Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

Betsy VanDenBerghe

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

A long time ago, back in the 1980s, I found myself getting depressed on east-coast subways. Their dank ambience and indifferent passengers, some of them crazy and yelling nonsensical rants, made certain commutes feel dystopian.

After exiting the train into a particularly gloomy station one night, I looked up at a billboard looming over the scurrying crowd below. Meant to encourage Sabbath observance in the Jewish community, the placard showed a serene woman hovering over the luminous glow of a Shabbat candle, shining a light in my subway darkness. I stared and absorbed its warmth while the horde passed me by.

That year the publishing industry in which I worked was overtaken by Jay McInerney’s poignant and funny breakout novel Bright Lights, Big City. But the lights in that book only dimmed the protagonist in cocaine-infused sleep and re-emerged as the sun’s harsh rays aggravated a hangover. All around, the city seemed a murky place.

How much more the radiance of that Shabbat candle lifted my spirits over the drab neon of urban streets. How grateful I was, in a moment of holy envy, for what the Jewish tradition had offered me, a Mormon, through the joy and cohesion I’d witnessed in communities many consider rigid. Even more lasting, how richly modern Jewish writers (from a variety of branches) have taught me not only about navigating the tension between secular pursuits and religious loyalty, but also about finding light when the world seems darkest.

Like many who outwardly observe Hasidic Jewish communities — men in dark suits, women in head scarves, day-to-day life constrained by more dietary and moral restrictions than even we Mormons grapple with — I considered certain sections of Jerusalem, where I lived during a semester abroad, oppressive. Then, some fellow students and I ended up at a Hasidic dance venue. Accompanied by an ecstatic musical ensemble, a group of men burst into a glorious dancing frenzy that emitted a joy so palpable my flesh stayed goose-bumped and my head awash in serotonin for hours. This paradox of highly restrained living co-existing with deep passion captured my imagination.

Later, living in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, I watched families walking to synagogue on Saturdays. What a reversal, I thought, from my own upbringing in Utah where we were the ones walking to church on Sundays while those not of our faith watched me. I felt strangely jealous, even though my Sabbath was only a day away.

Appreciation of my own religious enclave, with our similar tight-knight communities, matured in important ways thanks to Chaim Potok’s novels. His Jewish characters navigated between the sacred obligations of their religion and the creative affinity they felt for writers, thinkers, and artists that the good world offers beyond the purview of the synagogue. While most modern and postmodern authors throw religion under the bus of a secular worldview, Potok remains wary of the nihilist and relativist directions those buses tend to move in. He recognizes that the gifts of belonging to what scholars call “intense” religions (interestingly, the kind that continue to flourish over declining “moderate” religions in this country) also entail the demands of high expectations and the irritations of communal idiosyncrasies.

Those who barricade themselves heavily within faith communities, Potok suggests, miss out on light and truth beyond the enclave. But those who discard their religion for the world risk losing meaning, a connection with the Divine, and a faith community, however flawed, to help them along the way. Perhaps balance is not only possible, I gleaned from Potok, but imperative.

Reading Holocaust memoirs sometimes left my connection to the Divine shaken. Elie Weisel wonders where God is as he witnesses an Auschwitz group hanging that includes a young boy whose light weight keeps him flailing helplessly in the noose. This and other biographical encounters with the unthinkable gave me a low-grade fever of religious malaise for a time. But other Jewish authors helped heal it, including Victor Frankl, who, in one of his concentration camp moments of despair hears a voice tell him “Yes” to his question about ultimate purpose. The confirmation was quickly followed by a light in a distant farmhouse glimmering on the horizon “as if painted there,” he writes. “Et lux in tenebris lucet — and the light shineth in darkness.”

Gerda Weissmann Klein signed my beloved copy of All But My Life after a public lecture. She survived not only the camps, but a thousand-mile winter march that started with four thousand girls and ended with two hundred. She survived because on the hot summer morning when she was to report for transport, her deeply religious father looked up from his Bible and told her to wear ski boots.

Before the departure, this father found Gerda in a sober mood, secretly contemplating suicide, and put his hand on the back of her neck, saying, “Whatever you are thinking now is wrong … Promise me that no matter what happens you will never do it.” Gerda makes a sacred vow, but the spiritual and physical impoverishment of the camps takes its toll and, given an opportunity, she yearns to throw herself under an oncoming train. “At the precise moment,” she writes, “when death seemed the only solution,” she feels a strange sensation on the back of her neck reminding her of the promise, and goes on living.

I also have a nostalgic copy of Bright Lights, Big City signed by Jay McInerney. Chapter Four includes a brilliant subway encounter with a group of Hasidim from Brooklyn. The protagonist, wracked by existential despair, sits beside one who is peacefully reading his Talmud. “This man has a God and a History, a Community,” he realizes and goes on to contemplate religion’s gifts of transcendence, hope, and community — gifts he’s never known. “Wearing black wool all summer must seem like a small price to pay,” the secular man thinks of his subway mate. “He believes he is one of God’s chosen whereas you feel like an integer in a random series of numbers.” But the insight passes quickly. After inwardly laughing about the Hasidic haircut, he disembarks and the partying continues apace.

“We religious believers, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, are often mocked as people who have lost touch with reality,” observes scholar Ulrich L. Lehner. “But I think the opposite is true.” According to Lehner, authentic religion invites us to not only accept the reality of our failings and those of the world around us compared to the greatness of God, but also to re-focus our desires and give certain things up. I’m grateful for the gifts of my Jewish friends, in books and in person, who have helped me understand that even the best the world has to offer is not worth the loss of my faith, which promises that “thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my god will enlighten my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28)

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Michael Ing


I have studied Confucianism for nearly 20 years. More specifically, I research Confucian ritual and ethics dating approximately 2000 years ago. Many of these rituals deal with death and how Confucians mourned for those who passed away. During my studies, I have been struck at how texts written long ago in a foreign place and in a foreign language could speak about grief and loss so poignantly.

One of the texts I work on discusses burial customs. It explains that the dead should be entombed with the things he or she enjoyed while alive. So if our loved ones enjoyed playing musical instruments like a flute or zither, they should be buried with such. However, the instrument they are buried with is significantly different from the instrument they played while alive. The buried instruments, the text explains, should not work. The holes of the flute are not to be carved, and the strings of the zither are not to be tuned. This is because, according to the text, our loved ones are in fact dead and will not actually play them, so there is no use in making them work. However, we should still put them in the tomb, because our loved ones are not entirely gone from us.

This is a remarkable attempt to make sense of the world after the loss of a loved one. To continue living as if nothing has changed is to deny the reality of the loss. To view the loss as something completely severed from our lives is to deny the reality of the relationship we had with the deceased. “Death,” writes one scholar, “marks both an end and a terrible new beginning.”[1]

My grandmother died several years ago, quite unexpectedly. Despite living far away (in Atlanta), she was an important part of my childhood. I grew up spending several weeks with her each summer. She taught me how to swim, fish, and play video games. Her death, in many ways, marked the complete end of my childhood and the beginning of my life as an adult in a world without Grandma.

Confucians practiced elaborate forms of mourning; and mourning is differentiated from grief. The latter is a feeling that comes upon us when confronted with loss. We are “stricken” with grief, often unexpectedly. Mourning, on the other hand, is what we do to cope with grief. In my faith tradition — Mormonism — we often suppress our grief and give it the shortest life possible. We comfort ourselves with reminders of the rewards in the life to come, consoling each other that families are forever, and hope this will remedy our grief. But I believe we could benefit from more constructive ways of mourning.

I am not discounting the consolation that an eternal family brings. At the same time we must not forget, as grand as these promises are, they do not always meet the immediate needs of the mourner. They may not, for instance, help the widow whose three children have come down with the flu and who now must navigate between work and sick kids at home with no one else to watch them. They may not hearten the widower who had been with his wife for 60 years and is now lying in bed at night unable to sleep. Nor will they soothe the friend who now has no one to talk with in her time of need.

It is the mundane parts of life that suddenly become significant when we lose someone. Yet all too often we pretend that the grand parts of the gospel make up for these ordinary moments.

I have learned from my studies that we can change the way we handle grief. Rather than seeing it as a problem in need of a remedy, we can view it as a constitutive part of a meaningful life. This may not lessen the amount of grief we feel, but it will open the door for more fruitful ways of processing it.

Early Confucian tradition had a custom similar to what we call a funeral procession. One text explains:

In following [the funeral procession to the grave], mourners were expectant and anxious as if they were following after [someone alive] but could never quite catch up to him. When returning, they… were hesitant and uneasy as if they sought after [their loved one], but did not find him. As such, when mourners follow [the funeral procession] it is as if they long to see [the deceased still alive]; and when they return it is as if they are bewildered [in not being able to find him].

Regardless of where they sought him, he could not be found. They entered the door to his home, but did not find him there. They ascended up into the main hall, but did not find him there. They entered his personal quarters, but did not find him there. Alas, he was gone; only to be mourned, and never to be seen again!

This is why mourners wail, shed tears, beat their chests, and falter. They stop doing these things only after they fully exhaust their sorrow.[2]

Much of this is foreign to us (and I am not necessarily advocating it) but is also profound. What I get out of this is a stark recognition that as hard as we try to live life as it was lived before the loss of a loved one, it cannot be done. Life before grief is never the same as life after grief. We need more ways to cope with our grief as we learn to live with loss. Death will never stop hurting, but as Confucian ritual teaches us, that hurt can bring new meaning to a new life.

Michael Ing is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. He focuses on ritual, ethics, and issues of vulnerability as they relate to the human condition.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] Amy Olberding, “Slowing Death Down: Mourning in the Analects,” in Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, edited by David Jones (Chicago: Open Court, 2008), 143. Olberding’s work on Confucian attitudes toward death informs my description in this article.

[2] Liji, “Wensang,” 36.1.

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Brian Grim

“Where did you serve your mission?” That’s a typical question Mormons ask each other. And it’s one I can relate to. I served missions in China, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, and converted from Baptist to Catholic along the way.

For a married Catholic like myself with four grown kids, that is perhaps a one-of-a-kind personal history. And even Mormons might view it as an unusual mission background. But I think it’s one that many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day can relate to.

On occasion I’ve been asked what I might say to Pope Francis next time I meet him. If given the opportunity, I’d ask him a simple question: “How different do you think the world would be if every Catholic young person aspired to serve a two-year mission like Mormon young people do?”

It’s not just the time young adults spend serving a mission and the lives they impact that makes a difference. It’s also the years of spiritual, financial, and psychological preparation supported by friends, family and congregations that make a difference. This all adds to the spiritual and temporal strength of the LDS Church itself.

It’s not that Catholics don’t have mission programs. They do – FOCUS Missionaries (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Maryknoll Mission Volunteers to name a few. The difference is that serving a mission tends to be the exception for Catholics rather than the rule.

Of course, there are aspects of the Mormon approach to spiritual and temporal affairs that make it more possible for them than for Catholics to field a global lay missionary force.

First, Mormons don’t have professional clergy. Their operations depend on volunteer lay leadership at the local level. LDS local pastors (what they call bishops) devote scores of hours each week to attending to the needs of their congregation, or “ward.” And at the stake level, what the Catholics might call a diocese, the leadership is also voluntary.

Second, they have special callings for people to take a break from their careers, often mid-career, and travel to different parts of the world at subsistence pay to head up the work. These mission presidents answer a call that requires them to put their professional lives on hold for three years in order to supervise hundreds of young Mormons getting their feet wet as missionaries. Catholics don’t have a parallel.

And third, active Mormons by-and-large tithe. They give 10% of their incomes as offerings to the LDS Church, which helps make the global missionary endeavor possible.

It’s not that Catholics couldn’t rise to the challenge – they do in countless ways – but such an endeavor would require a paradigm shift in how they approach missionary work.

Nevertheless, one potential advantage Catholics have is that their missionary endeavor is not centralized – not all mission callings need to go through the Vatican. That might seem like a disadvantage to many Mormons, but the closer an initiative is to the local beneficiary, the more likely people are to wholeheartedly support it. Just think of the tremendous benefit of Evangelical Christian missions such as the Gospel Rescue Missions. Their billion-dollar impact stems from the legion of volunteers that help in each city without any central coordination.

These days I’m not working as a missionary. Or, to be more precise, my mission is to promote freedom of religion and belief for all. In that task I’m happy to say there is more direct similarity between Catholics and Mormons.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith said that anyone who “would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics.” In that sense, Joseph Smith was prophetic. We’re all in this together. In the 1960s the Vatican declaration on religious freedom – DIGNITATIS HUMANAE – acknowledged that it is the agency and response of each individual to promote salvation in Christ rather than rely on the government to defend what it deems to be “orthodox” beliefs.

Today, I’m heading the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which helps businesses, governments, and civil society see the pragmatic benefits of religious freedom. It’s another area where Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common. But that’s an essay for a different day.

Brian Grim is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. As president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, he interacts with people of many different faiths around the world.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.