NEW YORK — Two years after a rupture in Mormon-Jewish relations in America, leaders of the two groups believe they have achieved “a breakthrough” and finally solved an issue of major contention between them — the Mormon Church’s practice of proxy baptism of souls, including of Jewish Holocaust victims.
The new pact, which was announced in a recent statement simultaneously through The Jewish Week and The Deseret News, the Mormon-owned Salt Lake City daily, stipulates that the Mormon Church will allow Jewish Holocaust victims to be the only category exempt from Church doctrine that calls for vicarious baptism for the dead, giving souls the choice to enter the Kingdom of God.
Since 1840, the Church practice has been to gather the names of every person who ever lived and offer their souls the choice of baptism.
As a result of the resolution, both sides predict major efforts of future cooperation.
The statement noted that “as a result of dialogue and extraordinary efforts of the Church, computer systems and policy initiatives have been put in place that resolve the issue, which is greatly appreciated by the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, the result of which will be felt throughout the world.”
“What the Church has done [to accommodate requests from Jewish leaders] is extraordinarily significant,” noted Bob Abrams, the former New York state attorney general who spent the last 13 months negotiating a compromise with Mormon officials.
“Out of all humans who ever lived, the Church has carved out Jewish Holocaust victims as the only exception to a universal doctrine,” asserted Abrams, who called the decision “an enormous concession” based on the Church’s “desire to have a warm and strong relationship with the Jewish community.”
The statement said that “goodwill and friendship” have marked the relationship between the Mormon Church and the Jewish people, but acknowledged that “over the years, survivors of the Holocaust have pointed out to the Church that its practice of posthumous/proxy baptism has unintentionally caused pain due to the inclusion of names of those who perished in the Holocaust.
“It is gratifying,” the statement continued, “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 important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.”
Ernest Michel, a founder of the American Gathering group of survivors and one of the first to raise the issue of insensitivity over the inclusion of Holocaust victims’ names, had given up hope of reaching a resolution.
“We are hopeful now that they will keep their word,” he said this week of Mormon officials, “and that this will lead to a much better relationship.”
What distinguishes this latest resolution from previous ones over the last 15 years is a combination of persistent negotiating efforts, primarily by Abrams, and on the Mormon side a policy shift, public acknowledgment and more sophisticated computer technology.
Jewish leaders note that in past responses to complaints about Holocaust victims being included for proxy baptism, Mormon officials said that souls had the choice of declining the offer, and that despite their best efforts to delete victims’ names from the Church’s enormous database, errors inevitably occurred.
“The key ingredient now is a more advanced computer system that can better implement the policy of not having Holocaust names appear on the list,” according to Abrams, and deleting them if they are found.
Mormon officials noted a “shift of emphasis” for Church members in entering names for baptism by computer.
“It is the personal responsibility of Church members to submit temple work [proxy baptism] for their own families,” noted Mormon spokesman Otterson.
He explained that for the first time Mormons would have to show a direct family lineage to the names they choose to enter for proxy baptism. In addition, computer instructions will inform members of the exemption for Holocaust victims and ask if the entries are in compliance with Church policy.
“The whole emphasis has changed and that is a very significant development,” he said.
Describing today’s announcement as “a statement of acknowledgment” rather than “an agreement,” Otterson said Mormon leaders recognize the Holocaust as “a unique situation — no crime in history has been better documented — and we wanted to be sensitive from the very beginning.”
He added that “this removes an obstacle” to greater cooperation between the Mormon and Jewish communities, with both sides noting a new willingness to explore opportunities to work together, particularly in the area of humanitarian aid on an international level.
Jewish leaders consider the Mormon Church a strong supporter of Israel, and Abrams observed that “we need as many friends and allies as possible.”
The Mormon faith is believed to be the fastest growing religion in the world, and its numbers — about 6 million adherents in America and close to 13 million worldwide — appears to mirror those of world Jewry today.
In addition, both communities place an emphasis on family life, charitable giving, education and performing good deeds.
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of Central Synagogue in Manhattan and a member of the New York delegation that visited Salt Lake City last year said he “came away amazed by the sense of volunteerism” he saw among Mormon young people. “Think of what we could do if we had that kind of commitment,” he said.
Jewish leaders initially sought to have the Church remove the names of all Jews from proxy baptism but gave up when they saw that would not happen.
“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, said Michel, who served as professional head of UJA-Federation of New York from 1970 to 1989.
“I am ready to live with reality,” he said. “We have enough.”
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)