IN A COLUMN many years ago, I described how I once attempted to chart a family tree. Most of my father’s family had been killed in Auschwitz, and my efforts to trace their genealogy left me, I wrote, with a family tree that “has stumps where branches ought to be’’ and “gets narrower, not wider, as it grows.’’
A woman phoned me the morning that column appeared. She said she was a Mormon, and wanted to add the names of my father’s massacred relatives — the column had mentioned about 18 of them by name — to the Mormon Church’s vast genealogical archives. I told her that I certainly had no objection. Indeed, I was grateful for any gesture that might help preserve some remembrance of these family members whose lives had been so cruelly cut short.
At the time I knew nothing about “baptism by proxy,’’ the ritual that Mormons believe gives even souls in the afterlife a chance to accept their faith and thus enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only later did I learn that some Mormons, eager to save the souls of dead Jews, had taken to submitting the names of Holocaust victims for posthumous baptism.
The discovery didn’t trouble me at all. In Judaism, conversion after death is a concept without meaning; 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. I found the Mormons’ belief eccentric, not offensive. By my lights, their efforts to make salvation available to millions of deceased strangers were ineffectual. But plainly they were sincere, and intended as a kindness.
Other Jews, however, were offended. There was a commotion over the issue in the 1990s, and in response the Mormon Church formally barred proxy baptism for Jewish Holocaust victims. As a rule the ban is respected, but there are occasional violations of church policy, and the issue is back in the news following reports that Anne Frank, who died at 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was recently baptized by proxy at a Mormon temple in the Dominican Republic. Relatives of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and the parents of the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were also submitted for proxy baptisms.
So now there’s a whole new commotion, with some prominent Jewish voices once again loudly expressing indignation.
“Holocaust victims were killed solely because they were Jews,’’ fumes Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “And here comes the Mormon Church taking away their Jewishness. It’s like killing them twice.’’ The Simon Wiesenthal Center, pronouncing itself “outraged,’’ declares that the latest proxy baptisms “make a mockery’’ of Jewish-Mormon relations. Wiesel himself insists that Mitt Romney, as “the most famous and important Mormon in the country,’’ has a moral obligation to tell his church: “Stop it.’’
But if anyone should be told to “stop it,’’ it’s men like Foxman and Wiesel, whose reactions to this issue have been unworthy and unfair.
For one thing, the Mormon Church promptly apologized for the listing of Anne Frank and the others, and firmly reiterated its policy: “Proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims are strictly prohibited.’’ Leaping to take offense at something the church has unequivocally repudiated is cheap grandstanding.
More odious by far is the accusation 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. 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.
As a Jew, I am less interested in what other religions teach about the fate of Jews in the next world than in how they affect the fate of Jews in this world. Rafael Medoff, a scholar of America’s response to the Holocaust, notes that Mormon leaders were outspoken supporters of efforts to rescue Jews from Nazi Europe at a time when many mainstream Christians were silent. For example, Utah Senator William King — among the most renowned Mormons of his day — strongly backed legislation that could have saved Anne Frank and her family.
Outraged by proxy baptisms? Count me out. As my stunted family tree attests, the Jewish people have very real, very dangerous enemies. Mormons undergoing peaceful rituals in their own temples aren’t on the list.