Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) yet again has come under intense scrutiny recently when Elie Wiesel, renowned author and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who survived the German Holocaust, publicly requested that presidential candidate and member of the Mormon Church, Willard Mitt Romney, advise his denomination immediately to abandon its practice of posthumously baptizing Jews, many of whom the Nazis ruthlessly tortured and killed during World War II.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Wiesel said that Romney "should speak to his own church and say they should stop" the practice. "I think it's scandalous," he continued. "Not only objectionable, it's scandalous."
The LDS Church often performs these baptisms by proxy for the supposed purpose of "saving" Mormon ancestors and members of other faith communities who did not receive baptism while alive. The Church does so without the authority of the deceased's family members.
An Israeli genealogist discovered the practice back in 1994 C.E. While researching her family, she uncovered records in the LDS database that the Mormons had posthumously baptized her grandfather, a religiously devout Jew whom the Nazis murdered. She went on to discover that other prominent Jews suffered similar humiliation, including Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, the parents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.
Her discovery at the time engendered justifiable indignation within the Jewish community, and following arbitrations between Mormon and Jewish leaders, led to an agreement in 1995 in which the Mormon Church committed to stop all posthumous baptisms of Jews, excluding those who were direct ancestors of Mormons. When the agreement ultimately collapsed, the two sides negotiated another settlement in 2010 that explicitly banned proxy baptisms of Holocaust survivors.
Elie Wiesel and other Jewish people claim, however, that to this day, Mormons have circumvented all past agreements, a claim supported by Salt Lake City researcher and former LDS member, Helen Radkey, who recently discovered Wiesel's name and other Holocaust survivors on the LDS database for proxy baptisms. Radkey reportedly found this information on a database open only to Mormons.
But what the Mormons have done, and the twisted reasoning behind it, is nothing new.
Throughout millennia up to the current era, some Christians have represented the Jewish religion -- and by implication, the Jewish people -- as an immature or intermediate developmental religious stage on the way to Christianity, the so-called advanced, mature faith, and the Jewish Bible as only a prelude to the eventual coming of Jesus and the Christian testaments.
Charles Darwin, in his pioneering book "The Origin of Species," published in 1859, posited an evolutionary theory of plant and animal development. Though Darwin himself did not assert this, some of Darwin's successors extended his ideas to theorize that Jews and the Jewish religion were throwbacks to earlier stages of religious and human development, and even that Jews were not fully human.
Within Darwinian theory we find the concept of continuity and advancement, from animal to human, from savage to civilized. A supposed "Darwinian" model, published in the German magazine Der Schlemiel in 1904, depicted in a four-staged horizontal drawing how the underdeveloped immature Chanukah menorah, symbolizing Judaism, "evolved" ultimately into the highly developed mature Christmas tree, symbolizing Christianity (even though Christians appropriated the symbol of the lighted tree from Paganism).
Throughout the 1920s to the 1950s, Jews, as well as other groups, suffered from institutional restrictions in the United States. A large number of colleges, clubs, hotels, and boarding houses restricted Jewish entry. Signs often appeared on hotels and in hotel newspaper advertisements forthrightly announcing that Jews, people with tuberculosis, and dogs were not welcome.
Hitler and the Nazis used "racial arguments" as the cornerstone of their policies and considered Jews (and most people of color, including people of African descent, and also people with disabilities) as descendants from inferior "racial strands." Hitler claimed that Germany lost World War I because of their internal enemies: the Jews, who had "polluted" the so-called "Aryan" race.
During the 1870s, some lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives attempted to pass a constitutional amendment acknowledging the supremacy of Christianity. Though the proposed amendment eventually failed, its intended purpose was to acknowledge the supposed supremacy of Jesus and of Christianity.
Delegates to the annual Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans in 1996 passed a resolution ("Resolution on Jewish Evangelism") committing to put more energy and resources into converting Jews to Christianity: The resolution read, in part: "WHEREAS, There has been an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved;...BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, That we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel [of Jesus] to the Jewish people." Many Southern Baptists continue to believe, as do members of some other denominations, that Judaism remains an inadequate religion without Jesus as its central figure.
In fact, I received a brochure in the mail sent to my home from a group calling itself "Messiah Today" out of Waverly Hall, Georgia, insisting that I must "see the truth," in their terms. The brochure went on to argue that, "If you reject Jesus, you do so not because the facts are lacking, but out of a choice not to believe the valid evidence. It is not so much that you cannot believe, but that you will not believe. Whether you will admit it or not, Jesus is the Messiah on whom your eternal destiny rests."
This claim comprises the central thesis for the apparently oxymoronic "Jews for Jesus" or "Messianic Jewish" movement. Also calling themselves "completed Jews," they claim that Jesus is the Messiah, which the remainder of us uninformed Jews need to understand, and that by accepting Jesus as THE true Messiah and as our savior, we too can attain completion and salvation.
And who can forget the red-meat flinging columnist and commentator Ann Coulter, who infamously declared on the cable CNBC show "The Big Idea" on October 11, 2007, hosted by Donny Deutsch (who is Jewish), that Jews need to be "perfected" by becoming Christians, and that America would be better off if everyone were Christian. A stunned Deutsch pressed Coulter further by asking, "We should just throw Judaism away and we should all be Christians?" "Yeah," quipped Coulter, unfazed.
According to Ashkenazi (European-heritage) Jewish tradition, a newborn infant is named after a deceased relative. I had the good fortune of being named after my maternal great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler, an observant Jew, a good man whom the Nazis murdered along with many of my other family members in my ancestral village of Krosno, Poland.
The thought of anyone posthumously baptizing any member of my family, or anyone for that matter against their will brings up in me a sense of righteous outrage that knows no bounds. I find it unfathomable that any individual or denomination would manifest the unfettered audacity and chutzpah to engage in such cynical, offensive, and yes, oppressive practices and utterances in defense of their worldview and understanding of the Divine.
For me, this is no simple disagreement, but rather, a fight against oppression, and a fight for social justice. I will not permit any religious group to define me and other Jews, to deny us our right of self-definition and self-determination, and to deny us our integrity and our humanity by attempting to prevent us from maintaining our subjectivity, our agency, and our voice.
To Mormons and others I say, while you may find the practice of baptism well and fine for yourselves, and also while you may conceive the practice of proxy baptism as offering some kind of gift from your perspective, speaking for myself, keep your practices off Jewish bodies and off Jewish souls! You need to curb your proselytizing dog-ma. We neither want nor need your so-called "saving." Furthermore, to all others I declare, Jews have already been "perfected," and we are "complete" as we are.
Though some religious denominations and individuals may continue in their attempts to define us, they will not succeed, for they are fighting a religious and cultural war they will ultimately lose. In the final analysis, their actions only bring disgrace upon themselves and upon their denominations.