In some way, Jews and Mormons seem to be kin culturally, whatever the doctrine about our kinship. I first discovered this phenomenon when I was in graduate school: the professor with whom I seemed to have the most immediate collegial kinship was a Jewish professor. He wasn’t of my religion, didn’t have my social background, and didn’t teach an area of philosophy in which I was interested. In spite of that, I felt a kind of immediate friendship.
I’ve experienced the same thing time and again. This time I was reminded of it at a conference on the French-Lithuanian philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. The philosophers with whom I felt a bond, a relation that didn’t require that we first find ways to get to know each other better and fumble around in artificial friendly behavior, were all Jewish. For example, on the second day we had dinner at a hotel in Kaunas (where Levinas was born). I sat down at a table with three other people who were engaged in a lively conversation. I didn’t noticed that each was wearing a skull cap nor that they were speaking in Hebrew until after I sat down. In kindness to me, they switched to Englishâ€”a Russian Jew, a French Jew, and an Israeli Jew, all kosher to some degreeâ€”and I became as much a part of the conversation as if I were also a Jew. We understood each other’s jokes and laughed at the same things in the broader culture. We talked about Mormon “kosher” and laughed about the waiter’s inability to figure out how to satisfy each of us: one kosher vegetarian, one sort-of kosher Frenchman, one strictly Kosher Russian, and another guy who’ll eat just about anything, but won’t have the wine or coffee. Most dinners with strangers don’t go that well.
One explanation is that each of us is an “outsider.” Existentially we identify with our religion before we identify with our state (one of the reasons that Europeans are nervous about us). Perhaps that is enough to explain cultures that have an affinity for one another. But . . .