the context of Jews and Mormons, I have heard and interesting factoid that I have not been able to substantiate. For all religions, there is a negative correlation between the number of years of schooling an adherent of that religion has completed and the likelihood that the adherent will participate actively in that religion. Schooling makes us more likely to go inactive. The only two exceptions to this rule are Jews and Mormons. With us, the more schooling, the more likely we are to participate. Has anybody else heard this, and does anybody know of a published study that bears this out?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t know about the Jewish side, but the Mormon side of the education/religiosity correlation is demonstrated in Stan L. Albrecht and Tim B. Heaton, “Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity,” Latter-Day Saint Social Life, Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 302.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I always wear the offered kippah when I go to something like this.

    I’m with you, Ed, on the Hebrew. When I was on my mission I started to teach myself a little Hebrew, using a Strong’s and a Berlitz reader. My companion and I had occasion to attend a Rosh Hashanah service, at a synagogue that combined Reform and Conservative congregations. Much of the service was in Hebrew, with a reader with the Hebrew text and English translation. I loved it! This was probably a part of the reason that I later made the effort to study classical Hebrew at BYU.

    Thanks for this post and sharing your experience with us.

  5. Ed,

    Are bat mitzvah’s more of a reform/conservative thing rather than orthodox?

  6. Ed Snow says:

    Ronan, I’m not sure about that–will look into it.

  7. Ed, this is a great post and beautiful.

    Another parallel, that may or may not be meaningful is that in america when the vast majority of people do not keep the faith of their parents, Mormons (81.4%) are only second to Jews (85.4%) in retaining the faith of their childhood (Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion pg. 47)

  8. Honestly, I would like to wear a kippah on a daily basis. I would like it if Mormonism had some kind of outward proclamation of faith, like the Jews. Garments are great — I really like having them, and what they represent — but I want something that is more externally identifying.

    This is just one of numerous reasons that I share your covetous feelings toward Judaism.

  9. Ronan,
    one of my best friends is orthodox and she had a bat. they prolly vary in style etc between orthodox, conservative and reform but they all have them.

  10. great story – thanks for that…. inspiring, frankly.

  11. Ed, what a beautiful post. Coincidentally, Buckley and I attended a Bat Mitzvah last Saturday. The synagogue where it was held was reformed, but still, the reading of the Torah touched my heart, as it always has. (My husband is LDS, and I’m Jewish, which I guess makes me a Jewish gentile.) One note on the wearing of a kippah — it has nothing to do with being Jewish. It’s a sign of reverence for the Almighty. As in other ancient cultures, reverence for the Almighty is shown not by taking off your hat, but by putting one on — having a headcovering puts a physical space between human and divine, and is a demonstration of respect and reverence, not of Jewishness. (On the other hand, a tallis — the prayer shawl — is worn only by Jews. It’s part of our covenant, much like Saints wear garments.)

    On the education/religiosity connection, Jews are called the People of the Book. In orthodox and conservative synagogues, hours are spent on the sabbath (Friday night =and= Saturday until sundown) studying and debating the Torah. A typical Saturday morning service at a conservative synagogue will last between three and five hours, and will include prayers from the bimah, or pulpit, and in most orthodox and conservative synagogues, very lively and vocal discussions on interpretations of the Law. So it’s only natural that, since to us study is prayer, the more you study the more invested you are in your faith.

    As for the use of Hebrew in the service, I’m with you. It just sounds and feels right, even though I can barely read it. Buckley, on the other hand, is totally thrown off by it and has said much the same thing your wife has (though he loves subtitled foreign films).

  12. Elisabeth says:

    A guy I knew in law school wore a yarmulke with his name embroidered on it. Being fresh off the boat from Logan, Utah, I thought the embroidered monogram was de rigeur for all observant Jews. I soon found out from the sniggers that this was not the case.

  13. Ed Snow says:

    #11 Mike, here’s another post I wrote on Study as Worship you might like.

  14. Ed — I haven’t read the Study as Worship link yet, and will do so later in the day.

    I just wanted to pass along one silly thing. When I read your post on the bat mitzvah and the father says, “That’s what it’s all about,” I immediately thought of how at virtually every single one of the bar- and bat mitzvah receptions I’d ever been to, the guests were led in a rousing rendition of the Hokey Pokey, which, of course, ends with the line, “That’s what it’s all about.” On reading your post and reaching that line, I had this weird moment of feeling propelled into dancing the Hokey Pokey to honor someone’s coming-of-age, and felt humorous joy mixed with sentimentality, and that was pretty wonderful.

  15. Ed Snow says:

    Mike, amusing Hokey Pokey comment.

    Whenever I look at Facsimile #3 of the Book of Abraham, I chuckle at Shulem (Hor) and Olimlah (Anubis) seemingly performing that very dance number. Perhaps this should be added to my Top Ten Rejected FARMS Papers: Ancient Egyptian Hokey Pokey Dance Vignette Evidences Hebrew Influence in Ptolemaic Funerary Documents.

  16. Ed, I’ve just read your post on Study as Worship. It was a wonderful post, from beginning to end, but the last paragraph was just so right-on-target. I also read the comments after your post, which were interesting, too. I have to admit that it was hard to take seriously theological arguments by a person who would call himself “Extreme Dorito.” The comments are interesting, though I take issue with some of them (and agree with your response to the first one), but I couldn’t help picturing those words being spoken by a fluorescent orange, very large triangular corn-chip. A giant corn-chip debating others on biblical history — it just makes it hard to swallow. (Yes, the pun is on purpose, and yes, I am very sorry.) As my husband Buckley says, “Faith without works is dead” — a paraphrasing of a verse from the New Testament, indeed, but still a belief strongly emphasized by the rabbinic sages, and you echoed that as well in your follow-up comment. Civilization wouldn’t go very far without both study and action, and either one without the other is a life of emptiness.

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