Jewish columnist calls LDS proxy baptism 'eccentric, not offensive'

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 12:00 p.m. MST

Vancouver British Columbia Temple, Baptismal font, April 2010. (IRI) Vancouver British Columbia Temple, Baptismal font, April 2010. (IRI)

Calling proxy baptism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "eccentric, not offensive," Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote recently that "Mormons undergoing peaceful rituals in their own temples aren't on the list" of the "very real, very dangerous enemies" to Judaism.

"In Judaism, conversion after death is a concept without meaning," wrote Jacoby, who is Jewish. "No after-the-fact rites in this world can possibly change the Jewishness of the men, women, children and babies whom the Nazis, in their obsessive hatred, singled out for extermination.

"By my lights, (Mormon) efforts to make salvation available to millions of deceased strangers were ineffectual," he continued. "But plainly they were sincere, and intended as a kindness."

Other Jews have been offended by the practice, Jacoby noted, including recent controversies surrounding the proxy baptisms – or the appearance on LDS genealogical databases – of names like Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Simon Wiesenthal, journalist Daniel Pearl and even non-Jews like Mahatma Gandhi and England's Princess Diana.

Jacoby described the indignation, including a comment from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who accused the LDS Church of "taking away (the) Jewishness" of Holocaust victims, which he said is "like killing them twice."

Such reactions, Jacoby says, are "unworthy and unfair." The LDS Church has apologized for the inappropriate proxy baptisms. "Leaping to take offense at something the church has unequivocally repudiated is cheap grandstanding," Jacoby wrote.

Indeed, on Feb. 29 the First Presidency of the LDS Church issued a letter to be read to church members in their respective worship services reiterating church policy "concerning the submission of names for proxy temple ordinances."

According to the letter, "our preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors. Those whose names are submitted for proxy temple ordinances should be related to the submitter."

Further, the letter says "without exception, church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims. If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges. Other corrective action may also be taken."

In a press release issued Friday, Foxman said he "welcomed" the First Presidency letter as "an important step by the LDS Church to further educate its worldwide members about the church's policies regarding posthumous baptism." He also called upon church officials to "reconsider all the implications of continuing the practice of posthumous baptism, as it has re-evaluated other of its traditions," and church members to "understand why proxy baptisms are so offensive to the Jewish people, who faced near annihilation during the Holocaust simply because they were Jewish, and who throughout history were often the victims of forced conversions."

Foxman also pledged that "as two minority religions who share histories as the target of intolerance and discrimination, we will continued to work with each other to bring greater understanding and respect to both of our faith communities."

For his part, Jacoby said he accepts the LDS Church's sincere efforts to clean up the name submission process. He said he is more concerned about the accusation from the Jewish community that "a posthumous 'baptism' to which no Jew attaches any credence is tantamount to a second genocide ('It's like killing them twice')."

"What an ugly slander," he wrote. "Even to the most zealous Mormon, proxy baptism is simply the offering of a choice – it gives non-Mormons in the afterlife a chance to accept the gospel, should they wish to. You don't have to buy the theology – I certainly don't – to recognize that its message is benign."

Jacoby's position was mirrored by the Hindustan Times, which referred to news of the proxy baptism of Mahatma Gandhi as "quite touching."

"If a Mormon church in Utah decides to symbolically bring the Mahatma into its fold, what harm can there be in that?" the publication editorializes.

While it is understandable that some Hindus have reacted with "irritation" to the baptism, the editorial said, "they should also take a leaf from Gandhi and treat such matters more lightly. If it makes those upset about Gandhi-ji's 'proxy baptism' feel any better, they could choose a great personality of their choice and 'convert' him or her to a religion of their choice. Let not harmless religious ceremonies come in the way of what is really a compliment."

Similarly, Gandhi's grandson, Arun, said during his visit this week to Salt Lake City that he found the strident reaction of some Hindus to news of Gandhi's proxy baptism "ironic" because of Mahatma Gandhi's life-long legacy of religious tolerance and inclusiveness.

"Whenever anybody asked him, 'What religion do you follow?' he would say, 'I'm a Hindu, I'm a Muslim, I'm a Christian, I'm a Buddhist, I'm everything,'" Arun Gandhi said. "So I can just imagine him sitting in heaven with us in front of God, laughing and saying, 'And now I'm also a Mormon!'"

In a National Public Radio story that focuses on the proxy baptism of Jan Karski, a Catholic who was a Polish diplomat who witnessed the Holocaust and who risked his life to fight against it, reporter Howard Berkes points out that Jews are not the only ones who have expressed concern about the LDS practice of proxy baptism.

"In 2008, the Vatican instructed Catholic bishops throughout the world to decline to turn over parish records to genealogists working for the Mormon church," Berkes reported.

Berkes pointed out "Mormons believe the posthumous baptism rite has no effect unless the deceased soul accepts it." And he said "it's not clear whether the problematic, highly publicized baptisms are the work of overzealous members ignoring the rules or disaffected Mormons out to embarrass the faith and, perhaps, Mitt Romney."

Helen Radkey, an excommunicated Mormon, was cited by Berkes and others as the source of information for the Karski baptism as well as the others reported in the media during the past two weeks.

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