One of the more peculiar comments I’ve seen made by those who claim to be “non-orthodox” Mormons is that the Church has no alternate, more flexible option that accommodates those who hold, what they might describe as, more liberal views regarding key Church doctrines and practices while retaining their cultural identities as Mormons.
The example most often cited as far as I’ve seen is that of Reform Judaism. Many seem to regard Reform Judaism as the “liberal” portion of the Jewish religion. That is, more flexible, more accommodating than the other parts of Judaism as if Judaism is one whole organization made up of different sects or divisions.
It’s clearly different than the other movements, but is not a piece of one great whole, but a separate entity under a very loose umbrella.
There are practically no comparisons between the structure and organization of Judaism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Therefore, the comparison is wrong.
I wrote this piece for Mormon Matters a while ago that compares the various divisions of Judaism to Mormonism. You can find it here.
One must remember, that Judaism has undergone significant change in the 6000 years of its existence. What was once a Temple-centered, Prophet-centered, home-centered religion morphed in a Rabbi-centric, Synagogue-centric series of movements. Those movements are largely grouped by levels of belief and observance. My article above attempts to explain that.
The claim made by John Dehlin and others is that Jews have it all figured out how to accommodate both liberal and conservative, or, better yet, strict observant Jews and less observant ones. But, is that really the case? I think the answer is no.
A look at the Jewish History.
The term Judaism or Jewish is derived from those who originally lived in the Kingdom of Judah, named after the territory associated with Judah, one of Jacob’s sons. It first appears as the Hellenistic Greek iudaismos in 2nd Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE. (Wikipedia). However, prior to the Babylonian captivity in 587 BC., there was a Prophet who spoke for God, a Temple and, to the best of our knowledge one religious observance. As a result of this captivity, their religious worship was forever changed.
It was from this point forward that the Oral Law, the Mishnah, and its commentaries, the Gemara (the two together forming the Talmud) became the basis for the interpretation of the Halakhah (the whole of Jewish Law). “Scribes and rabbis were exalted to the highest rank in the estimation of the people, higher than that of the Levitical or priestly orders; and rabbinical sayings were given precedence over the utterances of the prophets, since the latter were regarded as but messengers or spokesmen, whereas the living scholars were of themselves sources of wisdom and authority.” (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 3d ed. , 64)
Synagogues were built as a place of learning and worship with a Rabbi as teacher and spiritual leader. His teachings would become the beliefs of his followers. This gave rise to the many sects that existed when Jesus came. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, the Zealots and others, all with their own version of Judaism.
Modern Orthodox Judaism is thought to have derived directly from Pharisaic or Rabbinical Judaism. Yet, even so-called Orthodox Jews cannot even agree among themselves. Orthodoxy is divided into what is called three streams, Modern, Haredi and Hasidic. Haredi and Hasidic Jews are the most observant with their black dress, peyos (sidelocks), beards, hats and the fringe (Tzitis) of their prayer shawls hanging out of their waistbands. They pray multiple times a day, study Torah and Talmud regularly and strictly follow the 613 and dietary laws. The other distinction of the Ultra-orthodox is their devotion to their spiritual leader, the Rebbe (Rabbi). In some cases, many thought (think) their Rebbe was the actual Messiah, not dissimilar to what occurred in Jesus’ day.
The other key point is that the orthodox movements do not recognize as a legitmate form of Judaism, even to the point of rejecting their Jewishness at all.
The Reform movement in Judaism began in Germany in the 19th Century with the idea that Jewish traditions should be modernized and compatible with Western culture. (Wikipedia). However, even this movement is not homogeneous. There are a number of denominations, namely American Reform and British Reform. British Reform is more conservative than American, which in Britain is considered Liberal Judaism. These denominations are loosely organized into the World Union for Progressive Judaism as an umbrella organization, but without any doctrinal authority. In fact, as stated above, there is no central doctrinal authority over any branch, movement or denomination of Judaism.
This is what makes using any type of Judaism an example for a progressive branch inside the Church a fallacious one.
There are also regional divisions within Judaism, Ashkenazi and Sephardic (North and South) as well.
Latter-day Saint Movement
There have been a number of splinter groups off the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its inception. Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, Alpheus Cutler and Granville Hedrick are a few of men who organized new Churches from the original started by Joseph Smith. After Joseph’s death the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was organized with Joseph Smith III as its President. This remains the largest of the offshoots. They renamed themselves Community of Christ in 2001 and have moved away many of the original, early (prior to Nauvoo) teachings of Joseph Smith and adopted an open communion, ordination of women to the priesthood, support for same-sex marriage, the triune nature of God and many mainline Protestant Christian beliefs. The Church has, according to some, moved so far away from the intent of the original reorganization, that many conservative members have left the Church to form Restoration Branches. A comprehensive chart of all denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement can be found here.
So what is the point?
Harkening back to 1000s of years ago to this modern day, when people have been dissatisfied by the direction of their religious organization or what was taught to them, they typically abandoned that faith in favor of a new one. Martin Luther began the Protestant movement as a result of being unhappy with Roman Catholicism. In fact, many denominations of Christianity were formed for just that very reason to the extent that there are now some 33,000 Protestant denominations worldwide.
The point of all this is to point out that it should not expect the LDS Church to make major changes when a minority of members simply no longer like certain aspects. And we are not talking about the huge majority of less-actives, who have clearly voted with their feet already. If you no longer accept the fundamental tenets of the faith, it might be time to seek another denomination or start a new one. In that manner, you can organize it with any set of doctrine, beliefs and laws you wish. You are free to retain the cultural aspect you cherish, but in a new paradigm of practices, doctrines, beliefs and advocacy.
It has worked for others for thousands of years.