The Redemption of the Pharisee

Hope Harrison served a mission in Houston TX from 2013-2015. Since then Texas has been her favorite shape for waffles, cookies, and corn chips. She is currently a senior at MIT, studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She loves sharing friendship and understanding with people of different religions and has participated in the Addir interfaith dialog group at MIT, as well as organized interfaith events there as an LDSSA officer. She spent last summer in Tel Aviv and is now studying Hebrew at Harvard (though the cross-registration program).

Oh generation of vipers,” (Matt 12:34) “full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness.” (Matt 23:27) “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt 23:33)

Jesus said! Stay away from the Pharisees – they are evil! Or? Wait…

Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Luke 6:41)

It’s easy to find fault in others. And it’s good to make sure we don’t duplicate that fault in ourselves. But sometimes we must be reminded that we may have worse sins, and should learn from the good in those around us.

There is a Chassidic story about this concept:

A man once taught his students that God created everything for a reason.

One student asked, “Why did God create atheists? What is good about them?”

The man said, “God created atheists to teach us about compassion. When an atheist helps someone, he is not doing it because God told him to. He is doing purely from his heart.”

He goes on to say that when someone asks for your help, you should never say, “I’ll pray that God helps you.” Instead – just for a moment – pretend to be an atheist and say, “I will help you.”

If those students could learn from atheists, then we can learn from Pharisees.

In order to explain the Pharisees, I’m going to tell a story from the Talmud, a collection of laws and legends that were passed down orally until they were eventually written down. This story is from the first century, so a few years after the Pharisees that Jesus talked with, but it still captures ideas that they likely held. (I’ve roughly summarized it here, but for the full story, look in Bava Metzia 59b)

One day the rabbis were trying to decide if something was kosher. Rabbi Eliezer said it was, but all the other rabbis said it wasn’t. Rabbi Eliezer explained his opinion with logic, but the other rabbis still would not agree.

So Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I am right, then this tree will prove it.” And the tree was uprooted. But the other rabbis said, “Proof does not come from a tree.”

Rabbi Eliezer tried again and said, “If I am right, then this river will prove it.” And the river started flowing up hill. But the other rabbis said, “Proof does not come from a river.”

Rabbi Eliezer tried one last time and said, “If I am right, let heaven itself prove it.” And a voice came from heaven saying, “How can you disagree with Rabbi Eliezer, who is always right?” The other rabbis responded by quoting Deuteronomy 30:12. “It is not in heaven,” they said, and would not listen to the voice.

As God looked down from heaven on this scene, he smiled and said, “They have victory over me.”

To the Mormon ear, this is a shocking and blasphemous story. It clashes with some of the most fundamental LDS values and doctrines. Joseph Smith had a question, and when he prayed to ask it, God came down from heaven in a pillar of light to answer him. “It is not in heaven?” But it is in heaven! So why am I telling you this story? We belong to a different religion and therefore believe different things, but there is still something about this story that captures my attention – and even my admiration.

These rabbis believed that since God had given them the law at Mount Sinai, it was their job to interpret it the best they could do. They studied it over and over again. They memorized it. (Did you ever do scripture mastery in seminary? Imagine just going onward from that to memorizing the whole bible!) Rather than just pray and hope that God told them what to do, they worked hard discussing among themselves to decide how to follow the law.

It reminds me of one of our own scriptures:

“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right,” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8)

Next time you are trying to decide whether it’s okay to drink that caffeinated soda or whether you can go to that party on Sunday, ask God and He will help you know. But before you do that – just for a moment – pretend to be a Pharisee, and study it out in your mind.



  1. You realize that this is an example of making policy and procedure the object of veneration, and not actually venerating God, right?

    I work for a large, bureaucratic corporation in a heavily regulated industry. Every department has Key Performance Indicator goals. The KPI goals for my department were developed on a metric that’s easily measured but not at all meaningful, and therefore are not remotely linked to anything that our department actually gets funded for…and yet we have to spend dozens of hours every year in doing reporting around these goals. The story above definitely reminded me of this, much to my displeasure.

  2. There are so many beautiful things in Judaism. They’re love of the Torah is one of them. Thanks for the post.

  3. *their*, not they’re

  4. Thanks for this fantastic post. I often think that Latter-day Saints (like nearly all other Christians) accept uncritically the New Testaments caricature of the Pharisees. They were people who dedicated their lives to their religion and spent a huge amount of time studying the Law and considering how it should apply to their world. They had a philosophy that was internally consistent and full of wisdom and beauty. And the things that they are so criticized for in the NT (excessive legalism, intolerance of different beliefs, insufficient opposition to political power) are precisely the things that Mormons suck the most at. If anything, when we read about the Pharisees we should recognize that they are basically us with more education, textual training, and facial hair.

  5. Well, yes, Michael Austin, as a matter of fact there are strong Pharisaic tendencies within Mormonism, especially today.

    A beautiful theoretical framework is meaningless if its empirical foundations are suspect. Or, to put it in a somewhat less academic fashion: internal consistency is meaningless when one’s frame of reference is a rectal cavity.

  6. This was fantastic and thanks for the citation to the story of Rabbi Elizeer. A Jewish friend told me that story, though it had a slightly different ending.God, after hearing the response “It is not in heaven” said, “My children have grown up!” (Again, only slightly different.) I had the response that you had: this story is VERY different than what I was taught to do as a Mormon. As a Mormon, if God says something you do it, the voice would have settled the debate. In fact, as you point out, Mormonism is based on the premise that God would settle biblical disputes by divine communication or revelation. Like yourself I also admire that point of view and admire how ready my Jewish friends are ready to debate and think through issues. I also think their are advantages and disadvantages to both systems.

    APM: I see where you’re coming from but I would respectfully disagree. The bible tells us to love God with all of our hearts, might and MINDS. Didn’t God give the pharisees the bible? Loving God with their mind meant study and debate and even a voice from heaven would not stop them from loving God with their minds. I also think some online commentators have an uncharitable view of Latter-day Saints who stress about R-rated movies and caffeine. Though some of them aren’t great people the vast majority I’ve know with this view I really admire. The same tenacity used to keep rules I don’t care about are generally used keep rules I do. They tend to make great home teachers, they volunteer service, they listen to me when I am looking for anyone to provide a listening ear. I feel that frequently that we compare our best (like Lowell Bennion who is just awesome!) to their worst. While I think there are disadvantages to an approach that sweats things so small like caffeine, I think there are also some unappreciated advantages.

  7. Jason B: That sure isn’t my experience. The folks I’ve known who’ve been strictest about keeping the hedges nicely trimmed are the ones who are most likely to have serious motes-and-beams problems–and then one or more of their kids inevitably rebel, and then teeth get gnashed, garments rendered, hairshirts donned, and boxes of tissues emptied in Fast and Testimony Meeting. To wit: growing up, I had two bishops in a row whose 17-year-old daughters got knocked up.

  8. Very nice. I know the story but not the name (Rabbi Eliezer) so this becomes a reference point.
    I don’t know that there’s as much difference as people suggest. Mormonism recognizes a few extra people (the “prophet, seer, and revelator”) category who are accorded authority even over doctrine (extra compared to what I understand of Judaism). But most of us most of the time don’t have a conversation about the pros and cons of diet Coke with one of those 15 in the room. In any other setting — Sunday School class, cultural hall chat, even bishop’s office — it seems like we’re engaged in the kind of conversation the rabbis had about the kosher law.

    Am I wrong? I know bishops and stake presidents and even Sunday School teachers sometimes assert authority over doctrine (in addition to judgment over actions). I haven’t ever thought they were right in doing so. I’ve also been in numerous conversations where somebody asserted authority over doctrine based on personal revelation/inspiration (“I know!”). While I try to be respectful, it doesn’t seem right that someone’s personal testimony trumps all else.

  9. Christian, It would seem that the 15 delegated authority over doctrine to bishops (and higher) when the adopted long ago the following definition of apostacy, for purposes of disciplinary councils:

    “As used here, apostasy refers to members who:

    2. Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop or a higher authority. …” from Handbook 1, number 6.7.3

    In view of numerous doctrinal contradictions among Church authorities since 1830, I haven’t ever thought this was right in an ultimate sense, but the authority over Church doctrine asserted by bishops and stake presidents apparently is “right” in a current policy driven organizational sense. Did I miss what you meant?

  10. JR: You are responsive (did not miss what I meant). I still don’t think it’s right, as a matter of doctrine or principal.
    Even dealing with policy and practice and the apostasy provision you quote (which I well recognize, even though I think it is regularly mis-applied and even mis-paraphrased), my experience on several sides of the table is that recognizing that something is wrong is a whole lot different than proclaiming what is right.

  11. Good point: ” recognizing that something is wrong is a whole lot different than proclaiming what is right.” I believe it sometimes works that way as to doctrine as well as to proposed courses of action.

  12. Jason says: I had the response that you had: this story is VERY different than what I was taught to do as a Mormon. As a Mormon, if God says something you do it, the voice would have settled the debate. In fact, as you point out, Mormonism is based on the premise that God would settle biblical disputes by divine communication or revelation.

    Ya, sure, you betcha – but if the voice doesn’t come, which it usually doesn’t these days, then we got trouble.

    Someone (let’s call him “Bruce”) argues that the stuff is, in fact, clearly against the WoW because it has a similar stimulant effect as coffee. Someone else (let’s call him, I don’t know, “Howie”) points out that the wording of the WoW never mentions the stuff, and besides, it’s not raised in the temple recommend interview, which is the current measure of WoW compliance. Third person chimes in (“Kathryn”) that the stuff didn’t exist in 1833, but if it had, the Lord would surely have excluded it, you know, like cocaine or Red Bull; and besides, Harold B. Lee (PBUH) mentioned it in a GC address in 1972, which words were like pearls dripping from the mouth of God Himself.

    Chaos ensues.

    A Popular LibMo Blogger writes a post about the controversy, and eighteen comments appear during which 21 separate outcomes of Leadership Roulette are explained, ranging from someone being denied the sacrament for using the stuff to the bishop holding a Stuff Tasting Party as a ward activity.

    77% of the church continues to occasionally use the stuff when no other Mormon is watching, while denouncing it in Gospel Doctrine and over the pulpit (always quoting Pres. Lee).

  13. > OP demonstrates Pharisees’ Talmudic reasoning is smart and cool.
    > New Iconoclast demonstrates TBMs are Pharisaical.
    > BCCite MoProgs’ cogdis suppressed by terminological slight of hand.
    > BCC-reading TBM smiles knowingly.

  14. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Michael Austin, are you disagreeing with the words of Jesus or are you saying that Jesus did not actually say those words?


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