Touring the Temple

Before I went to Salt Lake City for the RNA conference, I was urged by my publisher, Ed Case, to take a tour of Temple Square, the world headquarters of the Church of Latter-day Saints and the site of the original Mormon Temple. Since I always do everything my boss tells me, I snuck out on Friday afternoon to take the tour. It was a fascinating experience, and it has some interesting ramifications for the Jewish community, I think.

The tour begins unlike any tour you’ve ever been on. After you pass the fleet of young couples being photographed after their wedding at the Temple (which apparently can happen any time of day, any day of the week), as soon as you enter the Temple Square grounds, two missionaries approach you. They introduce themselves, ask your name and ask if you’d like to go on a tour. There are no tickets, no lines, no wait. Even if they only have three people–as my group had–they happily lead you on a tour through the grounds.

The centerpiece of the site is the Temple, which is reserved for Church members only, but they take you through the visitor center, where you ascend a broad, gentle spiral ramp up to a room with a domed ceiling painted night blue with stars, planets and galaxies. In the center is a 20-foot-tall marble statue of Jesus–Christus, as they call it–and you sit on cushioned benches or couches while a booming recorded voice tells you about the glories of embracing Mormonism. The tour ends in the Assembly Hall (which looks like an early 20th century church), and you sit on wooden pews made of white pine painted by hand, with combs and feathers, to look like oak. There, your missionaries tell you how wonderful it is to have a savior who embraces them and is with them at all times. It ends with them singing “I Am A Child of God,” a song they learned as children.

As I listened to the singing, it occurred to me how easy it was for the missionaries to communicate why their religion matters to them, and why it should matter to their audience. And it made me think about how difficult it is for Jews to explain why their religion matters to them, and how it’s especially hard for Jews to explain why their religion should matter to others.

In our work at InterfaithFamily.com, we encourage families to make Jewish choices, but it can be difficult to articulate why. There are certainly very good reasons–a rich tradition of study and critique, a flexibility in belief and practice levels, a focus on righteous action over thought or the afterlife, a series of diverse and unique holidays, especially Shabbat and Passover–but Judaism doesn’t have a simple selling point, nothing to match the succintness of my tourguide’s “It’s so wonderful to have a savior who loves me.” Judaism lacks what marketers call the elevator pitch, a short description of what you do that you can tell somebody while you happen to share an elevator ride between floors.

There are a lot of reasons for the lack of this pitch, from our complex understanding of God to the great spectrum of differing approaches to Judaism to the ethnic/cultural element of Judaism, and I don’t want to get into those (nor do I think I’m sufficiently qualified). But I think if we came up with an elevator pitch, a quick, persuasive response to the question “Why Judaism?”, we might have more success convincing intermarried families to make Jewish choices, and more success getting born Jews to reconnect with their religious heritage. If you have any ideas for the content of this pitch–or know of any good sources who have already developed this pitch–we’d love to hear them.

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