2008: Bridging a Jewish-Mormon rift: Grandpas baptism opens door / Manya Brachear

See the original on the Chicago Tribune website at this link.
Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair
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Bridging a Jewish-Mormon rift
Grandpa’s baptism opens door
By Manya A. Brachear
September 21, 2008

Grandpa’s arms always offered the warmest embrace. But he had an iron fist when it came to being Jewish.Having watched his parents shun his brother Al for marrying a non-Jew, Grandpa didn’t marry my Christian grandmother until she had converted to Judaism. Later, my grandfather insisted that a rabbi marry my mom and dad. And he boycotted his sons’ weddings when they both married Catholics.So imagine the shock when I learned that my late grandfather had been posthumously baptized a Mormon.
The news revealed nothing about my grandfather. After all, the baptism wasn’t his idea.
Instead, it opened my eyes to the role of free will in the belief system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church. And it gave me a new perspective on a dilemma that generations ago nearly tore my family apart.
For years, the “Mormon side” of the family had been no more than shadowy characters in our genealogical soap opera. The “Mormon cousins,” as they came to be known, were the descendants of my great-uncle Al, who for years supposedly did not speak to his family because of the Christian woman he chose to be his wife. The whole saga served as a cautionary tale for many of us about placing religious allegiance above family. Moral of the story: Family came first.
Eventually, my great-grandfather made amends with his son Al. But this was late in life, and by this time even my great-uncle had become a grandfather himself.
There was something else: Uncle Al had found Mormonism. And so, another faith entered the clan, a faith that valued family and welcomed new converts with open arms.
When I finally met my great-uncle and cousins four years ago, I knew we were related just from the same quirky sense of humor we shared. We had the same family stories, too, even some of the same photos in the family albums. And it was while flipping through those albums filled with family trees that I learned the news.
Next to the names of my grandmother and grandfather were dates of their births, their deaths and their baptisms. My cousins don’t archive family history for only sentimental reasons. They do so for a theological purpose.
The Mormon Church calls on its members to pour their energies into the salvation of all people—including those no longer on earth. To make sure every human being has a chance to reunite with God and family in heaven, Mormons baptize the dead by proxy, a practice my cousin describes as a sacred “power of attorney.”
Mormons trace their unique custom of baptizing the dead to the New Testament. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote: “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?”
The verse confuses a lot of Catholics and Protestants. But for Mormons it makes perfect sense. They believe Christianity’s intent was restored through their church in 1830. They also believe God would not deny that good news to previous generations. So to be fair, everyone should get another chance in the next life to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that offer is proffered through baptism.
My cousins say they have lost count of how many posthumous baptisms they have performed, estimating the number to be in the hundreds. The church tracks them in the International Genealogical Index, a database of more than 700 million names that includes celebrities, popes and dictators. It also lists Holocaust victims, which has led to no shortage of tension between Mormons and Jews.
In 1995, Mormons responded to protests from the Jewish community by promising to stop posthumously baptizing Jews without the consent of their family members. In 2004, the church promised to remove the names of Holocaust victims who had been added to the index without consent from their relatives.
For many Jews, posthumous baptisms evoke thousands of forced conversions during pogroms and the Holocaust. It’s one thing to offer prayers for someone. It’s quite another to seemingly seal their fate without consent.
But Mormons contend that proxy baptism doesn’t automatically make a person Mormon. As my cousins explained, the baptisms simply give my grandparents a choice.
Choice is a central tenet to the Mormon faith. They believe God chose to send his spiritual children to earth to exercise free will by enduring the test of mortality. That freedom or ability to choose does not end when people die.
Even if people in the spirit world no longer have flesh and blood, they still possess the same ego, personality and intellect, which means Grandma and Grandpa “can turn up their noses at this if they want,” my cousin said. Because Mormons believe baptism and other sacred rites are required to enter the kingdom of heaven, they perform the rites by proxy “just in case.”
I imagined my grandfather downright mad at the arrogance of presuming he would abandon what he had devoted his life to preserving. But when I told my mother about the baptism and braced myself for a flood of emotions, she surprised me.
“Mom and Dad felt that any blessings bestowed upon them . . . long distance couldn’t hurt a thing,” she said. Turns out, according to my cousins, my grandfather remained close to his brother regardless of the family tumult. He lent his brother the car and cash he needed to marry. And he helped put some of Al’s grandchildren through medical school. No matter how stubborn my grandfather continued to be with his own children, he always regretted the way his brother had been treated and tried to make up for it until his dying day.
My cousin said the baptism was done out of love, as a way to honor my grandparents. “It is the epitome of not forgetting somebody,” he said.
It does come down to choice. We have the freedom to choose whether religion will unite us or divide us. In the past, my family chose to let it divide. Faced with this revelation, I now realize how torn they must have been. Still, I choose to learn from that mistake and appreciate my cousins’ gesture. Heeding that lesson, to me, is the epitome of not forgetting.
Tribune reporter Manya A. Brachear covers religion.mbrachear@tribune.com
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