Jewish officialdom is up in arms, the Mormon Church is on the defensive, and frankly I don’t give a damn. I refer, of course, to the controversial Mormon practice of baptizing deceased non-Mormons into their faith.
In 1995, the Mormon Church agreed to stop posthumously baptizing dead Jews. But according to Ernest Michel, a former executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York who helped broker the 1995 agreement, the church has rebuffed attempts to remove Jewish names from its database of 400 million and has violated the agreement.
That may be so. But what a waste of time for everybody involved. It seems incredible that at a time when more Jewish civilians are dying than at any time since the Holocaust, and with the Jewish community in general, and the state of Israel in particular, needing all the allies they can get, we would waste our time with such trivialities.
I could not care less if the Mormons baptize me after I’m dead. It won’t affect me. I’ll always be a Jew – in this life and the next. If this is part of Mormon practice and belief, and they do it in the privacy of their own ritual, and it doesn’t affect me in the slightest, why should I care? People’s beliefs are their own business. It’s how they treat others that is everyone’s business. What I care about is how much the Mormons support Israel today, not what they do with Jewish souls in what they regard as the afterlife.
Far from being my sentiment alone, this is a pivotal Jewish teaching: “It is the action [and not dogma] which is most important.”
In my first few years as rabbi at Oxford University, I befriended a doctoral student by the name of Michael Taft Benson, whose grandfather at the time, Ezra Taft Benson, was president and prophet of the Mormon Church. Not only did Mike become and remain one of my dearest friends, he served as vice president of my L’Chaim Society and regularly brought groups of hundreds of Mormon students to our Sabbath dinners to learn more about Judaism. A great lover of Israel who has visited there more than 10 times, Mike chose to write his doctoral thesis on Harry Truman’s support for the creation of the Jewish state.
Through Mike, I was granted a meeting with the current president and prophet of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, who is Mike’s grandfather-in-law. We spoke about Israel, his admiration for the Jewish people, and the Mormon dedication to Israel’s prosperity and survival. I am regularly invited to address Mormon audiences in Utah who thirst for knowledge of all things Jewish and who treat me like a wise elder brother.
Mike even arranged for me to launch my book “Judaism for Everyone” at the University of Utah, and he and I are currently planning a Jewish Studies center for Snow College, where Mike serves as president. After meeting with Jonathan Pollard at Federal prison in Butner, N.C., it was Mike whom I called to ask for his support in meeting the two Utah senators on Pollard’s behalf. He quickly arranged for me and Esther Pollard to meet with Sens. Hatch and Bennet of Utah, who received us most graciously.
The Mormons are our brothers, the Christians are our kin. So long as they support and defend the Jewish people through their current persecution, that will always be so, whatever their beliefs, and we owe them our gratitude.
The same is true of those righteous evangelicals who love Israel like it is their own country. Many Jews are alarmed at the steadfast support of evangelical Christians for Israel, claiming it is insincere. It’s an end-of-days strategy, they say. Jesus can’t come back until the Jews have returned to Israel. The evangelicals aren’t real friends because, at the Second Coming, they believe, all Jews will become Christians.
What an absurd complaint. To tell people who send tens of millions of dollars to poor Israelis and who place enormous pressure on the Bush administration never to abandon Israel that they are not real friends is to be ungrateful at best and treacherous at worst. Who cares what their beliefs are? They are our greatest friends in the world. What will happen when Jesus comes back and some of our evangelical friends then expect that in return for their support we become Christian? Hey, we’ll talk about it then. In the meantime, we’ll show them unstinting appreciation for their love and support against an insurgent Islam that wants to wipe Israel from the map.
I, of course, don’t mean to be flippant about any of this. My point is a very serious one. Friendships are not based on creeping into the innermost sanctums of the other’s heart and discerning their motivation. Friendship comes down simply to the affection with which people treat each other.
If Jews are troubled by Mormon and evangelical Christian theology and propose to focus more on these groups’ beliefs than on their actions, the logical outcome would be for the Jews to be far closer to the Muslims than to Christians. After all, theologically speaking, Islam and Judaism are closer than any two other religions. Both are pure forms of monotheism which utterly reject the deification of a man as God, neither accepts any division in the Godhead, like a trinity, and both are based on a written law (the Torah and Koran) and on an oral legal tradition (the halakha and the hadith).
So why aren’t we as close to the Muslims as we are to the Christians? Simple. The Christians, whatever their beliefs, treat us as beloved brothers, the Muslims, however monotheistic, murder our children.
Perhaps the Jewish community should focus more on how other groups treat us than what they believe about us. Let’s stop with the silly insecurities that have us looking to scratch the skin of a friend and find underneath a closet anti-Semite.