Mormon Proxy Immersions for the Dead

July 28, 2010

Here is a slightly edited version of my essay that appears on Menachem Wecker’s Houston Chronicle blog. Several readers have asked me to address this topic, and I am happy to do so. The essay is longer than previous posts by reason of necessity; this is not a question that can be answered in a few sentences. The last paragraph, written in a tachlis style, properly frames the issue.   

MW: As someone who is involved in Mormon-Jewish relations and understanding, what are the Jews who take issue with baptisms of the dead missing? How well do you think the LDS community understands the Jewish concerns about the rite?

ME: Given the rich history of Mormon support for Jews, along with the active outreach to the Jewish community by Mormons in Los Angeles and other cities, I am happy to report that this issue has not been a barrier to day-to-day interaction between the two communities. In Los Angeles, a Mormon has emceed the Israel Festival (the nation’s largest) for three years, a Mormon conducted the bilingual Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) ceremony for the city’s Israeli
community (also the nation’s largest), Mormons have worked or are
working at several leading Jewish institutions, there is an ongoing
LDS-Jewish theological dialogue between a stake president and a
Conservative rabbi, the LDS Church has hosted receptions at the Jewish
Federation and Israeli Consulate General, and we have an excellent
working relationship with Jewish genealogical organizations. In
addition, joint LDS-Jewish presentations have been held in many U.S.
and Canadian cities, Mormons work to preserve Jewish cemeteries in
several European countries, etc.

That said, I have always believed that those Jews who seek an
explanation of this practice are entitled to one. This conviction was
reinforced during my tour of Auschwitz last fall. After visiting a
place where one million Jews were killed because they were Jewish, it
is very easy to understand the outrage felt by their descendants upon
learning that a handful of Mormons continue to defy their Church’s
policy by inappropriately submitting names of Holocaust victims and
other unrelated Jews for Mormon temple rites. In order to do this
issue justice, a little background explanation is necessary.

First a little theology. Mormons believe that we lived as spirits with
God before we came to earth, we believe that we live here on earth
now, and we believe that we will live again in the next life (olam
ha-ba in Hebrew). In each period of existence, we have to make choices
that determine the eternal progress of our souls. In the pre-earth
life, we had to choose to follow God and His plan of salvation, which
involved sending us to this world to be tested. [A third of the
spirits chose to reject this plan, so their progress was halted and
they will not have the privilege of inhabiting a mortal body]. In this
life, we choose every day whether to follow God and keep His
commandments as we understand them. In the next life, we will also be
called upon to make choices. Those who did not have an opportunity to
accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ on earth will be able to do so in
the next life. If they choose to do so—a voluntary choice—then
they will need to be baptized and have other ordinances performed for
them in order to continue their spiritual progress. Ordinances for the
dead can only be performed in temples by living proxies. If the
spirits in the next life do not accept the gospel, than the ordinances
performed in the temples will not be applied to them.

Three points need to be made here: 1) Mormons are required to seek out
their own ancestors and perform temple ordinances for them (including
proxy immersions). They have not been asked to perform these
ordinances for others’ ancestors; 2) These ordinances are not
optional. It is as necessary for a Mormon to perform temple ordinances
for his deceased relatives as it is for a religious Jew to circumcise
his newborn son; 3) Temple ordinances do NOT confer Church membership
on the deceased. Our members need to give consent in order to be
baptized, and the dead cannot give their consent, at least not in a
way that can be objectively measured by us. Therefore, we do NOT
consider them to be members of the LDS Church and do NOT list them on
our membership rolls. The prayer that is recited during proxy
immersions contains language that differs slightly from that used in
baptisms for the living, and it is highly inaccurate to refer to proxy
immersions as “posthumous conversions,” “making Mormons of the dead,”
“baptizing Jews into Mormonism,” etc.

I always use the term “proxy
immersions” to refer to baptisms for the dead, both because it is more
accurate (since not all spirits will accept the ordinances, not all of
them are true baptisms) and because it avoids giving non-members the
impression that the practice confers membership in the church (as do
other baptisms throughout Christianity).

Now for a little history. In the early 1990s, it was discovered that 8
Mormons – out of a total of 12 million at the time – had submitted
tens of thousands of names of Jewish Holocaust victims for temple
ordinances. This was obviously contrary to Church policy, and
concerned Jewish leaders met with LDS authorities to discuss the
matter. In 1995 a memorandum of understanding was signed between the
two groups, and a letter from LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley
asking members not to submit names of Holocaust victims was read from
the pulpit of every LDS congregation worldwide. Mormons agree with
Jews that Holocaust victims should not have temple ordinances
performed for them, except in rare cases where a victim is the direct
ancestor of a living Mormon. Jewish leaders agreed to inform the
Church of improper name submissions, and the Church in turn promised
to delete those names from the temple ordinance database. In addition,
the Church has updated its software for the submission of names for
temple ordinances in recent years to make it harder to submit names of
non-relatives, and all of our family history centers throughout the
world are aware of the Church’s policy on submissions of
non-relatives, including Jews.

No one thinks that more than a handful of Mormons (out of nearly 14
million today) continue to defy the Church’s policy on name
submissions. In other words, we have 99.9999% compliance. While the
LDS Church is hierarchical in nature, it is not a police state. If a
rebellious member insists on submitting the name of a Jewish
non-relative for temple ordinances, his efforts will likely be
successful. When the Church is made aware of the improper submission,
it can and does act to remove it from the ordinances database.
Indeed, this is a special promise made only to Jews, though others
have requested it as well. After all, Mormons should not be submiting
the names of any non-relatives—whether Catholic, Buddhist,
Brazilian or Zulu—for temple ordinances. However, if a Jewish name
is submitted improperly, the name will be removed if a request is
made. This unique arrangement is a testament to the respect and love
that Mormons feel for the Jewish community. Our leaders have had to
walk a fine line between accommodating Jewish leaders’ wishes while
affirming our obligation to perform temple ordinances for our kindred
dead, and I think that they have largely succeeded.

I also believe that most Mormons are sensitive to Jews’ concerns on this issue,
though some Church members do wonder why someone who doesn’t believe
in the temple ordinances, a next life, or (in some cases) God Himself
would care what Mormons do in their temples. As LDS-Jewish cooperation
increases and mutual respect develops, I have no doubt that their
sensitivity will be heightened to Jewish concerns. I also suspect that
even those Jews who demand 100% compliance by Mormons will come to
“agree to disagree” with their philo-Semitic Mormon friends.

A final word to those Jews who insist on bringing up this issue whenever Jewish-Mormon cooperation is mentioned: you have lost the support of mainstream Protestant churches on the Jewish state. Palestinian liberation theology is making
steady inroads in the Evangelical community (e.g., Holy Land Trust). Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise in Europe and in other parts of the world. Most Jews in this country marry outside the faith. Most Christians worldwide believe that the Abrahamic covenant is dead. Israel is facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran and its aggressive proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. With all of these serious issues (and much more) for Jews to contend with in today’s world, the misbehavior of a few Mormons, as offensive as it may be to you and to us, shouldn’t even be on the radar screen of a committed Jew. I am so concerned about anti-Semitism that I regularly travel around the country and the world at my expense to shore up non-Jewish support of Jews and Judaism. I am confident that your beautiful faith, one that has survived for thousands of years,
will not be threatened by the ordinances of a faith whose beliefs you do not share.  I understand deeply your resentment, but I tell you as a friend that you have much bigger theological fish to fry right now. If anything is a threat to contemporary Judaism, it’s apathy, not Mormon rites. If a recent survey showing that a majority of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 would not regard the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy is not a call to action, I don’t know what is.

I am grateful for the opportunity to answer this question, and would welcome correspondence on this issue.

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