In kosher law, wine is only kosher when it has been produced and handled by Jews. In this way this kosher law is distinctive from the LDS “Word of Wisdom” in that it is not about the substance of the drink, but how it is handled. There is one exception to this rule, however. If the wine produced by Gentiles is boiled, it becomes kosher. On its face, there is no logical principle why boiling the wine would render it ritually clean, but that is not the point. Rather, the point is that the law is such, and one determines whether or not one has observed the law by an examination of the practices involved.
Latter-day Saints have a similar prohibition against wine, but it is not with respect to how it is prepared or handled, but with its alcohol content. In this way, there is a similar exception to halachic law that once the alcohol has been purged the wine is safe to consume. Most Latter-day Saints that I know will eat a meal that has been cooked with wine, provided that the meal was cooked at a sufficient temperature to boil out the alcohol. However, I don’t know any Latter-day Saint that would cook an entire bottle of wine, and then cool it for drinking. There seems to be something wrong with the drinking of cooked wine, but not with the eating of it.
The point is not whether drinking cooked wine would taste good, but about the principle involved in observing the law. It is possible that someone would object to drinking boiled wine because it doesn’t taste good, but my guess is that this is not the reason that Mormons don’t do so. Rather, there is some other principle involved in determining the reasons that one may consume boiled wine if it is eaten, but not drunk. The problem is not in determining the principle involved in not drinking cooked wine (we could imagine any number), the problem is that the principle is bound to be different from the one that permits one to eat cooked wine. And the reason for this inconsistency is that we have no legal tradition, no established norms for determining “doctrine,” and little need for principles at all, since we can just ask our priesthood leader what he thinks and be secure that as long as we are following his answer, even if it is wrong, we are justified. This means that Mormons are both seeking for “truth,” as opposed to halacha, which is about seeking to know whether one has complied with the law, as well as justification in the absence of truth. In neither case does the Latter-day Saint seek for coherent principles with which explain their actions.
Clearly, if one wants to understand how to follow religious laws, no tradition does it better than Judaism. But, why has an interpretive tradition that is similar in style not developed in Mormonism? Part of the reason is that we have living prophets to interpret the “law,” as Nate Oman has argued in is recent article, “‘The Living Oracles’: Legal Interpretation and Mormon Thought,” Dialogue, v42n2, (2009):1-19. This renders useless the search for actual principles in Mormon practice since, at worst, the standards reflect the personal preferences of the chosen oracle. Oman wisely, and I think rightly, suggests that LDS scholars look to LDS practices as “the way in which one can extract fairly abstract ideas from a concrete set of practices that do not themselves articulate the abstract ideas” (14). This, coincidentally, is precisely the ways in which social historians of Judaism have proceeded by analyzing Talmud passages.
When one turns to Mormonism, however, adopting the same methodological move that Oman advocates, my worry is that one searches for an “abstract principle” in the practices where there isn’t one, or at least where such a principle isn’t ultimately coherent. The case of the boiled wine reveals that scholarly abstraction of a principle to explain Mormon actions ultimately fails to provide a universal explanation since inevitably Mormon practices will emerge from contradictory principles. In this way, it seems that legal interpretation does not offer anything more stable than before in that it rests on a similar hermeneutic of single, correct principle in its normative analysis. While Oman’s approach seeks to ground the complexity of Mormonism by sidestepping the historigraphical questions, ironically, it is historiography rather than legal thought that has attempted to account for the richness of competing normative discourses. Mormonism, as does pretty much everything, ultimately resists this kind of legal analysis, and instead must be seen in its raw complexity, which includes contradictory principles.