February 27, 2012
Mormon Temples and Jews: The SWC Charade Continues
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.