Respectful Distance

Before I joined the LDS church, I spent years researching and trying out other religions. Along that path, it’s no surprise that I found many things of value in other traditions. There were oddball (to me) ideas I stumbled on as well, but that’s another post another day.

While in college, I cared for a little boy from a Jewish family. His family often included me in holidays and invited me to simple Sabbath dinners. It was here I developed an appreciation for the tradition, heritage and beauty of the Jewish faith. As a matter of disclosure, had I not discovered the LDS faith, I was on my way to Judaism.

My question now is this: Can I find a way to teach my children ideas from other faith traditions without disrespecting or co-opting the symbols of those faiths?

For instance, I would like to teach my kids about Hanukah, and I have always loved the symbol of the menorah, but is desire to share enough of a reason to use sacred symbols from another faith? While I enjoyed and learned and appreciated my time at others’ tables, where is the line in what I may use myself, and was I must give respectful distance?


  1. This would take some time, but because different faiths have different boundaries about what’s respectful (cf Jewish aversion to our temple work for their dead that doesn’t appear to be common among other faiths), checking with an informed member what their faith would be considered a respectful way to respect the ideas and symbols of their faith in teaching your children. I doubt that anyone would be offended by the question — they may even volunteer to be a resource — and this would avoid inadvertent disrespect.

  2. Check out an excellent resource, Peggy Fletcher Stack’s A World of Faith, a book for children about 28 different religions.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    Just the other day, my 5yo asked me, “Mommy, how many weeks or months until Passover?”

    My boys love Passover, and I think it is one of our best learning opportunities. I’ve heard it said before that celebrating other people’s holidays is offensive, but I can’t see that groups own their rituals. If Muslims want to start lugging handcarts around on July 24th, what’s that to me?

  4. Perhaps presenting the lessons as history lessons might help. I worked at a martial arts summer camp when I was 14 and 15, and I had a similar question. I wanted to teach the kids I was working with (ages 6-12) about the theologies and philosophies that drive the way our syle (taekwon-do) approaches effective living (the Way). There are elements of Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as a lot of history that went into what I was trying to teach, and I was wondering where that boundary was with kids that weren’t even mine. But the martial arts moms and my instructor were all really good about it, so I had a lot of freedom to try a lot of different things. I found books and stories to be the most effective way to hold their attention, especially if you do object lessons, or involve a craft somehow.

    I saw that by being strictly historical in all of my lessons, it was much easier. “This is what happened, this is what caused it, this is how people felt, and that’s how this practice came about. So now we’re going to make this thing, and it represents this, this, and/or that.”

    I love history, and I’m really glad there are people out there trying to make the effort to share history with their kids. Thumbs up to you, and good luck!

  5. Nick Literski says:

    First, realize that many Mormon religious symbols are, in fact, “borrowed” from other sources. The beehive, for example, is a prominent masonic symbol of industry–notwithstanding the brief mention of beekeeping in the Book of Ether. This borrowing doesn’t make Mormonism any more or less true–it’s simply a normal part of human culture.

    That said, I think it’s appropriate to privately incorporate symbols or practices from other sources, if they (a) are not actually incompatible with your own faith tradition, and (b) can be used to teach important principles.

    My children came to fully expect the annual lighting of a menorah in our home. I explained to them the legend upon which the celebration of Haunakkah is based, and that it was connected directly with the dedication of a temple. Thus, the symbol became, in our family, a way of expressing our gratitude for the temple and its ordinances as restored in latter days. I have experimented with other traditional practices as well–some I have found useful, some I have merely found interesting.

    While I’m a huge advocate of Mormonism retaining its unique qualities, I also think true Mormonism embraces ALL truth, wherever it is to be found. Besides, how can respectfully sharing positive elements of one anothers’ culture be a bad thing?

  6. I absolutely LOVE this post. There is SO much out there that can build our understanding of divinity – especially of how it is experienced and expressed by others. That can’t be anything but good.

    Amen to each comment, especially #1 and #5.

  7. Julie said: “If Muslims want to start lugging handcarts around on July 24th, what’s that to me?”

    Fair enough. But there are other mormon rituals that we might feel more exclusive ownership over–temple ordinances, priesthood blessings, etc. If someone from another faith found our use of them inspiring and wanted to incorporate imitations of them (rather than join the church to access their beauty) would we be as comfortable with that?

    (I’m not saying I would or I wouldn’t. I’m just trying to give an example a little more problematic than the handcart one…)

  8. I think that the question of adoption and incorporation of worship practices is unique to the individual.

    Though not at all necessary to the practice of yoga, many of the places where I practice incorporate chants of prayers to Shiva and rituals that have their origin in Hinduism. I’m delighted to join in those, and I’ve adopted some of those practices for my own, even when I practice alone in my basement.

    Similarly, though I tend to think of Buddhism as a practice more than a religion, I am very comfortable practicing meditation as taught by the Buddha and lineages of teachers that followed him.

    At this point, those practices are as much a part of my life as Sunday attendance at LDS sacrament meeting. I have not questioned my friends who are Hindus about their feelings regarding my limited adoption and practice of rituals that originated with their religions, so I don’t know how they would feel about it. The Buddhists I know are simply glad that what they teach is useful to me, whatever manner of identification I adopt.

    But in the end, I insist that whatever the source of a particular practice, the manner of my worship is a choice that I have to make. Hindus don’t “own” the intellectual property rights to Shiva chants. Mormons don’t “own” the right to exclude people from adopting and following The Book of Mormon, or any of the other distinctively Mormon elements of our worship practices.

    To the extent that we’d feel affronted by others using practices similar to ours, it might be interesting to consider the basis of our objections, and whether those reasons differ materially from the reasons traditional Christians have for objecting to our claim upon the Christian label, or from the reasons Masons of previous times had for objecting to aspects of our temple worship.

  9. Chad Too says:

    I’ve made it a family tradition to make a full Rosh Hashanah dinner each year. For the past few years I’ve invited families from my ward/stake who have Jewish ancestry and give them the opportunity to share memories they have of similar festivities from their childhoods.

    One good brother told me that my latkes were fantastic and my homemade chicken soup was even better that Grandma Weinsteins! That made my night.

  10. I’ve attended Hanukkah in the home of a member who had recently converted from Judaism. His wife (a lifelong LDS member) was very supportive and urged a kind of “cultural” observance (i.e. not necessarily religious in nature). The celebration was complete with lighting of a menorah, eating traditional foods, singing, etc.

    Also in attendance was our Bishop (now Stake President) who wore a yarmulke. He was very supportive.

    I thoroughly enjoyed having attended. It was a great opportunity to see what Hanukkah was all about.

  11. Respectful distance? But why? Distance itself is a disrespectful thing.

    Religion is wonderful and vibrant. I’ve taken my kids to buddhist ceremonies, taoist shrines, hindu temples. Why this upcoming weekend we’ll be visiting a synagogue and a cathedral (for some research I’m doing). My kids’ lives are far richer for the activities we do that include other religions. And have never run across anyone who has been offended by our taking part of their religion in any degree.

    Why keep distance? As Bushie would say, “Bring it on.”

  12. Well, ronito, I wasn’t thinking particularly of visiting others festivals or synagogs- I’ve done that plenty.

    It was more specific- like I am a Christian, and a Mormon, so can I have and light and celebrate the miracle of the Temple and the oil as the Jewish people do? I am not becomming a Jew, and yet I value many of the traditions.

    I think Jeremy (#7) had a point- how comfortable would we be with others co-opting parts of Mormonism that we hold sacred- not just pulling handcarts across Wyoming (have at it, folks)?

    This is what I meant by respectful distance. Cultural appreciation is one thing, but casually using another’s deeply held rituals is entirely another.

  13. I dunno.

    It’s not as if I’m exactly taking them to festivals and such. We participate in their rites as well. And as of yet I have yet to find anything but enthusiasm from other religious members at our participations. Should there be something they hold deeply sacred and not suitable for outsiders, they simply tell us (which has happened), and we move on to other things that are more copacetic, no biggie.

    Just as if someone came up and asked to go to the temple we’d say, “That is something sacred that only members do.” and move on. No great offense. Our lives wouldn’t be rocked by it. In fact we’d be greatful they showed such interest. So too will others see us if we treat their religion with the same reverence and respect we hold ours.

  14. Hmmm. Thanks for the input and clarification, ronito.

  15. Are handcarts a “Mormon” tradition? Or are they traditions only for an ever-decreasing segmentation of the Church population? Does my wife, whose family crossed the plains in the 1970s, lay any claim to that of the pioneers? As the descendant of pioneers, must I lay claim to the tradition, when my own parents recrossed the plains in the other direction?

  16. We were always welcomed at Seders and holiday services and Easter vigils and protestant church services and langar services (Sikh holy meal). I wonder whether actually going to the communities’ celebrations might be “better” than the home menorah.

  17. I think that teaching our children about other religious and cultural traditions is on the short list of things that we ought to do to give our kids a fighting chance at being decent, well-rounded people. I know that may sound like hyperbole to some, but I really believe that the things that I have done that have opened doors to me in other cultures have given me some of the best experiences I have ever had.

    As far as techniques one might consider to accomplish this, instead of trying to teach your children about other faiths by yourself, involve the people that actually belong to them. Most reasonable people (except Mormon missionaries) will not abuse an opportunity to talk about their faith and turn it into a heavy-handed proseltyzing exercise.

    This past semester, my wife taught “The Gospel and World Religions” as an Institute class. Instead of trying to teach about Buddhism, Islam, etc out of the approved CES manual, she invited the leaders of the campus student groups for those religions to come in and represent themselves. The result, I think, was fascinating. We were not at all trying to proseltyze or sow any seeds for future conversions, but like magic, opportunities arose to discuss our faith with people who would probably not give the missionaries the time of day. That wasn’t the point of inviting them, but I think that when we go out of our way to learn about other faiths and involve others in our quest for knowledge, we show that Mormonism is a “sharing” religion and not just a “giving” one. See the difference?

    So invite some Jews or Muslims over for FHE one night and let them teach the lesson. If they are friends of yours and good reasonable people (and you wouldn’t have any other kind of friends, would you?), they won’t try to convert you or wreck your kids’ faith in the Church. Now about the Baptists or JWs….

  18. Joshua A. says:

    While I’m not wanting to comment on what anyone should or should not do, here’s a little perspective, at least for the Jewish side of the House. They (we) in general don’t care about other people wanting to honor the traditions, especially the less-religious holidays such as Hanukkah and Pesach. In fact, most of my circle of friends/acquaintances/study parters/teachers finds it rather amusing, which leads to a cautionary note–it’s not a huge stretch for someone to perceive that you’re implicitly admitting the inadequacy of your own religion. For example, the Torah commands that the Pesach be celebrated for all generations. If you give the impression that you feel there is a need to honor that commandment (while Church policy/doctrine does not require it), you are therefore giving the impression that the Church does not have a “fulness.” If you think I’m out in left field, think about that investigator in your mission that came to meetings, fasted once a month, but never got baptized for whatever reason. Did you have a lot of respect for the seriousness of his convictions in his religion? The caveat, I suppose, is that reactions to complete goyim acting like Jews runs the entire spectrum from deep offense to complete apathy–you’re always going to offend someone.
    On the other hand, I and my family never found it amusing when some Jerusalem center kid put on a tallis and tefillin and tried, however respectfully, to explain the more sacred aspects of Judaism. How would you feel if a rabbi, however well-intentioned, put on (LDS) temple clothing and talked about Mormonism at temple?
    Finally, an insight into Judaism in general. Every few centuries someone comes along offering a reformed or renewed religion, usually imitating Jewish customs or tradition, and expects Jews to just join right up. When this hasn’t happened, bitter persecution has followed. The most well-known examples of this are Mohammed and Martin Luther. Mormonism follows the general pattern–a new religion and Mormons confidently expect all Jews to become Mormons (alive or dead, apparently–one of the worst possible PR events). The aggressive interest in Judaism exhibited by many LDS only, in the minds of many, confirms this suspicion.
    Again, this is only my personal experience–what I’ve seen and heard.

  19. lamonte says:

    Tracy – This a great post and something we all should consider doing. During one of the recent debates about religion in the public square I read a letter to the editor by a Mormon woman from Salt Lake who explained that she grew up in New Jersey and her community had a practice of celebrating the traditions of all faiths “in the public square.” I suppose someone could argue that the atheists were left out but that’s another subject to discuss. The point is that it is both respectful and wise to teach your children about the beautiful aspects of all faiths – and to occasionally practice the traditions of those faiths.

    I am also interested in another subject that you mention. I’m really not trying to start an argument on this otherwise very positive post but I wonder about your opening statement “had I not discovered the LDS faith, I was on my way to Judaism.” I have a good friend who served a mission in Japan and he once said to me. “I love Buddhists. If I weren’t a Mormon I think I’d be a Buddhist.” Isn’t there something significant missing from both of those religions that now is part of your life. I’m just interested (genuinely) in how you made the leap from almost committing to Judahism and instead becoming a Mormon with all that it means in your spiritual life. Just wondering.

  20. Joshua A- thank you for your comments and your perspective. I used Judaism as an example, but I was also thinking of other faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikh, even other branches of Christianity. Perhaps I was monocular in my explanation by using only on faith example.

    In no way do I mean to imply “inadequacy” of my own faith- only that there are many ways of honoring God the Father. And I want my kids to know that.

    Since I am a convert, and did not serve and LDS mission, I have no experience of losing respect for someone who did not choose to be baptized. These things aside, I still have no experience of such a thing. Perhaps others do.

    I completely understand, and am sesitive to, your observation about a Rabbi trying to teach Mormonism. Hence, the reason for this post. And my reason for calling it “respectful distance”.

    That said, I still want my kids to know about the other great religions of the world, not so we can co-opt them or embrace things we might find charming, but rather to show how the beauty and awe of God.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to share your position.

  21. Lamonte- That’s a big question, and one I’m certain I cannot adequately answer here.

    The Judaic tradition allows great room for a deeply personal relationship with God. Not all faiths allow this- and this was a serious issue for me. This was also THE thing that opened the possibility of Mormonism.

    That’s the Cliff’s Note version.

  22. Kristine says:

    Joshua A.–thanks for chiming in. Like many Mormons (apparently), I also have some of what Krister Stendahl called “holy envy” for the rituals and the sense of a long history in Judaism. I’ve always felt very skittish, though, about performing those rituals in my home, as though I were trespassing someone else’s holy space. So we read about the festivals, and talk about the underlying similarities, but stop short of actually lighting a menorah or having a seder.

    I think your perception of how Mormons think about Jews is sadly accurate in general. However, there’s some evidence that Joseph Smith believed that the Jews’ covenant status would be honored, without them converting. Steven Epperson’s book _Mormons and Jews_ is a fascinating exploration of a bit of Mormon history and thought that most Mormons have never heard of.

    For reference, here are just a few of the envious things some Mormons have written about Jewish festivals and ritual…

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I second Kristine’s recommendation of Steve’s book, which is now completely online.

  24. Joshua A. says:

    Tracy, it’s a good post asking good questions. I addressed only Judaism because those are the family and social circles in which I’ve moved throughout my life, and therefore the only religious tradition I though I could properly discuss. And that’s very observant of you to point out the idea of a personal relationship with God in Judaism. The general idea that I remember from seminary and other LDS religious education plays down this idea. But I remember very clearly the first time reading the Torah that I realized that all of the Commandments are written in the 2nd person singular, not the plural, as though God was speaking to each individual. And hey, if you switch around some dots and dashes (which probably weren’t there originally anyway), each of those verbs could be either for a male or female.

    Holy envy…I have to admit, first time I’ve heard the term. I’ll read some of those links. I don’t want to threadjack this, though, into a thread just about Judaism, so I’ll go back to my corner…

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Ah, your 10 commandments example reflects a rhetorical device called enallage. See my article on Enallage in the BoM here.

    Since this topic comes up so rarely, when I see allusions to it I have to point it out!

  26. Here’s an idea: Let’s focus on teaching them the good things of our own religion!

  27. Actually, what I mean is that when their young, they need to be immersed in the religion so that they get it into their hearts. After they have ours in their hearts, then we can worry about exposing them to ideas of other faiths. But we could always teach them tolerance to others, anyway.

  28. Jacob, one of the hardest parts of parenting for me has been to try to walk the proper balance between teaching my kids to tolerate what only should be tolerated and teaching them to be open-minded enough to distinguish and accept different descriptions of core truth. I don’t want them to be intolerant and close-minded, but I also don’t want them to be swayed by every wind of doctrine. I have tried to teach them to listen closely enough to discern what, for lack of a better description, is crap and what is the same thing they believe but just phrased or framed in different terms.

    Like you said, I want to immerse them in the Gospel, but I want that immersion to emphasize the Gospel – not just the peculiar way modern Western Mormons tend to describe the Gospel. Also, being a school teacher by training, I understand that the formative years for most of what my children internalize that shapes their fundamental perspectives extends perhaps to their 8th or 9th birthday – trying to be generous. That puts tremendous import on how well I teach the doctrines of the Church, but, IMO, it places even more responsibility on me to frame that doctrine within a broader ability to ask, listen and discern – both intellectually and spiritually.

    To me, it is that effort to ask, listen and discern that is the best measure of establishing “respectful distance”. If I have a question about the proper distance (or even if distance matters in a particular situation), I should be willing to ask a believer, listen to their advice and discern the applicability of that advice. That puts the responsibility directly on me to make the final decision, but that is the way I want it.

  29. I also find this topic of great interest. Comment #10 somehow struck a chord with me. I’m a Jewish person with many LDS friends and some family, so I know something about both LDS beliefs and culture. I know they typically are respectful of other religions, or at least of other people, even as they try to convert everyone to their viewpoint. Thus, while I appreciate the interest in Judaism and its rituals and holidays, there is something distressing about seeing it turned into a “showpiece” put on my outsiders to our tradition. For me, I am very concerned about Christians seeing Judaism as an “old” covenant that has been now superseded and now only of historical or cultural interest. Through Christian history, that has been at the core of Christian efforts to exterminate Jews and their religion. So while I respect the desire to understand, I think it would be more helpful to experience our rituals and holidays in their living context, celebrated with believing Jews within the Jewish community. Without this spiritual connection, they are nothing more than cultural curiosities.

  30. Thanks for sharing that, Rick. It was said beautifully and eloquently and with a wonderful spirit.

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