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.
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.