Jews urge Mormons to curb zeal for posthumous baptism

Einstein, Freud, Anne Frank have all appeared in database

National Post/June 6, 2001
By Jan Cienski

Salt Lake City -- David Ben-Gurion, Albert Einstein, Menachem Begin and Sigmund Freud have several things in common -- they were all Jewish and they have been posthumously baptized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Mormon Church agreed to remove hundreds of names of Jewish luminaries from its genealogical records last month after they were spotted by a keen-eyed researcher.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center was alerted to the problem by Helen Radkey, a Salt Lake City genealogist, who found Jewish names in the Church's database including Moshe Dayan, the Israeli war hero; Golda Meir, Israel's first female prime minister; Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism; and Holocaust victim Anne Frank and more than a dozen of her relatives.

"They did not get baptized when they were alive and they had a choice, and doing so after they are dead is beyond the ethical bounds," said Aaron Breitbart, a researcher with the Wiesenthal centre. "They are also showing a tremendous insensitivity to the living."

The LDS Church believes the dead who did not have a chance to convert while alive can and should be baptized. According to Mormon theology, they retain the ability to choose or reject the baptism in the next life. The Church refers to a passage in the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians as its authority: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?"

All Mormon believers have a religious obligation to track down their ancestors and baptize them in sacred ceremonies in their temples, where living Mormons temporarily assume the names of the dead. The Church's founder, Joseph Smith, even warned that those who failed to find ancestors did so "at the peril of their own salvation."

The quest for forebears to baptize has led the LDS Church to create the largest genealogical database in the world, the Family History Library, housed across the street from the faith's main temple in Salt Lake City. Inside, dozens of people, including many non-Mormons, tap away at computers looking to fill in gaps in their family trees from the two billion names on record.

The original records are stored in a vault excavated in a canyon about 40 kilometres from downtown Salt Lake City. Although Church rules only call for direct ancestors to be baptized, enthusiastic proselytizers have scoured records of names from around the world, including Jewish encyclopedias, genealogies of European aristocracy and lists of names of immigrants to the United States in their bid to save souls.

Jewish groups first approached the Church in 1995, demanding that Jews be removed. As a result of the agreement, the Church no longer includes the names of Jewish Holocaust victims in its genealogy databases unless they are submitted by a direct descendant.

Jewish groups have also complained about how wide the Church casts its net looking for lost souls. People baptized into the faith include Adolf Hitler and his henchmen Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, all of whom have been removed from the Church's files.

Jews who are not Holocaust victims are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, which is why the first prime minister of Israel and the father of psychoanalysis ended up in the Church's records. The Church says it has removed the names of hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust victims from its records, but because the database is so massive and is constantly being updated by volunteer users, this is a Sisyphean task.

"While the Church counsels members to submit only names of direct-line ancestors, it cannot prevent individual members from again submitting the names of Jewish Holocaust victims," said Kim Farah, a Church spokeswoman.

"When the Church becomes aware this has occurred, the names are immediately removed." Despite the occasional friction between Jewish groups and Mormons, the Church's family records have proved a boon to Jewish genealogists, who often travel to Salt Lake City to consult them.

Gary Mokotoff, a researcher with Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy, says of the latest dust-up: "a friend stepped on the foot of another friend."

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