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September 2, 2010

Proxy Baptism Controversy: The End

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/proxy_baptism_controversy_the_end_39100902/

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“You know, there are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons.” – David Ben Gurion to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (and future LDS Church President) Ezra Taft Benson
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For Mormons who love Jews, yesterday’s headline on the LDS Church’s website couldn’t have been better: “Church and Jewish Leaders Resolve Concerns Over Baptisms.” “Mormons, Jews in New Pact on Baptisms” was the header for The Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt’s upbeat assessment of a final agreement between the Church and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants concerning LDS proxy immersions for the dead. I have included my recent blog post on this issue for those needing a little background: http://www.jewishjournal.com/jews_and_mormons/item/mormon_proxy_immersions_for_the_dead_39100728/

These headlines would have hardly seemed possible two years ago. A prominent member of the American Gathering publicly expressed his frustration with the implementation of the group’s 1995 agreement with the Church, and it appeared that the two sides were going to have to agree to disagree on the feasibility of eliminating all improper name submissions of Holocaust victims. Thanks largely to the efforts of former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams and other Jewish leaders, meetings were arranged in the past year that generated the goodwill that eventually led to this breakthrough.

It was apparent that the Church’s new computer system for submitting names for temple work was an important component of the agreement, so I contacted David Rencher, Chief Genealogical Officer for Family Search, the Church’s family history website. It would be hard to find a happier (or more helpful) man in Salt Lake City right now.  I asked him what the Church was doing to prevent the unauthorized submission of names of Holocaust victims for temple ordinances (Jewish leaders have agreed that “authorized” submissions can be made by Mormons who are direct descendants of Holocaust victims or have written permission from a victim’s direct descendants to submit the names).

First of all, he pointed out that the Church has assumed more of the burden of flagging and eliminating these names. The 1995 agreement had placed the burden of identifying the names on the Jewish side, with the Church agreeing to eliminate any names that were brought to its attention. Now, armed with databases of names of Holocaust victims, a team of dedicated LDS volunteers regularly scans lists of submitted temple names to ensure that no Holocaust victims are included. If a name is found, Rencher said that the pedigree for the name (currently required for all submissions) will be examined closely to see whether the person submitting the name is a direct descendant. If there is a question, the person will be contacted. If the name is found to have been wrongly submitted, it will be deleted from the database. If Jews find names of Holocaust victims on Family Search, they can also ask to have them deleted from the database. Finally, Mormons who have written permission from victims’ families to submit their names to the temple (undoubtedly a small group) must send this documentation directly to the Church, which will review it before authorizing the submission of the names. Mormons found violating Church policies on name submissions will be contacted and asked to cease and desist. It is hard to fully express the pride that I feel as a Latter-day Saint after hearing the lengths to which my Church is going to address the concerns of Jews and to honor the memories of Holocaust victims.

Of course, it is important to realize that the law of unintended consequences is in play here for Jewish genealogists. Family Search is an important research tool for genealogists, including Jewish ones, and the deletion of Holocaust victims’ names from its database could complicate individual efforts to fill in Europe-based family trees. When asked about this, Rencher acknowledged this reality, saying that it was a tradeoff that the Jewish leaders were willing to accept.


As someone who helped to launch an ongoing LDS-Jewish theological dialogue in Los Angeles and actively seeks to duplicate this effort in other cities around the world, it is important to me that Jews and others take LDS theology seriously. When it comes to Jews and Judaism, I believe that we have the most comprehensive and complete theology of any church. It is therefore necessary to clarify assertions that were made yesterday in Jewish media that this agreement makes Holocaust victims “the only category exempt from Church doctrine that calls for vicarious baptism for the dead,” and “Out of all humans who ever lived, the Church has carved out Jewish Holocaust victims as the only exception to a universal doctrine.” While it is true that Holocaust victims are the only category of people whose names the Church has agreed to delete from its genealogy database, it is also true that Mormons who are direct descendants of Holocaust victims are still under the same religious obligation to perform temple ordinances for them. As I have pointed out before, this obligation is as binding on a Mormon as circumcising newborn sons is for observant Jews. Nothing in the agreement prevents a Mormon from fulfilling this religious obligation, though it may make it harder for her to track down her relatives who were victims. 

The text of yesterday’s statement gives us reason to hope for increased cooperation in the future. Jewish leaders quoted in The Jewish Week echo my sentiments exactly. Bob Abrams reminded everyone that “we need as many friends and allies as possible,” and an American Gathering official observed: “we are living in a very difficult and critical time, and as an American Jew, I felt we shouldn’t keep on fighting a church that principally is very friendly to the Jewish community and has created an important center in Israel.” For its part, the official statement begins by noting that “Goodwill and friendship have marked the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jewish people” and closes with an expression of finality and optimism: “It is gratifying that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including in important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.” Amen to that. 

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I am willing to host guest bloggers during my upcoming pro-Jewish speaking tour of Europe (Sept 10-24). If you would like to have your essay published on this blog, please submit it (along with a photo, if desired) by September 8. The topic should be of interest to both Jews and Mormons. Thank you.

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