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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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Proxy Baptisms and the Jews: Let's Leave Romney Alone

Posted: 03/23/2012 3:16 pm

There are many criteria that one might use to evaluate Mitt Romney's candidacy for President of the United States. But his position on the Mormon practice of proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims and survivors should not be one of them.

Mormon doctrine calls for the baptism of all the dead whose names are uncovered in the Mormon archives; this included -- at one time -- victims of the Holocaust.

I find this practice to be profoundly troubling. I lost 88 members of my family in the Holocaust, and for me and countless other Jews, I can never be calm and detached about matters related to the Shoah. Anything that even hints at disrespect of Holocaust victims or insensitivity to this mass slaughter of innocents sends me into a rage.

Nonetheless, when I was approached more than a decade ago to participate in a high-profile and high-pressure campaign to stop such baptisms, I resisted. I said that yes, I found the practice to be distressing. Still, even then, the LDS Church had called for further baptisms of Holocaust victims to stop. I was told that the Church had not done enough to implement its mandate, but I had no way to evaluate these claims. I did not know if we were dealing with a defiant LDS Church that had not kept its word or with a few renegade Mormons who were defying church policy. (I still do not know.)

But something more fundamental was at stake. However one might evaluate the Church's actions, the fact is that this was an internal religious matter of a faith community other than my own. When I find something objectionable in the ritual practices or theological beliefs of Jews, I am quick to enter the debate; at the same time, I don't expect those in other faith communities to involve themselves in Jewish affairs. Similarly, when I see something that I object to in other traditions, I hold back -- except in cases where I am directly and materially impacted or where the safety or well-being of Jews is clearly at stake. The fact that I am angry (as I was in this case), or even that I find a practice obscene (as I did in this case), is not enough. If my standard is that I do not interfere in the religious practices and beliefs of others, then this standard must apply in all instances -- and especially in those cases that are hard for me and where I have reason to be offended. Otherwise, it is not a standard at all.

I do not doubt that such a standard is an appropriate one because every tradition has practices that are objectionable from the outside -- perhaps because an outsider cannot fully understand them (this is the claim often made here), perhaps because they are truly objectionable. Either way, America's vigorous religious life rests on the premise that even when we are offended, we will let others be. Catholic liturgy is the business of Catholics; Protestant theology is the business of Protestants. When it comes to the Mormons, they may be doing something that I find infuriating, or bizarre, or profoundly distressing, but as long as it is an internal religious matter, it is none of my business.

The stakes have been raised even higher in this case because the claim is now being made that Mr. Romney has an obligation to speak out publicly and use his influence to change Church policy. This is a very, very dangerous path to go down. I think of those Jews who use their religious beliefs as a club to oppress women; I do not assume that Joe Lieberman is responsible for using his position as a prominent American political leader in order to bring about change. Indeed, I do not want him to do so; this is a task that belongs to others. Similarly, Mitt Romney is first and foremost a politician running for president, and there is no reason why he should now be responsible to resolve controversial matters related to Mormon practice.

I appreciate the sentiments and passions of many Jews on this matter. Still, it seems to me that this is a time for the Jewish community to show restraint. As for Mitt Romney, let him deal with the tough political issues that we Americans face, but when it comes to Mormon religious practices, it is right to let him be.

 
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