Candidates for the Republican nomination for president have brought the Mormon Church right into the public eye. No doubt the successful, clean living, pious Mitt Romney is a welcome change from Broadway shows and television series about the Mormons and legal cases of patriarchs marrying multiple much-younger wives, not to mention stories about their special underwear.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) was founded by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have found, in New York State, golden plates inscribed with the Book of Mormon. Even though they soon disappeared, they became the foundation of his new Christian church that was regarded initially by mainstream Christians as schismatic and heretical. He died in 1844. His successor, Brigham Young, led his flock off west to Utah, where they established themselves as a closely knit, successful missionary sect with a strong financial base. Its eager, cleanshaven, white-shirted, and flannelled young missionaries have spread out around the world, knocking on doors and offering to bring good news to anyone who still hasn’t had any or, if they have, have not realized exactly what the good news is. As with all religions, over time it has fragmented into different factions and degrees of religiosity.
The Mormons gained notoriety for (in addition to their former practice of polygamy) their concept of proxy baptism. You can covert someone who is dead, retroactively. Since they believe that only a person baptized can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, the idea is that they are doing someone a great favor, without needing to ask their consent. And of course the missionary gets extra Divine brownie points for every soul he saves, dead or alive.
To this end, the Mormons have built up possibly the most extensive database in the world of all sorts of archives that have been used to baptize almost anyone they could identify. In 1994, an Israeli genealogist, Esther Ramon, researching her family in the Mormons’ computerized International Genealogical Index, discovered that her grandfather, a religiously observant Jew murdered in the Holocaust, had been posthumously baptized as a Mormon. She alerted other Jewish genealogists who soon learned that some 380,000 Holocaust victims, including Anne Frank, had been baptized, as well as Theodor Herzl, the founder of secular Zionism, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and scientist Albert Einstein. Negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, not just Holocaust victims, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons. But this has not stopped some more zealous members from still doing it.
When I heard this story many years ago, l was, in the language of texting, Rolling On the Floor Laughing. “You can’t be serious,” I thought, “You want to convert me without my even knowing?” All the funnier given what hoops we Jews make people jump through who want to convert to Judaism! Well, be my guest. Make me an Elder of the Church, too, if it makes your day.
In general, Mormons, like Lubavitchers, are friendly openhearted, nice men and women who genuinely want to do good. They built a huge college in Jerusalem, on condition they agreed not to proselytize in Israel; my brother, David, was an acclaimed lecturer there for several years. However the only thing their religion shares with Orthodox Judaism is their propensity for large families.
The truth is that their notion of doing someone a favor is not unique to them. Why, even in the Talmud we say, “You can benefit someone in his absence”. But that is materially. How you do it spiritually is another matter. Some of our “latter day” rebbes seem to know how to do that, too (for a price).
The fact is that mainstream Christianity was into this lark long before the prophet Mormon. Romney’s main rival is Rick Santorum. He is a strict Catholic. I have no doubt he thinks I’m a lost cause too, as far as the Next World is concerned. Why do you think the Catholic Inquisition used to be so fond of burning people? Heard of the auto-da-fe? Perhaps you didn’t see Mel Brooks’s film, History of the World, Part I!
An auto-da-fé, literally an “act of faith”, was the ritual of public penance for condemned heretics in which the Inquisition burnt them to death for their alleged crimes against religion. After all, if they were going to burn in Hell for eternity, what’s a quick barbecue in this world that wouldn’t last too long and actually save them from burning forever. The church was doing then a favor!And since everyone seemed to find the burn up much more entertaining than the penance which preceded it, in popular use the term came to mean just the burning.
All this primitive stuff is based on the incredible arrogance of religions that think that they are in the sole possession of the truth and that everyone else is damned. I thought it a hoot when an ardent Christian told me, in Cambridge, that regardless of how good or spiritual a person I was, no matter what my relationship with God, I would burn in Hell because I would not accept Jesus as my saviour. In vain did I try to get out of him any logical answer as to why, or what product he had to offer that could possibly improve on what I already had.
I guess it is not so different than Chabad missionaries believing that only their way of dress and custom is the right way for a Jew to behave. And that the mere act of putting on tefillin or waving a lulav will save their souls. OK, not fair. They might share a Mormons’ enthusiasm for converting people, but they do stick to Jews and they don’t really believe everyone else is doomed to eternal damnation. Or what about those crazy Kabbalists who will tell you looking at a page of the Zohar, even if you understand bubkis, will change your life?
Frankly why should anyone give a damn about retroactive conversion? If that’s some religions’ belief, surely that’s their problem, not mine. And if it makes them happy, as they say in Hindustani, “Gey gezunter heit!” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I honestly don’t think God will hold it against me if someone signs me up for subscription I didn’t ask for.
If you get a chance, look up Stephen Colbert’s sketch on Youtube. He decided that if Mormons could convert dead Jews he was going to convert all Mormons to Judaism with a ceremony that involved taking a cigar cutter to a wiener sausage. And why not? It is no more ridiculous than retroactive conversion except that we don’t believe in converting people to curry favor with the Almighty.