I will never forget the interfaith trip that I took to the Mormon Temple in New York City as a part of a rabbinical school group in 2009. Most of us had enjoyed positive experiences with other Christian dialogue groups from across the denominational spectrum and were intrigued by the potential of this visit. Recalling a past visit to the Mormon Tabernacle Church in Utah as a member of a youth group summer program, I remembered having been taught that Jews were among friends with Mormons. As Mormons considered themselves to be descendants of the House of Israel, and Jews were considered by Mormons to be the “original Israelites,” Jews were to be respected—while not being Mormons themselves—for their beliefs as a similarly covenanted people.
Unfortunately, both of my visits to Mormon sites (ten years apart from one another) left me disappointed. In Utah, our group of Jewish teenagers was led into a “special room” with a talking Jesus statue intended to inspire us to convert, as we were told free copies of the Book of Mormon in almost every language including Hebrew were available on the way out. After exchanging pleasantries with us (and pointing out how similar Judaism and Mormonism were, in particular, with our long prayer services) during our New York City visit our speaker presented us with a book from under the lectern entitled, “So How Come a Nice Jewish Boy Became a Mormon,” and encouraged our group of future rabbis to read the book.
Seemingly, the risk at hand is that when it comes to Jews having interfaith dialogue with Mormons, we sometimes get a monologue. Symptomatic of this concern is a matter that was called to our attention during our New York City trip that we all found troublesome: the Mormon rite of posthumous baptism. Our speaker explained that Mormons believe that human beings who have not “been saved” in life through baptism could under Mormon practice be baptized posthumously via a proxy without their consent. He acknowledged (back in 2009), that the Church of Latter Day Saints had come under fire from Jewish groups at that time for performing posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims, for which he apologized, and said that he did not condone this insensitive practice.
Unfortunately, three years after my relatively disappointing dialogue experience, I am hardly surprised that residual concerns surrounding posthumous baptism have resurfaced. The Mormon religion remains one that is highly secretive about many of its practices; non-Mormons are not admitted into certain rites, rituals, and places within the confines of the church complex. And so as recent reports of Anne Frank being posthumously baptized this week among other Holocaust victims continue to be leaked by a church whistleblower, Jews must stand together firmly and publicly in condemning these actions as deeply offensive to the Holocaust victims who died for kiddush hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name. “For the sake of Zion, we must not be silent” (Isaiah 62:1) about this deep insensitivity.
Yet, on the other hand, I also believe that this Mormon intrusion on Jewish religious practice (Jews believe that we are only judged by the deeds we do while we are still alive) is sad—perhaps, even tragic—given the potential alliance that Jews and Mormons could have with each other. Mormons who do understand Jewish sensitivities recognize that we share much more in common than our belief that we are a chosen people: both of us understand what is like to be excluded from the “mainstream.” Mormon history may be considerably shorter than Jewish history, but neither Jews nor Mormons are strangers to being held to a higher standard, or even persecuted, because of our religious beliefs. When a devout Mormon or an observant Jewish candidate runs for political office (one thinks of former Governor Mitt Romney currently running for president or Senator Joe Lieberman for Vice President in 2000), there is little question that because of his or her religious identity, the candidate is unfairly placed under a microscope. Together, this creates great opportunity for Mormons and Jews to work together to increasingly make the United States and our world a fairer and more tolerant place for people of all religious beliefs.
As a Jewish voter and a private American citizen, it matters greatly to me whether or not a candidate for public office believes that I have the right to practice my religion without interference or without direct violation of my religious sensitivities. Certainly, I can respect that proselytism remains a key tenant of the Mormon faith even if I disagree with it. However, when zeal for proselytism leads Mormons to ignore the legitimacy, practices, and sensitivities of another one of God’s covenanted people, then it remains a corruption of the tenants of their own true faith. Jewish history remains full of tales of Jews who were martyred rather than undergo baptism. In the days of the Holocaust, Jews were not even given that option. Far from an act of love, the rite of posthumous baptism on deceased Jews not only dishonors the memory of our deceased, but dishonors those who continue to carry on their memories as well.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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