"Ben (the son of) Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: 'From all those who taught me I gained understanding' (Psalms 119:99). [Pirke Avot 4:1]
Time away often enables a new perspective. For me, the summer escape brought me to the enclave of biologic and geologic nature that we call Yellowstone, productive farmland of Northern Utah and Southeastern Idaho where I encountered people who remained personable even while they reasoned like Republicans, and finally to the core of Mormonism. Temple Square posted the religious tenets right out front, our Decalogue on the left, respect for rightful authority and individual opportunity in the middle and a declaration of faith on the right. Nothing about being politically correct, nothing about avoiding intoxicants including my beloved coffee or craft brew while respecting my personal desire to enjoy them. People visit Temple Square from all over the world, from missionaries on temporary assignment to tourists in Salt Lake City for a short while whose destination was really one of the National Parks.
Temple Square exudes excellence. There is chochma, wisdom imparted by the founders to be offered to believers and non-believers alike. There is tzedek, an obligation to bring justice to the world with respect for law and to not trample the freedom of others. There is kehillah, with Temple Square serving as a gathering place for young and old. Young missionaries wore name tags with flags of their countries of origin. There were a lot of different flags but all shared a common dedication to promote Mormonism. Even if geographically isolated or dispersed, they could count on being part of their religious community. The combination of these evokes kadosha, or holiness. Temple Square exists and its participants excel at what they do, be it creating extraordinary edifices, treating all comers to superb music, keeping the grounds and interiors immaculate and welcoming visitors unconditionally because the participants believe they contribute to divinely inspired projects.
These criteria of performance do not come from the Book of Mormon, however. They derived from the aspirations for Judaism expressed by the editor of Jewish Megatrends. I'm seeing the desire for chochma, tzedek, kehillah and kadosha in my Jewish world but I'm also not seeing the quest for excellence or consistency in its pursuit they way I experienced it at Mormon headquarters. While visiting their main chapel, I asked the tour guide who got to sit in the ten seats of honor on their bimah, facing the congregation. The young missionaries did not really know. No doubt in their world they were esteemed elders. Seen through my American Jewish lenses, they were machers. My congregation does not have respected ambassadors. We have Rabbis with agendas, some with real accomplishments, more with little more than a certified seminary pedigree. They have young people valued for their energy and dedication. In my Jewish world obedience will trump talent every time starting with report card grades from pre-Bar Mitzvah Hebrew school where the docile kids find their way to the honor roll while the challenging ones get reported for their behavior instead of their intellect. While I am not much of an enthusiast of cathedrals, there is much to be said about worshipping in an atmosphere of physical beauty, something recommended by none other than Maimonides and expressed in Torah where people volunteered to beautify a Mishkan and in Tanach where people were conscripted to create a Temple. We have slouched to a building where some of the insects on the windowsills should be sent to a museum for carbon dating to see how long they have been lying there.
Yes we have our Federations and our elders who give their time and money. But we also have a very large constituency that are more convenient or inconvenient to those self-directed elders, never quite inherently valuable unconditionally. People can sense that and walk away as they have with secular Judaism for some time in the same era that Mormons seems to retain people who continue express enthusiasm for their affiliation.
Our shul recently generated a nice sum from a fundraiser. It would not be unreasonable to take some of that and send the Rabbi, President, and Building VP to Salt Lake City for a few days to give them a better sense of what excellence and enthusiastic participation can be achieved with the right perspective.