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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mormons, Jews, Holocaust Victims and Proxy Temple Ordinances: Has the Last Chapter Been Written?

Yesterday,  the Church and Jewish leaders announced a joint agreement concerning temple work for Holocaust victims. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have objected to proxy baptisms being done for Holocaust victims.


I have followed this issue in detail and noted discrepancies in news reports and understanding.


Proxy baptism and other temple ordinances are central to our beliefs. Living people do these ordinances for themselves. For those who cannot, the deceased, we do it for them -- by proxy. They have the option of accepting this vicarious work or not. Obviously, there is no way to know whether do or do not.


The joint statement issued yesterday and the two accompanying news articles confirmed my suspicion that the sticky wicket has been name submittal.


Jewish and Mormon leaders have discussed the issue intermittently for the past 15 years. In 1995, the church removed the names of hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust victims from its genealogical database in acknowledgement of the unique sensitivity reflected by the Holocaust.
However, despite repeated efforts, it proved impossible to prevent names of Jewish Holocaust victims and survivors from being submitted for baptisms, since any member of the church could submit such names.
People seemed to think that the central Church operations in Salt Lake City were generating names for proxy services and that they could control it. Knowing that anybody could submit names and there was little the Church could do about it, I knew that there was profound misunderstanding. Central Church operations could remove names from the database after the fact but controlling submittal wasn't possible.

In fact, our enemies could even find some disaffected Member to assist them, have the Member submit the names and them scream that the Mormons were violating agreements, good taste and sensitivity. I have absolutely no evidence that this occurred but it could have.

Consider this analogy, do you have complete ability to control all "bills" that are submitted to you? You certainly control what bills you pay but you cannot control what is submitted to you.

In the article in The Jewish Week, it also confirms the issue was submittal:

“We said they didn’t live up to their policy,” said Michel. He admits he essentially gave up on getting the Church to comply, despite repeated attempts to impress upon its leaders that the practice of including Jewish names for baptism — including his parents and grandmother, who were murdered by the Nazis — was deeply offensive to Jews.
For its part, the Church insisted that it was doing its best to expunge the names of Holocaust victims from its enormous database. It said it had removed hundreds of thousands of such names, while admitting that tens of thousands remained on file.
“We had believed all along that the changes and enhancements to our computer systems would allow us to control this,” explained Mike Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the Church. “We weren’t able to convince Mr. Michel of that, and it looked like we would have to agree to disagree.”
Technology to the rescue. Recent technological advances are allowing the Church to monitor what names are submitted. I think this passage from The Jewish Week article explains the new safeguards clearly:

“It is the personal responsibility of Church members to submit temple work [proxy baptism] for their own families,” noted Mormon spokesman Otterson.
He explained that for the first time Mormons would have to show a direct family lineage to the names they choose to enter for proxy baptism. In addition, computer instructions will inform members of the exemption for Holocaust victims and ask if the entries are in compliance with Church policy.
As I've followed this controversy over the years I've also mused over other administrative difficulties in trying to accommodate Holocaust survivors's requests:
- How do we know the religion of the person that died?
- How do we know the culture of the person that died?
- How do we know the way in which the person died?
- How do we know whether a name change occurred sometime between birth and death?

As Mormons we don't get into any of this. Here is an excerpt of a piece I wrote during the media circus when we discovered temple work for Obama's mother had been performed:

As a Mormon, I've tried to determine how I might feel if the situation were reversed. How would I feel if someone obtained an indulgence for me or otherwise did something religiously important to them on my behalf? Quite Honestly, I think I would be touched by their kindness. They are acting out of love. 
Our actions stem from love for billions of people who have died. Our performing this vicarious baptism allows them the choice to accept/reject it in the next life. We do not evaluate their lives, deaths, opportunities, choices etc. We do not presume to know if they had the choice here in this life or what they would choose to do if they did. I am astonished that people can confidently say they KNOW what the person in question would want or would not want. 
My husband's father converted on his death bed and asked him to perform the baptismal, and other ordinances, for him and seal (eternal marriage) him to his first (already deceased) and second wives. When informed of this, his second wife refused to believe that her husband had made this change or requested it. She still won't believe it.
I'm hopeful that this new agreement can be honored to the satisfaction of both Mormons and Jews. But, in some ways I am skeptical. Today's statement by B'nai B'rith does not acknowledge that the sticking point was submittal. So, I suspect misunderstanding and mistrust will persist in some form. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

Though both parties seem pleased by the outcome, critics remained skeptical.
Mokotoff doubts any computer system can keep Holocaust names from reappearing in the church database.
“The only way this is going to be stopped is by the church reprimanding individuals doing it — first with a warning, then something stronger — maybe excommunication,” he said. “It’s the 55-mph rule of the Mormon Church. It’s on the books, but no one enforces it.”
For my part, I'm astonished that people and entities would try and dictate religious practices to other religions or recommend sanctions for how a church should discipline its members. I would never presume to lecture Jews, or anyone else for that matter, on how they should worship on their Sabbath or discipline members for not doing so, for example. It seems arrogant to me.

For my part, I'm glad an agreement and understanding has been reached with the direct participants involved. It should not be an issue for others.


But, I can't help feeling that Holocaust victims are being victimized again by those seeking to control their destinies, however well-intentioned. Mormons simply give the deceased the "option" to accept or reject the vicarious work. We don't try and force anything on them.

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