Posted by Mark Paredes
“We share in the grief of humanity at the passing away of His Holiness
Pope Pius XII. In a generation affected by wars and discords, he
upheld the highest ideals of peace and compassion. When fearful
martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice
of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was
enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the
tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, 1958
“Only the Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty.
Up till then I had not been interested in the Church, but today I feel
a great admiration for the Church, which alone has had the courage to
struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty.”
Albert Einstein, Time Magazine, 1940
Last month the proposed canonization of the now-Venerable Pope Pius
XII met my “Rule of 5” criterion for inclusion in this blog. If an
issue does not directly involve both Mormons and Jews, at least five
Jews have to discuss it with me before it can be considered. In this
case, I also have a personal connection: my Catholic mother had a
priest baptize me as a baby, and I remained a nominal Catholic until
age 11, when I was baptized a Mormon. Theologically speaking, the
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox claims to represent Jesus’s original
church are the only other ones in Christendom that make sense to most
Mormons, and the Catholic bishops’ positions on many contemporary
social and moral issues are identical to ours. After reviewing both
sides of this controversy, it seems to me that there are two main
questions that should be addressed: 1) Did Pius XII fail to condemn
the Holocaust and other moral atrocities committed during WWII? 2) Is
it properly the business of non-Catholics to seek to influence the
Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in March of 1939,
following the death of Pius XI on the eve of WWII. No one disputes
that he was a fierce opponent of Communism and an advocate of peace
and reconciliation after the war. However, some Jews have denounced
his professed neutrality during the war (mirroring Benedict XV’s neutrality during WWI) and his alleged role in
refusing to return baptized Jewish orphans to Jewish organizations
after the war. Others have gone so far as to urge the Vatican to halt
his 45-year canonization process until the wartime Vatican Archives
and baptismal records can be thoroughly examined. Supporters of the
pope point to his 1,000 recorded addresses and 41 published
encyclicals, in addition to the authoritative 12-volume collection of
official Vatican wartime documents and archives of Pius’s pontificate
that have recently been released.
Whatever faults Pius may have had, moral cowardice does not seem to
have been one of them. A former nuncio to Germany, he left the country
in 1929 and never returned. Between 1933 and 1939, then-Cardinal
Pacelli issued 55 protests of violations of the special agreement that
the Church had signed with the Nazi government to guarantee its rights in Germany (the Reichskonkordat is still in force today). His was the guiding
hand behind Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With
Burning Anxiety”), written in German instead of the customary Latin.
Read from every Catholic pulpit in Germany on Palm Sunday, it
condemned racism, Nazi ideology, and the rejection of the Old
Testament (“Nothing but ignorance and pride could blind one to the
treasures hoarded in the Old Testament”), inter alia. Swift Nazi
retaliation included Gestapo visits to every diocese, the closure of
every publishing company that had printed the encyclical, the
prohibition of Catholic flags at religious ceremonies and the staging
of immorality trials of priests.
A few weeks after the Russo-German partition of Poland in 1939, the new pope
issued his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, in which he publicly
condemned the invasion and ocupation of Poland. Thousands of Polish
monks and priests were subsequently murdered, and millions of Polish
Catholics were killed or displaced by the Germans. Pius was also the
negotiator between Britain and some German generals seeking to
overthrow Hitler and make peace in 1940. Most famously, 80% of Rome’s
Jews were sheltered by Church institutions during the Nazi roundup of
Jews in the city. All sources agree that Pope Pius XII and the
Catholic Church were responsible for saving more Jews from Nazi
persecution (as many as 860,000) than any other person or institution.
As for the issue of Jewish orphans who were baptized to save them from
the Nazis, there is only one recorded instance where the Pope
personally intervened in a case. A devout Polish Catholic woman sought
to keep a Jewish child whom she had sheltered during the war, and
wrote to the Vatican for advice. The Pope’s answer? It was her duty as
a Catholic to return the child to a Jewish organization.
Given the nasty things that I had heard in passing about Pius, I half
expected my research to unearth accounts of the Pope and Hitler
sipping wine in Berlin. Instead, what I found was a conflicted man who
clearly hated the Nazis and had taken public stands against evil, yet
wanted to preserve his church and flock at a time when the outcome of
the war could not have been known with certainty. As many a politician
has said, where you stand depends on where you sit. It’s very easy for
armchair historians of today to criticize Pius for failing to slam
Nazis and Fascists at every turn. In my opinion, it’s not at
all clear that any of us, in the wake of the intense persecution of
Catholics in Germany and Poland following such denunciations, would
have acted differently if we had sat on St. Peter’s Throne. We have all seen contemporary Jewish leaders
wrestle with the question—nearly a century later—of whether to publicly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide
and identify the Ottoman Empire as its perpetrator. The reason for their reluctance, of course, is their desire to protect Israel,
whose only Middle Eastern military ally is (or was) Turkey. I’m not pointing fingers here: while I’d like to think that
I would issue statements denouncing the Ottoman-led Genocide if I were a senior Jewish leader, the reality is that I would probably think
twice—and thrice—before doing so if I knew that those statements would adversely affect people whom I love and lead.
More credible to me than the opinions of modern critics are the beliefs of
Pius’s contemporaries, who presumably were much more aware of the
constraints that religious leaders operated under during the war. As
noted above, Israel’s Foreign Minister lauded him with praise upon his
death in the name of a country that had risen from the ashes of the
Holocaust. After the war, Rome’s chief rabbi converted to Catholicism
and adopted the name of Eugenio in honor of the Pope. Serious
criticism of Pius only began to be aired a generation after the war
following the staging of the anti-Pius play “The Deputy” in 1963 (the
playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, is a noted friend and defender of Holocaust
denier David Irving).
As for the canonization process, all that is needed now is for two
miracles to be attributed to Pius: one in order for him to be
beatified, and one for him to be canonized. The decades-long review of
his life by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints
concluded that Pius led a life that exemplified Catholic virtues,
leading to his veneration by Pope Benedict XVI last year. It is safe
to assume that the Congregation took into account the late pope’s
reforms in canon law and liturgy, along with his infallible
pronouncement in 1950 of the Assumption of Mary to heaven. Moreover,
the record shows that Pius’s relations with Jews were scrutinized as
well: between 1967 and 1974, 98 witnesses who knew the pope personally
were asked to give sworn testimony to the Congregation. No fewer than
42 (including 5 cardinals) spoke of the pope’s concern for Jews. At
this stage of the canonization process, no more testimony is needed,
Of course, people have a right to think whatever they wish about Pius
and his wartime actions (or inaction). If some leaders and historians
think that he exhibited moral failings during the war, they’re welcome
to publicize their opinions. However, I don’t quite understand why
they would seek to delay or defeat the proposed canonization of a
pope. If Pius were being considered for a posthumous Nobel Prize,
their opposition would be understandable. In this case, a church is
trying to determine through a centuries-old process whether God has
already made one of its former leaders a saint, with the corresponding
power to intercede for the faithful before Him. According to Catholic
belief, God isn’t waiting for the current pope’s formal declaration of
sainthood: He’s already made up His mind. While Jews are welcome to
come to their own conclusions concerning Pius and to establish a
consensus “Jewish view” of his papacy once all of the archival
documents are examined, I don’t think that they should try to impose
that view, whatever it may be, on the Catholic Church. It’s not a secret that
Jews don’t believe in saints and won’t pray to them. Neither will I.
But if devout Catholics do pray to Pius expecting miracles, I hope they
get them. At least two, anyway.
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July 28, 2010 | 1:14 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
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.
July 26, 2010 | 11:33 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Many thanks to Menachem Wecker for an insightful post on Jewish-Mormon relations:
He blogs on religious art for the Huffington Post and Houston Chronicle websites, and knows a great deal about the LDS art tradition. Yasher koach, Menachem!
July 21, 2010 | 4:12 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
In keeping with the temple theme of Tisha B’av week and with this blog’s primary purpose of clarifying misconceptions, I would like to respond to a statement made by the erudite Rabbi Elliot Dorff in his insightful book “The Jewish Approach to Repairing the World.” Rabbi Dorff recently spoke on Jewish ethics at a luncheon sponsored by a group of prominent LDS businessmen and attorneys, and I regard him as a priceless resource for the local interfaith community. I read two of his books during my vacation last week, and the single most interesting concept that I took away from this book was that Jews who convert to other faiths retain all of the responsibilities but none of the privileges of being Jews.
That said, the following sentence gave me pause: “...many [religious] traditions presume that only the elite will know the texts, and some (like the Mormons) even bar anyone but the elite from knowing the secrets of their religion.” With all due respect to Rabbi Dorff, two corrections are necessary. First, Mormons have a lay clergy, and like Jews they are commanded to study and master their sacred texts, which like the Talmud also go beyond the Hebrew Bible. We have scripture study programs for children, teenagers, college students and adults, and we are commanded to study our doctrines. An interesting experiment would be to compare an average lifelong Mormon’s knowledge of the Bible (both Testaments) and LDS scriptures to an average lifelong Orthodox Jew’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. A church without seminaries or professional clergy, and with five canonized books of scripture, depends on studious members to teach its doctrines. Sermons, Sunday School lessons, and prayers are all offered by people who spend their workdays as doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, and chimney sweeps.
The second point of clarification is that Mormon temple worship, which involve sacred (or “secret”) ceremonies, are not for “elites.” Every day people of all classes, incomes, and races worship in our temples. While non-members are not allowed into temples after they are dedicated, any member 12 years or older can enter them if she can attest that she is keeping the commandments of G-d. This she does in two interviews with ecclesiastical leaders, who ask her a well-known set of standardized questions (they cannot add or subtract questions from the list). Among the requirements are paying tithing, living a chaste life, refraining from alcohol and tobacco, honoring family commitments, and professing a belief in G-d. If she is keeping these commandments, she receives a “recommend” and can enter the temple. The only qualification she needs is not money, class, or a graduate degree, but righteous living. While living in Israel, I often visited the Druze communities on the Golan Heights. Their religion does restrict knowledge of “secrets” to an elite group of older men, who are not allowed to discuss their religion with non-initiated Druze, regardless of how pious they may be. This is certainly not the case with the LDS faith. If a scholar like Rabbi Dorff has the impression that we are an elitist faith, then we have a great deal of explaining to do.
July 19, 2010 | 10:42 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
With the fast for Tisha B’av set to begin right now, I join the worldwide Jewish community in mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples on the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. A Mormon’s concern for Israelite temples should not be surprising to anyone familiar with our temple-based religion. While Mormons and non-Mormons worship on Sundays in the LDS chapels that dot the earth, it is in the 133 dedicated temples that the most holy ordinances are performed, all centered around the eternal Abrahamic covenant. In the early 19th century Mormons were forced to abandon two temples (those at Nauvoo, IL and Kirtland, OH) in the face of severe persecution, and losing all of our temples today would be nothing short of catastrophic for Latter-day Saints. A Reform rabbi touring Salt Lake City observed that Mormons seemed far more interested in ancient Israelite temples than contemporary Jews. Indeed, it is undoubtedly easier for Mormons to identify with temple worship than it is for Jews to make sense of the rites and rituals of Leviticus.
Although I understand the irrelevance of temples to the lives of modern-day Jews and realize that Tisha B’av is an anachronism for almost all of them, I hope that at least some members of the tribe are disturbed by the flippant, sacrilegious tone of Jonathan Zasloff’s essay in the Tisha B’av edition of the Jewish Journal. His thesis? “The destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.” Professor Zasloff reasons that the survival of the Temple “would have meant the destruction of the Jewish religion,” since temple-based worship involved a “priestly cult” and “a lot of dead, bleeding animals.” In his mind, we should spend this evening celebrating the birth of rabbinic Judaism—Talmud, Rashi, Maimonides et al. While there is no question that rabbinic Judaism is one of the greatest intellectual achievements in history and has enriched the world with its wisdom and traditions, it is hard to think of a mindset that is more directly at odds with the Mormon view of kadusha (holiness) than the author’s. For us, true Israelite worship involves temples.
During a lecture I gave to a group of rabbinical students, one woman observed that the Jewish way of discovering truth in scripture involved chevruta, or study with a partner. She wanted to know how Mormons determined scriptural truths. I responded by politely challenging her claim about chevruta. After all, didn’t the classical Jewish way of learning G-d’s truths involve sending a prophet to a holy place to commune with the Almighty, then having him return to the people and declare what he had learned? Chevruta is absent from the Hebrew Bible, and the student admitted that this is a rabbinic practice. Is partner study more authentically Jewish than the calling of Moses and the giving of the Torah and other scriptures through prophets? That’s not for me to say. However, I can say that the many Jewish themes in Mormon theology almost always involve ancient Israelite practices. When the Second Temple was destroyed, along with it went the priesthood (the power to act in G-d’s name), prophets, temples, and the divine power associated with them. In a country where many if not most Jews are atheists or agnostics, where most Jews marry outside their faith, where a majority of Jews support same-sex marriage (condemned by Jewish law), where Jews are to be found in the leadership of most anti-Israel and/or anti-Zionist groups, and where a majority of non-Orthodox young Jews profess no special attachment to Israel, it strains credulity to believe, as Professor Zasloff aserts, that temple worship was less Torah-centered than its rabbinic successor. The ancient Israelites wept and mourned because they realized what they had lost. Judah ha-Nasi only decided to compile the Mishnah(part of the Talmud) when he realized that the Temple would not be rebuilt (which Zasloff acknowledges in the essay). Something tells me they weren’t just lamenting a pile of dead animals.
A female rabbi’s informal way of using a sacred temple prayer once left me and my Mormon date speechless. During a Friday evening service at which I spoke, she asked the congregation to stand and perform “the high priest’s prayer” together. Everyone slowly raised and lowered their hands several times while repeating a prayer that she had written. Mormon readers will understand why my friend and I chose to keep our arms at our sides. After the service, I found a diplomatic way to ask her why she had invited everyone to participate in a prayer that had been reserved for the High Priest of Israel in ancient times. She smiled and answered that it was “fun,” especially for the kids. Whatever one may think of the ancient temple prayers, it’s hard to justify using them as a form of entertainment for congregants.
If I had to reduce the essence of the Hebrew Bible to one verse, it would be Isaiah 55:8 - “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” May we all use this occasion to remember the ways in which G-d, through rites and rituals whose ultimate meanings were known unto Him, blessed His ancient covenant people in truly miraculous ways.
July 13, 2010 | 12:33 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
Last month I had the pleasure of visiting Montréal at the invitation of the local LDS community. Local Mormon leaders are very interested in building bridges of friendship to other faith communities, and I was asked to speak on LDS-Jewish relations before an audience of several hundred Mormons and Jews. I was followed by the charismatic, eloquent Rabbi Schachar Orenstein, who greatly impressed the Mormons in attendance with his sincerity and wit. The highlight of the evening for me was the singing of “Hine Ma Tov” by Rabbi Orenstein, who was quickly joined in a spontaneous duet by LDS Montréal Temple President Dr. David Galbraith, a renowned scholar who studied at the Hebrew University and lived in Israel for two decades. Janice Arnold of the Canadian Jewish News was kind enough to cover the event:
It is always interesting to see how others view your outreach efforts: while I only spent around 5 minutes out of 60 discussing the proxy immersions issue, it featured prominently in the paper’s coverage. While I am neither a senior official nor a spokesman for the Church, I do appreciate the positive tone of the article and hope that it will lead to similar events across Canada.
July 3, 2010 | 8:06 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
This month Los Angeles will host the 30th annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. For five days amateur and professional Jewish genealogists will explore ways to help themselves and others research their family histories. Recent years have witnessed a marked increase in the number of Jews interested in genealogy, and I know from personal experience that many knowledgeable consultants are ready and willing to help any Jew who wishes to begin researching her family tree. When she does so, she will almost certainly tap into the unparalleled resources of the LDS Church, which has over 4,000 family history centers available around the world to help patrons access the vast genealogical records stored by the Church.
In this city the Church enjoys an excellent working relationship with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, the host organization for the conference. In addition, we are proud to have consulted with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance on its remarkable genealogy exhibit, “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves,” which happens to feature Mormon athlete Steve Young. Our regional Family History Center is open to the public and offers free courses on Jewish genealogy (it is scheduled to reopen in the fall). While the Church’s prominence in the genealogical field is acknowledged, the doctrine behind our passion for family trees is less well-known and is tied to Elijah. This famous prophecy by Malachi is found in all five books of Mormon scripture: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6). For Mormons, the return of Elijah anticipated at every Passover seder is not merely a quaint Jewish belief – it is a reality. We believe that in 1836, following the first dedication of a temple in modern times, Elijah appeared to the Church’s top two leaders and conferred upon them the “sealing” power, which allows designated priesthood holders to “seal” generations of families together forever using the same authority with which Elijah sealed the heavens for 3 ½ years. Fathers (and mothers) can be sealed to children, and children can be sealed to their parents, both living and dead. We view this as fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy of the generational turning of the hearts.
In order to be “sealed” to their direct ancestors, Mormons obviously have to find out who they were. The result is the Church’s extensive genealogy program. It cannot be emphasized enough how important family history research is to Mormons: one of the Church’s four missions is to perform temple work for our dead, and we do not believe that we can be saved without them. Researching their ancestors is as much of a religious obligation for Mormons as circumcising a newborn son is for an observant Jew. The blessings of modern technology allow us to share our expertise and databases with anyone who finds them useful, which has the added benefit of turning Mormons’ hearts to others and theirs to us, at least when they need help tracking down a family line.