Renegade Mormons are baptizing dead Jews again. Some years ago, they baptized Anne Frank, to assure she would go to heaven. In December, evidence emerged of posthumous baptisms of 20 Holocaust victims, the grandparents of Steven Spielberg and Carrie Fisher, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe (quite a ride from Mashiach to Mormon). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), Mormonism’s large mainstream religious organization, does not recognize these proxy baptisms. The LDS church insists they should only be performed on deceased family members, and that even after death, the intended recipients can accept or reject their new faith as they choose.
How can Jews better understand Mormons? The musical Book of Mormon is not authoritative. Nor is HBO’s Big Love, a fictional TV series about fringe polygamists unrepresentative of the vast majority of Mormons.
Perhaps Jews could look inward for answers. There are nearly 16 million Mormons in the world, almost half in the United States. Some 200,000 live in Canada. The Jewish numbers are similar. One subgroup of Jews especially resembles Mormons: the modern Orthodox. This has prompted some Mormons to ask, “Where is the Mormon Chaim Potok?” The Bronx-born Potok (1929-2002) sympathetically rendered Orthodox Judaism accessible to non-Jewish audiences through his novels, especially The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev. Potok’s books are popular among literary Mormons, who long for a novelist to do for Mormonism what Potok did for Judaism.
Connections between Jews and Mormons run deep. Mormons call non-Mormons gentiles, and feel similarly chosen. Jews are implicated in the Book of Mormon, which chronicles ancient Israelites who sailed to America, were visited there by a resurrected Jesus, and recorded their story on golden plates, later discovered and translated by the religion’s founder Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1830. It may sound far-fetched, but it’s no more fantastic than the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Qur’an. The stories emerged more recently, but are similarly reliant on faith.
The history of Mormonism is well-documented. Smith attracted numerous followers. In 1844, he came into conflict with non-Mormons over his polygamy and other purported heresies, and was murdered by an angry mob. His successor, Brigham Young, brought the Mormons to Salt Lake City, Utah, their Zion. In the 1890s, the LDS church renounced “plural marriage,” Utah was recognized as a state, and the group earned gradual acceptance into American life. The overwhelming majority of Mormons are LDS and live in monogamous, heteronormative families, bound by religion. Much like Orthodox Jews.
Commentators today frequently compare Orthodox Jews with evangelical Christians in the U.S., noting a right-wing convergence in voting habits and political views, especially social issues like abortion and LGBT rights. Yet the differences between the two groups remain vast, as different as a legalistic, communally-oriented Judaism and a faith-based, individualistic Protestantism.
The similarities between modern Orthodox Judaism and Mormonism, on the other hand extend beyond politics. Both modern Orthodox Jews and Mormons lead lives based on rituals and restrictions. Both have significant dietary rules: Jews through the laws of kashrut, Mormons in their abstention from alcohol and “hot drinks” like coffee and tea.
Both communities are growing rapidly and have very low rates of intermarriage. Mormons and modern Orthodox Jews are well-educated high-earners leading successful, integrated lives.
Yet Mormons remain misunderstood. Some present themselves as mainline Christians, another denomination of a mainstream American faith. But America hasn’t entirely bought it. In a 2015 survey, 91 per cent of Americans would elect a Jew president, whereas only 81 per cent would vote for a Mormon. Mormons await their Potok. Hopefully they don’t baptize the original.