They live in different theological universes, but when a group of Mormon leaders sat face to face with a group of Jews to address a church practice the Jews considered insulting, some in the room felt a divine spark uniting them. A delegation of five Jews met Sunday and Monday in Salt Lake City with church leaders and historians and agreed to form a committee to explore issues related to proxy baptisms — the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing non-Mormons, including Holocaust victims and other Jews.
“We walked in assuming that we were going to be embattled and walked out realizing that we were on the same side of the table,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Indeed, despite the two sides’ religious differences, Elcott spoke of “experiencing the holy in the encounter.”
The process is a rite Mormons believe helps clear the baptized person’s path into heaven.
While members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints view the practice as a gift, it has proven hard for many Jews to swallow, especially when applied to Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Ernest Michel, chairman of the New York-based World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and a member of the Jewish delegation, told JTA that concerned Jews had considered launching a widespread publicity campaign against the practice and even had contemplated legal action.
But the groups reached detente at Monday’s meeting, participants said. They agreed to convene the committee by June 1. At the same time, the church recommitted itself to putting a stop to baptizing dead Jews, except if they were related to Mormons.
In 1995, church leaders agreed to halt the proxy baptisms of Jews, but Michel said he and his group had traveled to Utah armed with 5,000 pages of documentation proving that the ceremonies had continued, possibly as recently as this year.
“According to our information they have not lived up to that agreement,” he said.
In the new agreement, the church agreed not to list the names of Holocaust victims in its databases, and the recently created Yad Vashem database, which holds the names of 3 million Holocaust victims, will not be mined and posted on Mormon databases, Michel said.
The International Genealogical Index, the Mormons’ primary database, now lists some 1 billion people who have been baptized posthumously. The church also publicizes several other databases — including one listing immigrants who passed through Ellis Island — with another approximately 1 billion names, for whom proxy baptisms have not necessarily been performed.
The recent accord, said Michel — whose own parents died in the Holocaust and were baptized posthumously — is “an honest effort by the church.”
“I have cautious optimism,” he continued. “They are good people. I have known them now for 10 years. We have a very warm relationship. They are decent people.”
In proxy baptisms, living members of the Mormon church are immersed in water and baptized as stand-ins for dead people. Among those for whom such rites are reported to have been undertaken are Anne Frank and most popes.
According to Mormon practice, the faithful are only to proxy baptize their own dead relatives. According to the new agreement, Mormons with dead Jewish relatives may continue to baptize them.
“We continue to emphasize to our members that their focus should be on only those who are their own ancestors,” D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the church’s Presidency of the Seventy and a member of the Mormon contingent at the meeting, told JTA.
“There are some of our current members who have Jewish ancestors and I think we’re all in agreement that it’s quite appropriate that they would fulfill that religious obligation,” he continued. “But those who do not have Jewish ancestors should not be forwarding names of deceased Jews, especially Holocaust victims, for proxy baptisms.”
Elcott said that “we would never question” a Mormon’s right to baptize a dead Jewish relative.
But Michel said that because Jews sometimes have last names that do not sound Jewish, and some non-Jews have Jewish-sounding names, some Jews still could be found on the database and baptized.
“It will not be fail-safe, I have to admit,” he said. “You sometimes have a Jew by the name of McGillicutty and you have a non-Jew named Isadore. Therefore it will not be fail-safe. But there is an intent for them” to avoid baptizing Jews, “and that’s what counts.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.