“FYI, discovered today: Posthumous baptisms for the parents of Simon Wiesenthal. I am collecting evidence, which will be e-mailed to you, if requested, as long as there is a public stink.” – e-mail sent by anti-Mormon genealogy researcher Helen Radkey to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, February 8, 2012
He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion. – 2 Nephi 26:29
Last week the charade involving a group of leaders in the Jewish community and the LDS Church’s practice of proxy immersions reached a new low. Elie Wiesel, one of the towering moral figures of our age, found out that his father and grandfather’s names had been submitted by a disobedient member of the church for temple ordinances. The church quickly canceled the submissions, but not before Mr. Wiesel had called on the church (via the Huffington Post) to stop performing temple ordinances for all Jews, not just Holocaust victims. He then asked Mitt Romney to “speak to his own church” about the issue. With all due respect to Mr. Wiesel (and considerable respect is due), he would probably do more good by suggesting to certain Jewish leaders that they mind their own business.
I’m giving Elie Wiesel a pass on this because he’s 83 and – more importantly – because he was born in Romania, my new wife’s homeland, and she’s a big fan. However, I can no longer cast a benign eye on the nefarious goings-on at the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in Los Angeles. SWC Rabbis Hier and Cooper have greatly overplayed their hand with their latest temper tantrum, and I’m going to call them on it. This is easily the most painful article that I have written for this blog, and I regret very much that I need to address this topic again. However, there is a limit to everyone’s patience. I have reached mine.
Many an Orthodox rabbi has complained to me of the liberties taken with Jewish law by their colleagues in more liberal movements. Whatever the sins of Reform rabbis may be, they pale in comparison to the SWC’s unwarranted extension of halachic authority to the olam ha-ba (afterlife).
A basic recap of the issue is necessary, though I have already written several articles on the practice and feel no need to repeat myself. In the early 90s, a group of Jewish leaders approached the church after discovering that a few members had submitted – in violation of church rules – names of Holocaust victims for LDS temple ordinances. Although these ordinances do NOT confer membership in the church, the leaders claimed to be offended. They even made the bizarre claim that if this issue were not addressed further, future generations might think that Mormons, not Jews, were killed during the Holocaust (I am not making this up).
Had I been in charge of the LDS delegation to the initial meeting, it would have been a short one. I would have started off by asking the leaders what authority they had to represent dead Jews. The answer? None. One of them, Ernest Michel, headed up a Holocaust survivors’ group, but representing the living was as far as his writ extended. There is an interesting paradox in Jewish life that never ceases to amaze me. On the one hand, Jews freely admit that no one in the world can speak on behalf of all Jews. Judaism has no hierarchy, no pope, no president, no high priest (at least not for 2,000 years). However, this fact does not discourage Jewish leaders from seeking opportunities to represent the entire Jewish community to non-Jewish groups, especially churches, if there is some personal benefit in it for them.
In this case, Ernest Michel had every right to receive an explanation from church leaders as to why his relatives had been improperly submitted for LDS temple rites. However, he exceeded his mandate when he presumed to negotiate on behalf of the dead. In the 1995 agreement, Mr. Michel stated that his group, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, “considers its members as guardians of the rights of Jewish Holocaust victims.” This was, of course, untrue. No one on earth has the authority to represent the 6 million victims.
Thankfully, the people in Salt Lake City are much nicer than I, and church leaders generously signed a memorandum of understanding in 1995, promising to do what they could to prevent the unauthorized submission of Holocaust victims’ names to LDS temples (members are only supposed to submit names of their ancestors for the ordinances). They also promised to delete such names from the church’s database if/when they were found.
It’s important to note here that the church offered at that time to “freeze” names of all known Holocaust victims for purposes of temple work if the Jewish leaders would agree. Unfortunately, they chose the second option of taking upon themselves the responsibility of notifying the church whenever they discovered the submission of a Holocaust victim’s name. The Jewish leaders knew from the beginning that the option they chose would mean that many names, and sometimes the same names, would continue to pop up in the database. In a stunning moment of candor, someone with detailed knowledge of the early discussions acknowledged to me that one of the reasons that the Jewish leaders chose this option was so they could continue to hold church leaders’ feet to the fire on this issue and eventually reach their ultimate goal: to have the LDS Church declare that Judaism was sufficient for salvation, and temple ordinances were not necessary for Jews.
What is also often lost in this discussion is the promise that the Jewish leaders made in the agreement. After the church agreed to take certain steps – which it did long ago – the Jewish signatories agreed to “exercise their best efforts to communicate and persuade the other Jewish organizations as to the sufficiency of this agreement.” Furthermore, “It was agreed that differences between friends should be reduced and eliminated.” While many of the Jewish leaders have taken this obligation seriously, Rabbis Hier and Cooper have not.
Last week the rabbis’ hit pay dirt. According to the Washington Post, she sent the following e-mail to Rabbi Cooper last week: “FYI, discovered today: Posthumous baptisms for the parents of Simon Wiesenthal. I am collecting evidence, which will be e-mailed to you, if requested, as long as there is a public stink.” Well, there was, beginning with this pompous press release by the rabbis: “We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon Temples. Such actions make a mockery of the many meetings with the top leadership of the Mormon Church dating back to 1995 that focused on the unwanted and unwarranted posthumous baptisms of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The only way such insensitive practices would finally stop is if Church leaders finally decided to change their practices and policies on posthumous baptisms, a move which this latest outrage proves that they are unwilling to do. We are grateful to activist Helen Radkey for exposing the latest outrage.”
First of all, anyone who knows the SWC rabbis knows how they react to people who use material provided by anti-Semites to defame Jews. Why are they using an anti-Mormon to help them defame the philo-Semitic LDS Church? Have they no shame? If we judge people by the company they keep, the rabbis don’t come off so well here. At least they were honest enough to identify their ultimate goal: to get the church to change its “policies” and “practices” on proxy immersions.
I have met and spoken with the SWC rabbis on several occasions, and on a personal level I have always enjoyed working with them. When I was the executive director of a Jewish non-profit, they came through for me in a big way when I needed them. When the SWC needed help setting up a genealogy exhibit, the LDS Church helped them free of charge. They know that I have enormous respect for the work that they do for Jews worldwide. While I am under no illusion that I will be spending next Friday night at their shabbat tables after posting this article, it is important to me that readers know what the rabbis already do: this is a most painful article to write, and I regret very much that the rabbis’ outrageous actions through the years have forced me to do so.
Rabbis Hier and Cooper have no standing whatsoever to demand that a church change its religious practices because they’re offended by them. They tried that with the Catholics (e.g., the resurrected Good Friday prayer), and were politely told to mind their own business. I long for the day when the rabbis’ latest temper tantrum will be met with a shrug by both Mormons and Jews.
I wish to conclude this essay by making two important points. First, the rabbis are demanding a standard of perfection from LDS leaders that they would object to if demanded of the Orthodox community. There are 14 million Mormons, and in the idealized world of the SWC, computers at LDS genealogy centers would somehow be able to detect when even one of them is about to improperly submit a Jewish name for a temple ordinance. This is ridiculous, and they know it. I have a question for them: Why can’t they do something to address the problem of agunoth in the Orthodox community worldwide? Everyone knows that it’s outrageous, and rabbis throughout the world denounce husbands who refuse to grant divorces to their estranged Jewish wives. Why can’t Rabbis Hier and Cooper force every Orthodox husband to toe the line on marriages? Because the husbands have free will, that’s why. The requirement that husbands grant divorces can’t be eliminated, because that would violate Jewish law. So basically the solution is for the Orthodox community to declare the correct principle of husbands being mensches to their wives, then work to shame and sanction violators of that principle. That’s what religious groups do all over the world to bring their members into line.
The second point is to highlight the unfortunate way in which the SWC rabbis and a few others have worked hard to reframe this issue in misleading terms in the Jewish community. Even The Forward calls temple ordinances “proxy conversions,” an intentionally false and misleading term. The only reason that people like Elie Wiesel are “outraged” by LDS temple practices is because the SWC rabbis have told him that evil Mormons are trying to convert his departed relatives. They know that temple ordinances do not make someone a Mormon, but in a misguided effort to shore up their donor base they pretend to defend Jewish souls by issuing arrogant press releases every time a prominent Jewish name is found in LDS databases. There is no logical reason for the rabbis to devote so much time and attention to the actions of a few disobedient Mormons, unless their goals are dishonorable. If they were smart (and honest), they’d adopt the attitude of the Catholic Church: we don’t like the fact that prominent Catholics are baptized, but in the end we don’t believe it has any effect on their souls.
In the past week, I have convinced two LDS teachers and an entertainment executive to cancel trips planned to the SWC’s Museum of Tolerance. It is my hope that Mormons and people of goodwill of other faiths will choose not to visit an institution that is using an anti-Mormon mercenary to dig up material in an attempt to embarrass a church that has always been very friendly to Jews. The rabbis have also threatened LDS leaders with protests on more than one occasion unless their demands were met. This is a violation of both ethics and decency that is beneath the dignity of rabbis of their stature. In spite of this persecution, Mormons can take consolation from the fact that Jews, even Holocaust victims, are still not exempted from the requirements of LDS temple ordinances. As LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson pointed out a few days ago, direct descendants of Holocaust victims (an admittedly small group) are still able to perform these ordinances for their ancestors.
Mormons are answerable to God concerning their performance of proxy ordinances. In addition, Jews who find out that their ancestors have had their names submitted to LDS temples are certainly entitled to an explanation of how and why this has happened. However, the day will never come (a favorite phrase of Rabbi Hier) that Mormons will owe an explanation to the SWC and others on the lunatic fringe of this issue in the Jewish community. Rabbis Hier and Cooper would do well to devote their considerable talents to helping Jews in this world instead of attacking a church that means them no harm in the next.
NOTE FROM THE JEWISH JOURNAL: In a previous version of this blog entry, Mark Paredes made a statement to the effect that the Simon Wiesenthal Center paid Helen Radkey for her information.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has categorically denied that any such payments were made, and we have removed the allegation from the blog. You can read the letter from the Simon Weisenthal Center below:
The Jewish Journal violated the basic standards of journalism and did a disservice to your readers when you posted a blog that impugned the integrity of Simon Wiesenthal Center officials and that of activist Helen Radkey. This attack was posted with a prominently displayed picture of Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder and Dean of the Center, next to the title, “Mormons and Jews, the SWC Charade Continues.”
You didn’t ask, but for the record, Ms. Radkey is not a paid informant, and she and the Center are owed an apology by the Journal. Had the editors even bothered to check, we would have debunked this libelous assertion. Helen Radkey isa continuing source of accurate information about the posthumous baptisms of victims of the Shoah and prominent historic Jewish figures by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
The Jewish Journal had earlier reported the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s protest following Ms. Radkey’s revelation that the parents of Simon Wiesenthal had recently been posthumously baptized. Since then, Dr. Elie Wiesel protested the presence of the names of his parents on a preparatory list.
As the person who represented the Wiesenthal Center at numerous meetings with senior LDS officials on this issue dating back from 1995 to a meeting in New York in 2010, I, along with Holocaust survivor Ernst Michel and other officials of Jewish organizations dealt with the LDS representatives with appropriate and earned respect. We also recognize the steps the Church has taken to try to address the matter. Unfortunately, recent incidents show that more must be done within the Church to deal with those individual Mormons who still view such actions as appropriate. Any further moves to address this matter must come from within the Church and cannot and should not be dictated by others.
And now comes word that Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and butchered by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan 10 years ago, was also recently posthumously baptized. We can assume that those who performed this rite did so out of love and concern for the soul of Daniel. But at what cost to the living? Last week, Dr. Judea Pearl, Danny’s beloved father, presented the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s annual State of Anti-Semitism lecture in New York. In dialogue with the audience Dr. Pearl declared that, “Danny was murdered because he was a Jew.”
To those who posthumously baptized Danny, we ask more in sorrow than anger: ” Haven’t Danny’s parents suffered enough?”
Signed Rabbi Abraham Cooper
Simon Wiesenthal Center