Of Faith and Fear 2 March 2006Posted by Todd in Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Judaism, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
On my train commute tonight I listened to an interview with Hella Winston, a sociologist who has been studying the various Hasidim of New York City. (This is the second time I've had this kind of resonance with experience of orthodox Judaism, the first being when I saw Trembling before G-d, a documentary about the experience of gay orthodox Jews.) Winston's research studied the phenomenon of resistance and dissent within these relatively closed religious communities and the ways that people with doubts or questions, or people who feel restrained or oppressed by their communities deal with being "outside" the accepted norms. She spoke of sneaking books from libraries that had to be hidden from family and neighbors; going to movies or watching television that was forbidden; blogs and online communities; half-way houses in Manhattan; losing ties to family and community; depression and emotional turmoil; etc.
Many times in the past, I have been struck by the similarities between my Jewish friends' experiences and my experiences in Mormonism. Although I think that qualitatively speaking, Hasidic communities are far more tightly scripted than most Mormon communities are, the combination of Faith and Fear that marked the relationship of individuals who were, for whatever reason, "oustide" of the norm of their hasidic community also mark my personal experience of leaving Mormonism.
The Faith side is the all-encompassing theological (or Talmudic) representation of the world, such that one's perceptions are completely filtered through it. It also includes, in the case of the Hasidim, a powerful authoritarian structure of elderly men who are treated as prophets or, in some cases, messiahs. In the case of Mormons, it is a geriatric "priesthood" authority structure, which functions for all intents and purposes without check. Dissent in both communities is punished, sometimes mounting to being cut off or excommunicated. But I think what makes these religions so powerful in the lives of adherents, even those who are out of step, are precisely the communities that they produce. There is an incredible psychological strength that comes from being a part of this kind of faith community, a surety of knowledge about who one is and one's place in the world. My sense is that many minority or alternative religions develop this kind of communal bond, us against them.
These tight and all-encompassing religions, which are out of step with mainstream American culture, nearly always have built into them cultural hooks to keep individuals in, the Fear side of the equation. For the Hasidim, this outsider status is much more pronounced, as the practices of Hasidic Judaism mark an individual obviously to non-Jews as being outside of the dominant culture. Mormons also have practices that separate them from the mainstream, such as wearing garments, but these practices are more subtle and so Mormons can often "pass" among "Gentiles." For Hasidimm, there is often manipulation of their emotional ties to community, where their leaving or falling will adversely affect their families and friends after they leave. Both Mormons and Hasidim fear the loss of community and family; and must undergo the painful process of rebuilding a new world view structure after rejecting all or parts of their belief structures. Mormonism, being closer to the mainstream, also builds in theological claims, that if the church is true, then you are giving up eternity by leaving; older Mormon practices, such as blood atonement oaths and covenanting to die rather than give up the community have gradually fallen away since World War II, but it seems to me in my experience that many of the emotional sides of those bodily threat covenants endure within Mormon culture (my own temple experience was before the blood oaths were removed in 1990). For the Hasidim, it's more ethnic: they have a responsibility to maintain or perpetuate Jewish tradition into the future, and are abrogating their connections to thousands of years of tradition and to the true form of Judaism.
Being "other" in either of these two complex religious cultures and communities requires covering, or a constant self-monitoring to make sure not to accidentally reveal oneself as out of step.
In trying to figure out why Jewish experiences resonate with me, I used to talk with David Katzman at University of Kansas about the parallels between Mormonism as an ethnicity and the experience of Mormonism with the experience of Judaism. Although the histories are different and Judaism is older, larger, and more diverse, I continue to feel that resonance with my Jewish friends who have had similar experiences with their communities. Dr. Katzman didn't really understand what I was talking about until he visited southern Utah on his way to California; after his road trip, he was excited to tell me that he now gets it and sees why I think of Mormonism as much as an ethnicity as a religion. But there is also a kind of understanding that grows from being raised in such ethno-religious communities. Winston's equanimity toward her subjects touched me, as she was able to see these communities in their richness and complexity and she really liked and cared about the people she studied. Winston herself is a secular Jew, who approaches her critiques evenhandedly but with compassion. This resonated with my almost tribal connections to Mormonism, despite my atheism, sexuality and politics.