Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Who decides?

One of the blogs I have on my sidebar is by Mark Paredes, a Mormon blogger at the Jewish Journal who writes about Mormon-Jewish issues. I was going through some of his recent archives and found an article from last month in which Paredes talked about Mormon-Jewish dialogue. That's all well and good, and Parades makes some excellent points about how to do interfaith communication right (for starters, if you want to understand what members of a religion believe, your first step should be to ask members of the faith to speak for themselves, not their critics). However I couldn't help but notice a paragraph where Paredes mentioned the one continual sticking point between our communities:
I deliberately left out any mention of proxy temple ordinances in my speech, which Rabbi Wolpe was quick to note. I took the opportunity, which I will also avail myself of here, to announce that I will no longer discuss the proxy ordinances issue in future presentations. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. A small group of Jewish leaders has blown this issue way out of proportion for 20 years; even they decided last year to move on to agenda items that actually affect living Jews, instead of worrying about what a few disobedient Mormons are doing in their own temples. I’ve blogged several times on this issue, and don’t plan to spend more time or effort explaining it. Instead, I will refer curious Jews to the rabbis at the Simon Wiesenthal Center so that they can tell them by what authority they are authorized to speak on behalf of the dead and explain just why they felt it was necessary to carry on this campaign for two decades with the help of an anti-Mormon researcher.
This is where I start to lose respect for Paredes, because while it is true there are plenty of other meaningful and important topics to discuss about the Mormon-Jewish relationship, the fact that Paredes has decided that he's sick of talking about this is galling as well as troubling. I thought part of the point of Paredes' talks is to promote dialogue; so I'm rather confused about the logic of barring proxy baptisms as a legitimate discussion item just because Paredes is sick of the topic. Guess what, Mark? SO ARE WE. The reality is the reason this continues to be a sore point is because members of your community keep doing it; your response should be to encourage your church to better police its members rather than chastise Jews for daring to be offended that you continue, after 20 years, to apparently not care that you're doing something lots of us find offensive.

At his suggestion, I took the time to look up some of Paredes' old posts on the issue. Not surprisingly, they weren't all that satisfactory. Parades repeatedly points out that Mormons believe that their relatives are required to have proxy baptisms, and then usually pats the church on the back for being so magnanimous to exempt "Jewish Holocaust victims," even though other people would like their relatives' names taken out as well:
No one thinks that more than a handful of Mormons (out of nearly 14million today) continue to defy the Church’s policy on name submissions. In other words, we have 99.9999% compliance. While the LDS Church is hierarchical in nature, it is not a police state. If a rebellious member insists on submitting the name of a Jewish non-relative for temple ordinances, his efforts will likely besuccessful. When the Church is made aware of the improper submission, it can and does act to remove it from the ordinances database. Indeed, this is a special promise made only to Jews, though others have requested it as well. After all, Mormons should not be submiting the names of any non-relatives—whether Catholic, Buddhist, Brazilian or Zulu—for temple ordinances. However, if a Jewish name is submitted improperly, the name will be removed if a request is made. This unique arrangement is a testament to the respect and love that Mormons feel for the Jewish community. Our leaders have had to walk a fine line between accommodating Jewish leaders’ wishes while affirming our obligation to perform temple ordinances for our kindred dead, and I think that they have largely succeeded.
How big of you, Mark. The fact that you guys have decided to give a medium-sized crap about Jews who died between 1939 and 1945 really makes me feel better in the light of the tiny crap you give about Jews who died in all other years (to say nothing of Catholics, Buddhists, or Zulus who lived or died at any time). Wow, too bad my various ancestors who were baptized had to go and die in New York instead of Auschwitz like their cousins. Just our bad luck, I suppose.

Every time the issue is raised, Paredes repeats the party line. Only a handful of Mormons are doing it, the LDS leadership wants to respect Jewish wishes, they can only do so much, etc. He also tries to skirt the issue by pointing out that Mormons perform other rites with dead people's names that people usually aren't as vocal about:
When I first started discussing posthumous temple rites with Jews, I quickly noticed that they only raised objections to the ordinance known to Mormons as “baptisms for the dead.” Even though Mormons perform several ordinances for the deceased, Jews focused almost exclusively on that one. [I have never heard a Jew object to the eternal marriage by proxy of a husband and wife who perished in the Holocaust, for example].
Funny thing, Mark, that doesn't make me feel better. At all.

Paredes raises this point as a way of saying that the LDS proxy baptism doesn't mean that the person has actually "become" Mormon, just that it's been offered. But by issue is that the very act of using the person in a religious ritual is perceived, and felt, as a violation. The fact that the Mormons don't see it that way doesn't change this, and the fact that some people think it's not a big deal doesn't change it, either. If someone does something offensive to someone else, it is offensive. You as the offender do not decide when it stops being offensive. You can either work to stop it, or you can be honest and say you don't care. But you most certainly don't get to be mad when we keep bringing it up. The continued insistence by Mormons that proxy baptisms don't matter and that we have no right to be bothered by it, bothers me more than the rites themselves. It's another layer of theological arrogance, best shown in an article from nine months ago when Paredes attacked Elie Wiesel and the Wiesenthal Center:
Last week the charade involving a group of leaders in the Jewish community and the LDS Church’s practice of proxy immersions reached a new low. Elie Wiesel, one of the towering moral figures of our age, found out that his father and grandfather’s names had been submitted by a disobedient member of the church for temple ordinances. The church quickly canceled the submissions, but not before Mr. Wiesel had called on the church (via the Huffington Post) to stop performing temple ordinances for all Jews, not just Holocaust victims. He then asked Mitt Romney to “speak to his own church” about the issue. With all due respect to Mr. Wiesel (and considerable respect is due), he would probably do more good by suggesting to certain Jewish leaders that they mind their own business.
Apparently Jews are only allowed to be offended by topics vetted by Paredes. Who knew?
In the early 90s, a group of Jewish leaders approached the church after discovering that a few members had submitted – in violation of church rules – names of Holocaust victims for LDS temple ordinances. Although these ordinances do NOT confer membership in the church, the leaders claimed to be offended.
They claimed to be offended. Apparently in Paredes' worldview, other people don't have the right or autonomy to actually have their own opinions when it comes to his church.
Had I been in charge of the LDS delegation to the initial [1995] meeting, it would have been a short one. I would have started off by asking the leaders what authority they had to represent dead Jews. The answer? None. 
Stupid question that deflects the issue. Obviously no one can "truly" speak for the dead; they're not here. However one can look to the beliefs of a community, of families, and in some cases, of the dead themselves to guess what they might have wanted-- assuming that this is your actual goal. If your goal is find ways to justify behavior that members of that community find offensive, then you play stupid games like this. In the Jewish community, this issue has always been framed as one of a lack of respect-- a lack of respect of Jewish beliefs, and a lack of respect for what the dead most likely would have wanted. Paredes' response exemplifies the Mormon response: we don't care what you think. In Paredes' world, Wiesel has NO RIGHT to be offended that his father and grandfather, who were clearly devoted to Judaism and as far as he knows had zero interest in converting to anything or being used as part of another religion's rituals, were used in this way. He's simply not allowed. Just like Daniel Pearl's family isn't allowed to be offended on his behalf.

Here's a question: what authority do Mormons have to do anything with dead Jews? None other than the authority they claim, which is exactly the same argument Jews claim. The difference is that as the descendants of the people whose names the Mormons are using in their ceremonies and who are part of the same community as the dead, it seems to me that if anyone has more authority to speak for the dead, it's the Jews and not the Mormons. Paredes skirts the issue by saying the Jews are being arrogant by presuming to speak for their own relatives. As I've said several times, the best comparison I can think of to proxy baptism is peeing on someone's grave. Who's to say that your great-grandfather wouldn't have been totally into urine play?

Let's turn it around: Hey Mark! I've got a new religion that has some special rites I'm supposed to do. Yeah, and I have a quota to fill, so I'm going to need some help from your family on this. Oh come on, what's the big deal? For all you know, maybe your grandparents secretly wanted to be exhumed, put into a glass casket, and used in an Aztec-themed rap video? You know, if you keep complaining about this, I'm going to start feeling persecuted!

The only leg Paredes has to stand on in this whole discussion is a claim he makes regarding the 1995 agreement between a Jewish delegation and the LDS church:
the church offered at that time to “freeze” names of all known Holocaust victims for purposes of temple work if the Jewish leaders would agree. Unfortunately, they chose the second option of taking upon themselves the responsibility of notifying the church whenever they discovered the submission of a Holocaust victim’s name. The Jewish leaders knew from the beginning that the option they chose would mean that many names, and sometimes the same names, would continue to pop up in the database. In a stunning moment of candor, someone with detailed knowledge of the early discussions acknowledged to me that one of the reasons that the Jewish leaders chose this option was so they could continue to hold church leaders’ feet to the fire on this issue and eventually reach their ultimate goal: to have the LDS Church declare that Judaism was sufficient for salvation, and temple ordinances were not necessary for Jews.
Sorry Mormons, you may feel burned because some leaders you worked with 20 years ago suggested that we'd settle for you "exempting" Jews who died within a six-year time period. But, yeah, the truth is that we do not want you doing anything with our dead, Holocaust or otherwise, because it bothers the hell out of us, and it's not ok, and it's never going to be ok, and if you want us to shut up about it, then you're going to need to stop doing it, and if you're not going to stop, then we're entitled to complain about it. If you fell for that then it's your own fault.
Rabbis Hier and Cooper have no standing whatsoever to demand that a church change its religious practices because they’re offended by them. They tried that with the Catholics (e.g., the resurrected Good Friday prayer), and were politely told to mind their own business. 
Sorry Mark, you're missing the point. If people are legitimately offended something in another religion, they're entitled to continue to make noise about it. That doesn't mean the other religion is obligated to respond or change, but neither do you have the authority to stop your critics from talking about it. Additionally, the details here are substantially different from the Good Friday example. That's one prayer, it happens once a year, and it's a broad theological statement. The proxy baptism issue is deeply personal and is continually happening all the time.
There are 14 million Mormons, and in the idealized world of the SWC, computers at LDS genealogy centers would somehow be able to detect when even one of them is about to improperly submit a Jewish name for a temple ordinance. This is ridiculous, and they know it. I have a question for them: Why can’t they do something to address the problem of agunoth in the Orthodox community worldwide? Everyone knows that it’s outrageous, and rabbis throughout the world denounce husbands who refuse to grant divorces to their estranged Jewish wives. Why can’t Rabbis Hier and Cooper force every Orthodox husband to toe the line on marriages? Because the husbands have free will, that’s why. 
Funny thing, Mark: last I checked, the LSD church operates according to a hierarchy, whereas Judaism is historically, almost comically, decentralized. Furthermore, your ritual has become digitized. The LDS church owns the databases, they operate all the temples, and they perform the ceremonies. They could do a moratorium on proxy baptisms until their system is better centralized. They could establish new processes to ensure that LDS members who violate church agreements are punished for it. They could increase the burden of proof on people submitting names, requiring them to document their line of descent better. Perhaps most importantly, they actually could establish a "do not baptize" list, documenting every person they've had to take off, and ensuring that if someone tries to baptize them again it raises a red flag. You can do that with computers now. So it's not an issue of can't, it's an issue of won't. If they recognized this as a serious issue, these are some things they could do. Instead, they've told Jewish people who find names to contact them and they'll take them off the lists-- but only if they fall into the one specific category they've "exempted." That's it, even though Paredes admits that the only names that should be submitted, much less used in the ceremonies, are people with Mormon descendants. Is it any wonder some people don't think that's good enough?
The rabbis have also threatened LDS leaders with protests on more than one occasion unless their demands were met. This is a violation of both ethics and decency that is beneath the dignity of rabbis of their stature.  In spite of this persecution, Mormons can take consolation from the fact that Jews, even Holocaust victims, are still not exempted from the requirements of LDS temple ordinances. 
There you have it: in Paredes' world, when Jews complain or even threaten to protest, it constitutes persecution of Mormons. And people accuse Jews of having a victimization complex? Grow the hell up.

The reality is that the LDS church will probably not stop doing this, and so at a certain point you do need to figure out when to move on and how to build positive and productive relationships with other religious groups. But Paredes isn't doing himself any favors by silencing discussion on the topic by essentially saying that "it's not a big deal and you're not allowed to think it is, because I'm done talking about it."

Remember, the whole argument Paredes and the LDS church are trying to advance is that their church is incredibly pro-Jewish, believes in connecting with Jews, supports Israel and all the rest. Well you can't really say all that and demand all this credit for being such good friends with the Jews if when some Jews criticize you your reaction is to say, "I don't want to hear it!" and throw that same supposed friendship back in their face. You can't claim to be sensitive to Jewish feelings and concerns if your response to Elie Wiesel expressing hurt and pain at finding out that his father and grandfather were, in his eyes, at least, dishonored, is to dismiss him by calling him old and suggesting the problem is that he's senile and being taken advantage of by opportunists in the community. Yes, it couldn't possibly be that he has a point!

If Paredes wants to build bridges he needs to recognize that this will continue to be an issue among (some) Jews because we care about it. Paredes does not get to decide when or if Jews cease to care about it, and he most certainly is not in a position to dictate to the Jewish community how they "get" to feel. He can choose what he's willing to discuss publicly, but if he's looking for Jews to say this is ok, I have news for him: as someone affected by this issue, this is not and will never be ok with me. I do not appreciate you using my ancestors' names in any of your rituals, I do not think they would have appreciated it, and there is nothing you can say that will negate that feeling. Furthermore, removing the names, in my opinion, is not the solution. That's not what I want. What I want is for you to reform your procedures for these rituals and stop using non-Mormons' names in your rituals except for the tiny amount of cases where it is "required" by church doctrine. Until that happens, you can expect to keep hearing about it. Feel free to be pissed about it. I know I am.


Antigonos said...

This is a non-issue for me. So Mormons might like to find a way to consider my late mother one of them. She certainly won't care, at this point. Neither do the Hitlers and the Arafats, for whom baptism to any faith never rendered a Jew any less Jewish. I don't think God cares at this point either. "Mrs. Bolen, we're going to have to change your heavenly status because some nutcases in the Utah desert have decided you are one of them".

Now, baptizing, without parental consent, living Jewish babies in a premature ICU, which I once caught a Filipino nurse doing, is a different matter, for historical reasons because our experiences in that matter have led to the Church kidnapping the children later, and because performing any physical act on a patient requires consent by either the patient or the guardians of that patient.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Antigonos- And so much the merrier! I have no issue with people feeling differently about me on this issue. What I object to are people declaring by fiat that because it's a non-issue to them that people who are bothered by it shouldn't have the right to talk about it. For that matter, I have never believed it has any effect on my dead relatives' souls; my problem is that it's disrespectful to their identity as Jews and that the LDS church's response to objections has been to either shine us on or tell us to cram it. They're entitled to say this, of course, but we're equally entitled to stay mad about it.

When I first discovered my great-grandparents on Mormon rolls, it bothered me a lot. These days, it's less of a personal issue, and I'm supportive, on principle, of Jewish-Mormon cooperation and dialogue as with other religious groups. However I continue to be irritated when entitled voices like Paredes announce that they're sick of the issue and essentially say that we should just shut up about it because somehow we're being "uppity" if we mention it. For a religious group that claims to identify so strongly with us, and whose representatives say they're interested in dialogue, that striked me as a pretty crappy approach to take.