Baptizing the dead, testing Mormon-Jewish relations

Posthumous baptism of Holocaust survivors is back in the news, and that always raises a range of questions, not only … Continued

Posthumous baptism of Holocaust survivors is back in the news, and that always raises a range of questions, not only about Mormon-Jewish relations, but about interreligious relations in general and how we know when they are really real. Most recently, the dust up is due to the work of an individual who, in violation of Mormon church policy, baptized the long-dead parents of world famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal.

View Photo Gallery: “The Mormon story is a quintessentially American tale,” writes On Faith columnist Lisa Miller.

The real story lies in the reaction of those in the Jewish community who are making a mountain of this mole hill, especially in light of the church’s unequivocal apology for the event having occurred and their punishing of the offender. To be sure, the fact that someone is baptizing dead Jews does seem weird to lots of people, and will be especially hurtful to some when the dead are Holocaust victims.

To the extent that such rituals indicate that people who lived and died as Jews still require repair of their souls or spiritual status, there is going to be hurt. That any group clings to doctrines that trumpet their own spiritual superiority or unique access to heaven, to me, is problematic as well, but that is hardly a unique feature of the LDS. In fact, all traditions, including Judaism, have such intellectual strands running through them.

Traditional Jewish liturgy invites people each morning to thank God that they are not Gentiles, and that is just one example among many. That statement is not intended to solidify Jewish superiority by those who recite those words. How do I know? Because I say them and that is not what I mean by them. On the other hand, I appreciate the hurt which those words may cause when heard by non-Jews especially, have great respect for those Jews who no longer recite those words and wrestle with whether or not I should still be doing so.

The point is, we all have things to work out regarding how we use ritual and liturgy in ways that build a sense of group cohesion, mission and pride, without simultaneously teaching disrespect or disregard of other traditions and those who follow them. That is why is it particularly disturbing to hear other rabbis claiming that these recent events make a “mockery” of LDS-Jewish relations.

Mistakes between partners never make a mockery of any relationship. The only thing which makes a mockery of a relationship is when one partner over-reacts and even exploits the errors of the other partner, calling them out in public when a private conversation would surely suffice.

Ultimately, as with most non-threatening hurts, this one provides a genuine opportunity. The issue is not what was done, but what comes next.

One wonders if those who are most distressed about these posthumous baptisms have any sense of what they mean to those who are performing them and how they work within LDS thought and practice. Without defending the practice, which it is not my place to do, one wonders what would have happened if, rather than being outraged and appalled by the “mockery,” those most upset about this episode had instead asked how this practice fits with building better relations with Jews.

It is always easy to play the aggrieved victim, and we have a culture that is disturbingly good at it. But the real issue when communities come into conflict, especially in the safe context of contemporary America and when the conflict is the result of a few lone actors, is how we presume the best about each other and open better lines of communication based not only on being better understood and respected by others, but by showing them greater levels of respect and understanding.

Brad Hirschfield is an On Faith panelist and blogger.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • peaceman2

    I really enjoyed this article. It is sad that one persons actions could cause so much trouble. The way the computer programs are set up he could not have done what he did without knowing it was against Church policy.
    The fact that the LDS Church lets Helen Radkey have access to their records, knowing that she is “out to get the Mormons” shows that the Church also wants to put a stop to these actions that others feel are offensive.

    The fact that Helen Radkey only agreed to give the information to Rabbi Cooper “…as long as there is a public stink” shows that she probably doesn’t care about Jewish feelings or much of anything but her longstanding mission of hurting Mormons.

    Rites for the deceased are ancient, and many people still practice them. When done in accordance with Church teachings (for ancestors of LDS) they are acts of love, and God knows our world needs more of those.

  • rtaPs3

    A-League Article. I was a dancer in folk dancing. Our troop was Mormon and from America. Due to terrorist attacks during a European tour my troop welcomed the Jewish dancers into our bus and we mingled with them in their bus to protect them from an incident . I know of many Mormons visiting Israel and they are warmly received. The Bible was written by Jews. I adore my Jewish friends because I treasure those who love truth, who live with heart, and who use their minds. I appreciate the maturity shown here to allow the relationship to be rectified.

  • rtaPs3

    Some of the comments for this article exhibit that they seek a reason for conflict with Mormons. It is strange to see this turn into holocaust denial. Work for the dead reflects how we consider Jews part of the family of the children of God. We obviously do not agree with those who think someone goes to hell on the whim of whether or not they had the opportunity to be baptized in life. Our work reflects our belief that everyone can choose, it will never be forced on anyone. Baptism is meaningful for the penitent only. We baptize ancestors, not evil people.

  • rtaPs3

    I love Netanyahu. I dislike anyone, especially someone from America, showing disrespect toward Benjamin Netanyahu. I want to hold Obama accountable by giving him a pink slip. I feel zealously that few support Israel more than Mormons do. Romney is very clear that he highly values our allies, particularly Israel. I know I do. This is the real reason this ‘news’ is getting air time. Some want to stop the powerful unity that is felt.

  • gcrobmd

    I just understood why some Jews are offended by Mormons who selectively choose to baptize deceased holocaust victims. The Jewish point of view has not been communicated very well in the media.

    These Jews see that baptism is for remission of sins. They are angered that Mormons think that victims of the holocaust need to repent before entering the kingdom of God. I suppose they feel their suffering and death should be “baptism” enough to enter the kingdom of God, especially since God chose them to bring forth His word as the Old Testament (see 2 Nephi 29:4-6).

    I agree with this point of view.

    Now, will you hear the Mormon point of view?

    Baptism begins with faith. It is a physical act that results in a spiritual change that opens a channel between God and man. Through this channel the power of the Messiah’s atonement can be fully active. Through His atonement, He takes upon Himself our sins, so that justice is satisfied and mercy and grace can abound.

    By washing us of sin, whether great or small, our sense of guilt is likewise washed away so that we can face God with confidence. I would think of all people, the holocaust victims are aware of how people hurt each other, and they would keenly regret any hurt they ever caused. Of all people who deserve to be free of guilt, it is the holocaust victims.

    But there is more.

    Through the atonement, in a miraculous and timeless way that only God can accomplish, the Messiah also takes upon Himself our infirmities and sicknesses, our sorrows and sufferings to help us heal, and restores all that has been lost (BofM, Alma 7:11-12, Mosiah 14:3-5). Of all people in need of the healing atonement, it is the holocaust victims.

    It is this knowledge that makes it incomprehensible to Mormons why anyone would object to having their deceased ancestors baptized. After loving our neighbor, it is our best effort and highest honor to bring them peace and rest.

  • rtaPs3

    The fact of the matter is that Mormon records must include name, family, date and location of death. Rather than deny the holocaust, we document it. I see the worst kind of mob mentality behind this issue. Most people around the world appreciate access to our genealogy research. My father taught Mormon genealogy classes. He was a top secret rocket scientist. He was a humble person. He loved connecting with others. By the way, we seek our family in genealogy. We aren’t condemning someone by baptism. We don’t feel condemnation when we get baptized. It is a celebration and joyful.

  • AmyParnell

    I appreciate the peace making attitude of the writer. This was the error of one member of the LDS church, not the church at large. While we understand feelings are raw on this topic, I am sure there was no harm meant. I can only hope that relations resume in a loving and Godlike manner.

  • Secular1

    What is it with all this nonsense? Being a secularist, I think that this posthumous baptisms are another illustration of silliness of theirsts. Looking at logically (which I am aware is too much to ask) this is no big deal. From the perspective of Jews say, if you are certain of the course you have taken during your life time and led proper lif according to your precepts, then someone monkeying around in your posthumously shoudn’t affect your afterlife – whatever you think that is. For pete’s sake your sky-daddy is not going to hold it against you, right? If you think he will hold it against you then you are really SOL with that demented guy – the dice was already rolled against you. From mormon perspectiev it is clearly silliness, you know that, just another way the church is going to collect few more dollars from you, which you are more than willing to part with. But i think this is a very learnable moment for all the theists.

    Few years ago, my mother had passed away. My father knowing my secular attitudes was prepared to perform the ffinal rites according to Hindu customs. But I voluteered to do them if that was OK, with him. He was delighted and it did not matter to him that I was a non-believer, I am sure it would not have mattered to my mother. For me it was a silly ritual without any redeeming value to me, except that I was parting with a few bucks to that parasite – priest. It was bringing great satisfaction to my dad, suister and her her husband and children and my kith & kin. Small price to pay the parasite. During the ritual the priest explains to me why the ritual is to be performed. To make the long story short, he tells me that my performing the ritual opened the doors of heaven for my mother, else she would have been languishing in some harrowing purgotory of some kind. This blew my mind. I wondered how do a billion hindus accept this horse manure that their forebearers would not get into the heaven not on basis of their good deeds but

  • Secular1

    Oh great!! I am supposed to be impressed by the meticulousness of the ritual of superstition and downright silliness.

  • Secular1

    Why do you love Netanyahu? Do you knao anything about this corrupt hen pecked man. Who is a pompous windbag of a bigot.. And you think the perfect weather vane professes those inane statement out of conviction? Wake up smell the coffee, my friend. Sorry you are not allowed to, right. That explains your post.

  • cfow1

    The only thng more offensive than having my non-Mormon relatives baptised after they’re dead is someone telling me I shouldn’t take such actions personally.

    I do not wish to *understand* the workings of another religion that suggests my family members are damned because they did not get the memo about the LDS church.

    The Christian Bible notes that when we die, we are given another chance to “come to Jesus.” I’d like to think that, when we are in the presence of our diety, our word is enough. If not, what kind of diety is that?

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading of More Comments:

    Testing the basic beliefs of Judaism and Christianity:

    Since there never were an Adam and Eve, Garden of Paradise or talking serpent, there never was any original sin i.e. baptism is a silly supersti-tion that even the Catholic church is slowly coming to grips with.

    From the white board notes of a Catholic Professor of Theology:

    “The story of Adam and Eve is only symbolic.

    Yes, this story was composed in the 900s BCE and functions as an etiology (explanatory myth) . In the 900s Israel was self ruling, under King David and Solomon. The people were no longer at war and the question” Why are we not happy?” may have been asked. The short answer is sin. (Look at 1 Kings 11 for some clues into why the story depicts Eve sinning first and then tempting Adam [Solomon]).

    Original sin is therefore only symbolic of man’s tendencies to sin.

    Yes, I teach Original Sin as symbolic of the sins of our origins – in our
    families and in the broader society, both of which affect each person
    profoundly. The “sins of our origins” approach helps to account for certain
    patterns of sin in particular families and societies.

    Baptism does not erase original sin since the sin does not exist. Yes, the old “laundry of the soul,” approach to Baptism is no longer accepted.

    Infant Baptism is only a rite of initiation and commits parents and godparents to bringing up the child in a Christian home.

    Yes, but, since baptism is now celebrated at Sunday Eucharist, all the members of the parish family are encouraged to pledge their support and care for the faith life of the newly baptized. (A manifestation of this is
    persons volunteering to teach other people’s kids the basics of Catholicism.)”

    As per National Geographic’s Genographic project:

    ” DNA studies suggest that all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who about 60,000 years ago (added note: bible time has Adam living

  • peaceman2

    I think you missed something, LDS do not believe anyone is going to suffer in Hell because they didn’t get the memo. The entire point of Baptism is that we are free to hear and choose in the next life. LDS believe we will be rewarded according to our works. No kind person will suffer punishment.

  • peaceman2

    Performing rites for the deceased, especially baptism, is an ancient practice, and is well attested to in Christian History.

    Baptizing people not related to LDS is offensive to Mormons as well as Jews. It is sad that one person can break down relationships between millions of people. Mormons have a longstanding policy against Baptizing Jews (not from discrimination since many Jews request it).

    Rites for the deceased are intended to be an act of love, sealing families, but when someone intentionally goes against Church teachings on a sensitive issue it hurts all of us.

    I’m sorry this person has done this.

    Also, I hope everyone understands that there are many people out there who delight in stirring bad feelings against Mormons. Those who hate us have intentionally misrepresented the purposes of rites for deceased persons. These rites are meant to turn the hearts of the Fathers and Mothers to the children, as Malachi taught. They seal families together.

    Please understand:
    1 Mormons are opposed to the Baptism of those who are not ancestors of Mormons.
    2 Mormons do not believe that Holocaust victims are suffering in Hell or purgatory and that Baptism is like indulgences for the deceased, which others believe helps reduce suffering in the next life. Mormons understand that all will be rewarded according to their works. No kind, good person will suffer in the next life, regardless of religious affiliation.
    3 Baptism is not done to anyone but “for”, LDS believe that people are also free to choose in the next life, as they are here. Baptism for the deceased gives them an opportunity to make a decision, it does not make anyone Christian or members of the Church. Even without these rites they can still make choices in belief.

    I don’t think Helen is really concerned for Jews, as she stated she only offered the information if it would be used to make a “public stink” against Mormons.

    Many Christians and Jews still practice rituals for the deceased. And, Christians and Je

  • peaceman2

    Thank you for explaining the changes in the Catholic Church. I enjoyed your comments. LDS tend to think of Catholics as friends. LDS also agree that the Adam and Eve story are symbolic history. But, we disagree that Baptism isn’t necessary any longer. Jesus plainly taught that it was, it is interesting that Catholics are moving toward a more Protestant view on this. Again, thank you for explaining.

  • Wingyarrow

    Thank you for a beautiful voice of reason

  • Sajanas

    Of course *you* don’t feel condemned by baptism. Perhaps its time to take a little empathy and imagine what it might be like if you were baptised into, say, the Church of Zeus, or the Church of Satan, or whatever. Have you ever had people knocking at your door wanting to save your soul, or claiming that *their* religion is the way, truth and light, and you should abandon your own? Can’t you understand how obnoxious that is, and that baptising people without their consent is even worse than that?

  • Sajanas

    Supporting people like Netanyahu is not the same thing as supporting Israel. In fact, it may be the opposite, since it just means helping keep Israel intangled with an occupation that is increasingly less and less pleasant to look at, and making Israeli society less and less of a liberal democracy, and more of an Iranian style theocracy, where the Ultra-Orthodox force all women to cover up, or be spit upon and threatened.

  • Sajanas

    This isn’t about Holocaust denial. Its about disputing that the Mormon religion should be claiming that they are able to baptise people who were murdered because they were Jewish. Why do you need to write up a huge list of names… why don’t you just state that this offer is open to everyone, and leave it at that? Surely, you must imagine that to a people over whom baptism was a definite threat (Christians would secretly baptise Jewish children, and then the child could not be legally raised by non-Christians and was taken away) would look upon Mormon baptism no differently. Its still a magic ritual designed to claim ownership of a specific person for your religion. And as such, its both absurd, and offensive.

  • pandaemoni

    I’m not a Mormon, but as I understand it, Mormon Hell is reserved solely for the worst of the worst. Non-Mormons mostly go to one of the “lower” of the three levels of Mormon Heaven (the Telestial Kingdom or the Terrestrial Kingdom, with the greatest level being the Celestial Kingdom). Mormons are taught that almost everyone goes to Heaven, and it’s just a question of getting into the “better” levels of Heaven.

    Even the unjust and the sinful generally make it to at least the Telestial Kingdom.

  • jiji1

    So what if I was “baptized” into the church of Zeus or Satan or Cthulu or whatever. It doesn’t mean anything to me, because I don’t believe in it. If somebody’s church wants to rub blue mud in their navels while chanting my name, I say knock yourselves out – it doesn’t hurt me in the slightest.
    And that’s the point. A few permanently aggrieved individuals choose to take loud public insult whenever some enemy of the LDS church abuses the Church’s genealogical database to embarrass the Church, but most reasonable people, including Jews, don’t really care, because to them the LDS ordinance of baptizing in behalf of the dead means no more than blood sacrifice to Odin. They don’t believe in it, so no harm done.

    @sajanas asks: “Have you ever had people knocking at your door wanting to save your soul, or claiming that *their* religion is the way, truth and light, and you should abandon your own?” Yes, at least weekly when evangelical Christians and others knock on my door. I understand that they think they’re trying to *help* me. They don’t mean any harm, any more than does Mr. Hirschfield’s daily prayer of Jewish exclusiveness. Believe it or not, it *is* possible to believe that one’s own belief system is the “one and only way”, and still like and respect people who believe differently, and wish for them the same rights and privileges you wish for yourself.

    Take a deep breath. Life is much less stressful if you assume basic human goodwill as the motivation for most of the actions of others around you, including people who have different belief systems than you.

  • ccnl1

    Make that “putting Judaism in perspective”.

  • Sajanas


    Well, of course its all just some nonsense. I’d much rather people criticise the Mormon Church for their hateful policy towards their gay children, and the huge amount of money the spend opposing gay civil rights. But I think its still fair game for criticism, and I dislike that you seem to presume that anything done in the spirit of helping people is excempt from cirticism. People have done horrible, horrible things in the name of ‘helping’ people according to their religious views. This may not seem like a big deal, but the question is, if it’s not, why doesn’t the LDS church stop it, since it clearly bothers people. I hear your argument all the time from people wanting to keep “Under God” on money, or the like, yet clearly religious people are getting a sense of ownership out of both that and these baptisms, and I don’t think its wrong to tell them how uncool it is.

    I’m not a stressed person, just so you know, I just find this to be a such an open and shut case of people doing something weird, even after they’ve been asked to stop.

  • hawk19

    Thanks for this article Brad.
    If what the Mormons do isn’t true then why the worry,we are only wasting our time effort and money.
    But then on the otherhand if what we do is true…………………………..!

  • gonnagle

    How can any sane, rational person baptise someone who is dead? But them non of the belief systems we humans have created are either sane or rrational.

  • gonnagle

    peaceman2, your whole philosophy falls down due to the fact that there is no ‘next life’. People are free to believe as many weird and wonderful things they like but the sooner people relise this is the only proven life we have the sooner we’ll stop people strapping explosives to themselves. Not that I am implying Christian (and i include Mormons here even though your version of chritianity is very wierd) and Jews do this – that is reserved for the severly irrational religions like Islam.