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Lost and Found

How I lost my Mormonism and came to embrace the Jewish way

Nathan Steiger
March 22, 2018
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The first wedding gifts my wife and I opened after our Mormon wedding were the ones we had given each other. I gave R–– recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the pianist Glenn Gould. R–– gave each of us a blue and white tallit.

We weren’t Jewish, but R––’s gift still made a kind of sense: Like many Mormons, we were raised to be intrigued by Judaism. Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon primarily tells the story of a group of Israelites who made their way to ancient America. The rituals performed within Mormon temples are, many Mormons believe, derived from the rites of Solomon’s Temple. Like Jews, Mormons have special dietary restrictions, special undergarments, even their own exodus and promised land. And Mormons see their religion as not just another iteration of American Protestant Christianity, but fundamentally continuous with pre-rabbinic Judaism.

So, given our cultural upbringing, the tallitot were not as out of place as they might seem. R— and I had learned that Jewish weddings were often performed under a chuppah made with a tallit, the rectangular cloth stretched out under the open sky, with a beautiful simplicity we loved.

And as it happened, it was actually during our Mormon wedding that I first felt a bewildering primal Jewishness. Our wedding had been a traditional Mormon one with its own particular beauty. In a Mormon temple in Utah, we had knelt across an altar, holding each other’s hands, peering into mirrors placed on opposite sides of the altar. These mirrors reflected cascading images of us together, as if our life together would go out into infinity. As we knelt across the altar, the officiant recited the blessing bestowed at every Mormon wedding, the power of the words building in a crescendo:

By virtue of the holy priesthood and the authority vested in me, I pronounce you legally and lawfully husband and wife for time and all eternity; and I seal upon you the blessings of the holy resurrection, with power to come forth in the morning of the first resurrection, clothed in glory, immortality, and eternal lives. I seal upon you the blessings of kingdoms, thrones, principalities, powers, dominions, and exaltations, with all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…

The words broke into my chest and I began to cry. With all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In that moment, I felt welded not only to my wife, but to the great chain of being, reaching back through an ancient family and to the divine.

R–– and I both had traditional religious Mormon upbringings. My childhood was a wholesome one, living first in Utah and then moving as a teenager with my family to Texas. We went to church every Sunday, always together as a family. Almost our entire social network was made up of other Mormons from the congregations we lived in. Mormon teachings and community made me feel secure despite our family’s continual health and financial struggles. I loved religious learning, and religious song anchored my inner life ever since I was old enough to sing.

After high school, I was sent to Toronto to be a Mormon missionary. Over the course of two years I had thousands of religious conversations with people from an incredibly diverse set of cultural and intellectual perspectives. These conversations both emboldened and troubled me. I was buoyed by some discussions and some conversion successes. Yet I was faced with questions I could never really answer. And I often felt frustrated, knocking on doors offering answers to questions that very few people cared about or even understood. How do I find the one true Church? How can I be cleansed of my sins and gain eternal life? It seemed as though my answers only made sense within the Mormon worldview. Step outside that worldview or question its bedrock and I could only circle back and state the worldview more forcefully. At the end of my mission, I felt religiously committed, but with many unresolved and unexpected questions.

After my mission, I enrolled in Brigham Young University, where I majored in physics but filled out my schedule with as many religion courses as possible. I felt driven to answer the questions that had vexed me as a missionary. I also needed to understand how the diverse worldviews I encountered in Toronto were actually lived. What was the lived experience of a Muslim, an Anglican, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a secular humanist? What was going on inside their heads and in their communities?

Early in this spiritual journey, I was delighted to find a partner in R––, who shared my restless curiosity about the world. She had been a Mormon missionary in Canada as well, though in Montreal. We loved taking classes together, first as we were dating and then after we were married. One of the first courses we took together was an introduction to Judaism. Besides disabusing us of the many misconceptions we had unreflectingly absorbed about Jews and Judaism, the course also offered us an opportunity to attend a communal Passover Seder. Mormonism doesn’t have anything at all like the Seder: a symbolic meal built around discussing and singing about a story. It was by turns engaging and silly, uplifting and fun. It was an ingenious way to elevate mealtime conversation out of the banality that it usually inhabits. After that Seder, we decided to either attend or run our own every year from then on.

During my undergraduate years, my questions about Mormonism multiplied tenfold; when I did find answers, they often didn’t fit within the tidy boundaries of accepted Mormon doctrine. The problem with all this was that Mormonism is a religion of certainty; beliefs are paramount. Expressions of knowing accepted teachings, absolutely, permeate every Sunday service and every religious lesson, and are essential to one’s good standing in the church. I know that Jesus died for my sins. I know that the Book of Mormon is literally and historically true. I know that this is God’s one true Church. I know that my family will be together for eternity. In Mormonism’s lay-led religious organization, where everyone engages in teaching and learning together, it’s impossible to completely hide your beliefs or lack thereof. Plus, every other year you are individually interviewed by the local leadership, in part to ensure that you assent to a list of specific beliefs. As my views became more unorthodox, dialogue with other Mormons became increasingly fraught, for me and them.

For years, I tried mightily to make the traditional beliefs hold together. But by the time I was in graduate school studying atmospheric science at the University of Washington, in Seattle, many of my beliefs had morphed into nonliteral, metaphorical versions of the originals, while others just dissolved into oblivion. This was agonizing. I cherished my religion and my community, and I continued to devote many hours a week to them. I had believed wholeheartedly in the literal divinity of a sweet family-man Jesus of suburban America; but I had come to see that the historical, apocalyptic Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Roman Judea was radically different. I had believed in the almost-superhuman power and saintliness of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism; but the facts of his turbulent, provocative life seemed to stubbornly undermine the hagiographies.

And what to do about the Book of Mormon, the keystone of Mormonism? From the time that I was a child I had been taught that I could have an unassailable knowledge of its truth and the truth of all of Mormonism: I was to pray about the book and wait for a burning in my chest, or a heightened sense of emotion, or a clear idea of its truth in my mind. But as a budding scientist and someone committed to rigorous inquiry, I came to have serious doubts about this process. Should I throw out mountains of objective scientific evidence for a single subjective experience? As a missionary, I asked at least a thousand people to pray about the Book of Mormon and got roughly 10 positive responses, some of which came under significant social pressure from us as missionaries and from other Mormons. Was that reliable evidence that the process worked and that the book was historically true?

During graduate school, I had read hundreds of accounts of spiritual experiences from different religions that confirmed those peoples’ beliefs, yet dozens of those accounts seemed indistinguishable from Mormon ones. How could I exclusively privilege the Book of Mormon and Mormonism as a whole based on such experiences? While I couldn’t discard spiritual experience, I didn’t see how it could provide a guarantee. After reading dozens of books relating to the Book of Mormon and talking with knowledgeable and trusted friends and mentors, I could see the Book of Mormon as sincere religious folk art, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that it had any historical basis in ancient America.

Where beliefs had slipped away for me and R––, study, ritual, and practice of all varieties became ever more important to us. We reached out for anything that we could hold on to. We more frequently attended the special services held in Mormon temples, we started hosting a religious book club, we began a meditation practice, and I became absorbed in the writings of Tolstoy, Montaigne, and Whitman. I went on a five-day walking pilgrimage from London to Canterbury Cathedral. We routinely attended Jewish lecture events held at my university. We also kept up a practice of hosting annual Passover Seders; we bought a large stack of haggadot and would host Seders with about 20 of our close Mormon friends. Some of these friends even told us that the Seder was the spiritual highlight of their year, as it was for us.

One of the things I mourned most about my loss of faith was the concomitant loss of a purpose and passion. Blaise Pascal wrote that, religiously speaking, there are four types of people: those who have “zeal without knowledge; knowledge without zeal; neither zeal nor knowledge; both zeal and knowledge.” Three of these types seemed quite recognizable. As a Mormon missionary, I had reflected zeal without knowledge, through most of my 20s I had acquired knowledge at the expense of zeal, and I certainly knew people with neither zeal nor knowledge. Pascal’s last category, though—zeal and knowledge—seemed to describe some mythical category. One day I came across a years-old interview with the young and dynamic Rabbi Sharon Brous, and I was stunned to discover just such a person. She neither ignored the problems of religion nor was she incapacitated by them. Rather, she had the tremendous ability to both transform and transcend them.

As I listened again and again to this soul tonic of an interview, I remembered a remark made by the historian Jonathan Sarna in a lecture series I had attended: that the future of Judaism has always been driven by the young. Radically unlike anything in Mormonism, young Jews are the innovators, the bold leaders, the new music-makers. Emboldened, I sought out the sermons and teachings of other contemporary rabbis and Jewish thinkers. I began to see Judaism not just as a repository of interesting traditions, but as a mode of deep, informed, and contemporary religious living. I began to seriously wonder if one day I might become Jewish.

For both R–– and me, an unanticipated breaking point came in the autumn of 2015. In November, a week before I was set to defend my Ph.D. dissertation, the top Mormon leadership released a set of policies that declared that Mormons in same-sex marriages were apostates and that their children were to be denied all the standard Mormon religious rites, such as baby naming and baptism. These were policies—described by Mormonism’s highest leaders as revelations from God—explicitly designed to ensure that LGBT families would never be a part of Mormonism. The announcements happened to come a few months after many Seattle-area congregations, ours included, had engaged in widespread outreach to LGBT Mormons.

For us and other progressive Mormons, the policies were dumbfounding, jarring, and utterly disheartening. In the ensuing days, however, the broader Mormon people committed themselves to the new policies, accepting them as God’s will. Many vigorously defended the policies on social media. The Sunday after their release, our local church became a battleground. At the end of the last meeting of the day, I just sat in the back of the room with R–– and a handful of friends and wept. After having lost nearly all of my particularly Mormon beliefs, I had still held on to the sense that I was a part of the Mormon people, and that progressive ideals were ascendant in Mormonism. But after that Sunday, I didn’t have anything left.

In the midst of our despair, we realized that we had also been given the radical gift to choose our spiritual and communal destiny. Hurt and without a home, the most straightforward path was to leave organized religion behind. Perhaps we could simply take what we liked from various traditions and philosophies and become secular humanists, completely free of “the bad odors of religion,” as Nietzsche called them. But the more we thought about it, and as we looked at the paths of others who had left Mormonism, the more the path of secularism seemed untenable for us. Without a system to inherit and a strong communal context, it seemed like a heroic effort to keep life from collapsing into a bare cycle of consumerism: work, buy, eat, sleep, repeat. Perhaps we could be part of an intentional community in the mountains somewhere, devoting our lives to the group, the outdoors, philosophy, literature, music, and art. But would such a community be compelling enough that we would make sacrifices for each other? Would such a community be cohesive for long enough to pass on to our daughters?

We knew what living a deeply religious life could be like. We had felt the thickness it gave to lived experience. We had seen how it bound friends and community. We had known how it consoled and had embedded cycles of meaning into the passage of life. And religious communities have endured for hundreds of generations.

In a certain sense, the conditions for our choice were ideal: In two months our family of four was leaving Seattle for a new job in New York, a city where countless people have remade themselves. Above all, it was the city at the heart of American Judaism, the religion we had long been drawn to. If ever there was a place where Judaism could work out for us, we believed it would work out for us there.

We had known Mormonism intimately and, simply by virtue of our experiences and wide reading, we were more knowledgeable in Mormon history, teachings, and culture than most other Mormons. To start over from the beginning was both humbling and terrifying. When we arrived in New York, we had only a second-hand understanding of Jewish culture that we had almost entirely taught ourselves from books, and we knew only a little Hebrew. We had no family and very few friends in or near the city.

Myself, R––, and our two young daughters moved to the Upper West Side and began exploring Jewish possibilities. For people like us, who had only ever had one flavor of religious community, the array of Judaisms was liberating. We found that one could be an ardent social-justice seeker, a kosher-keeper, a free spirit, a meticulous scholar, a secular humanist, a Hasid drunk with the love of God, or somehow all of these at once. Eventually, we found a warm, friendly synagogue community with vibrant, soulful music and passionate rabbis. We felt completely, fully welcomed: doubts, questions, vulnerabilities, religious baggage, and all. Soon we began the conversion process.

Conversion to Judaism is, wisely I think, not a quick process. In Mormonism, someone can go from knowing absolutely nothing to being a member in a month’s time: Listen to a half-dozen lessons, attend church a few times, pass a couple of interviews, take a trip to the baptismal font, and you’re in. Conversion to Judaism requires at least a yearlong process of classes, attending services, and participating in the full array of Jewish holidays throughout the year. You are implored to read as widely as possible and to ask and discuss any and all questions; where Mormonism restricts information and presents itself as a religion that knows all the relevant answers about the life to come, Judaism overflows with information, loves questions for their own sake, and busies itself living out the questions of the present.

Over the course of about a year, we became enamored of living Jewishly.

In Judaism, Shabbat was my first and most passionate love. In the spirit of Dayenu, I think Shabbat is enough to convert for alone. It is a remarkable gift to be part of a community where one day each week is conscientiously lived with good food, family and friends, books and song, utterly free of the distractions of technology and commerce. For me, an intentional Shabbat is the central Jewish experience.

Like many before me, I’ve become serendipitously smitten with the Talmud. Reading the Talmud feels like eavesdropping on favorite relatives as they swap stories and debate about how to live and the meaning of it all. Its cacophony of (mostly) respectful dissenting voices has become a model to me of engaged discussion.

The first time I stumbled into an after-meal round of passionate niggun singing was revelatory. Nothing in my nearly 30 years of singing hymns prepared me for niggunim: those evocative melodies, dismantled from words, sung round and round again until they evaporate into soulful silence.

I’ve never been the dancing type, and Mormon services are puritanically still, but when I first saw dozens of people join hands in exuberant dancing during a Friday night singing of Lekhah Dodi, I cried. Before long I just had to join the dance. After a decade of slow dying, spiritual and communal life surged back into me again.

Blessed are You who revives the dead.

The spring morning our family went to the mikveh was warm and sunny. The mikveh occupied the lower floor of a brownstone building on the Upper West Side. The rooms inside were elegantly simple, light, and clean. We met with our beit din, our panel of three rabbis, and like many Jews by choice, we discussed our journey with Judaism, where we had been and where we were going. We discussed what Jewish practices we loved and which had been difficult. We discussed our plans for future learning and ways in which we could contribute our talents and voice to the Jewish people. We then made our way to the respective men’s and women’s mikvehs. I went with one of my rabbis into the room and then down alone into the soft, warm water. I paused in the water, breathing several slow breaths. I immersed, pulling my feet from the floor and bringing my head down and in, fetus-like. Kosher, my rabbi called out. I recited the blessing for washing in the mikveh, and under I went again. Kosher. I paused again, and between sobs, recited the final blessing. Submerged again, and up again, reborn. Kosher. Then, from just beyond the door, our friends and the other rabbis began to sing. R–– and our daughters followed in the women’s mikveh. Back in the main room together, our family was covered and encircled by the tallit of a much-beloved rabbi. With the tallit over us, surrounded by our friends and rabbis, we sang, cried, danced.

Nathan Steiger is a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University.