A few summers ago, I visited a ward in Salt Lake City in which the Relief Society teacher mentioned that “a few Jews” had not wanted Holocaust victims to be baptized after death, but then said, “Don’t they understand that nobody is forced into accepting the gospel? The ordinance just opens the door. People still have their agency.” I (politely, I thought) countered that for a people with a history of forced baptism during the Crusades and then a “final solution” with six million people exterminated in the Holocaust, any Christian baptism without knowledge or consent would seem insulting. I then turned the tables and asked the teacher if she had any Mormon pioneer ancestors. This was Salt Lake City; of course she did. I mentioned that I could imagine her not wanting her Mormon ancestors, who sacrificed so much in their efforts to live their faith, to have that sacrifice nullified by outsiders of another religion a century and a half later. I’d love to say that she completely understood my point and that my voiced opinion altered her way of thinking, but no. She seemed miffed that I had muddied the waters at all.
One thing I have noticed in the controversy over Jewish baptisms is that Mormons are very anxious to explain, as this sister did, that recipients of proxy baptism are still in full possession of their free will. Merely performing the rite does not make it efficacious. And I’ve also noticed that many Jewish protesters are very aware of this distinction already. “They say that those who are dead retain their identity and free will and therefore can either accept or reject the rites performed for them,” says an essay about Mormons “hijacking” Jewish souls. But guess what? That subtle distinction doesn’t really matter to most Jews, because Judaism and Mormonism have very different relations to ritual.
In Mormonism, it’s true that an unrequested temple ritual doesn’t make you a Mormon. But in Judaism, it’s true that certain rites can make you a Jew, even if they are performed without your consent. Think about the bris, the rite of circumcision that every Jewish male is supposed to undergo in infancy. At circumcision, a baby boy is believed to have entered into the covenant with Abraham, our father. “Sovereign of the universe, may it be Your will that this (circumcision) be regarded and accepted by You as if l had offered him before the Throne of Your Glory,” says the liturgy. It doesn’t matter that an eight-day old is not capable of requesting to be named as part of the Covenant. The ritual performs that, aided by parents and a loving community of welcome. The boy is now a Jew.
But maybe a better analogy is to understand just a bit about the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The kaddish is to be recited in the days and months after the death of a loved one. Although many Jews today perform the kaddish primarily as a comforting means to gather with others in their grief and engage in an ancient ritual in a time of mourning, the origins of the kaddish suggest that it has been, and sometimes still is, performed for the salvation of the dead.
One source of kaddish is found in a story:
Rabbi Akiva was walking through a forest. He saw a man, darkened with coal dust, carrying a heavy load of fire wood on his shoulders and running at a very rapid pace. Rabbi Akiva commanded the man to stop and the man stood for Rabbi Akiva.
"Why are you running with such a heavy load?” the rabbi asked. “If you are a slave, I shall free you! If you are poor and must exert yourself to such an inhuman extent, let me give you money and make you wealthy!"
"Please," the man entreated Rabbi Akiva, "Let me continue my work!"
Rabbi Akiva learned that the man had died and was being punished by collecting huge amounts of fire wood for a giant fire into which he was to be cast. In life he had been a tax collector, a great sin, and had also sinned by having sex with a girl who was already engaged to someone else. On Yom Kippur, no less.
Rabbi Akiva inquired, "My son, have you not heard that something from the other worlds could be done to help you and alleviate your suffering?"
Rabbi Akiva went to the village, where everyone hated the man, and found his family. The man’s wife had borne a son after his death, but no one in town would circumcise him, so the rabbi did so. He taught the boy Torah, the Shema, and to recite the grace after meals.
When the boy became old enough to pray in public and he could pray for his father’s soul, the curse on his father was lifted. When this happened, the soul of the man came to Rabbi Akiva in a dream. “You have spared my soul from the punishments of Hell.”
It’s an arresting story, but it’s revealing as well. In the story, a young boy is able to change his deceased biological father’s eternal destiny through ritual actions here on earth. His dedication to prayer and study literally lifts his father out of hell. There’s also a passage in 2 Maccabees (which admittedly was rejected from the Jewish canon) that discusses how prayers and sacrifices might enhance the eternal status of the dead who are being prayed for.
All this is to say that there is a precedent in Judaism for the acts of the living on behalf of the dead to actually sanctify and change the fate of deceased persons. This is a legacy that Latter-day Saints must consider when we blithely talk about how our temple baptisms can be rejected on the other side of the veil.