Monday, April 2, 2012

A Canticle for Daniel, Part II

This is the second of three parts. The prologue to the series is here and part one is here.

Even if there were nothing else to it, I would think that a request to stop forced conversions from a people that has lived for more than two thousand years under the threat of forced conversions ought to be respected.

But there is more to it.

For people to suggest that we are just being angry, over-sensitive Jews reeks of the kind of gaslighting that would never be acceptable if it were done, for example, to women as a class of individuals. Imagine: I don' t understand what you women think is such a big deal about rape jokes; nobody's actually getting raped, and it doesn't affect anyone's body or physical safety. You're just being pissy; get a grip. Don't be so sensitive about it. Rape jokes are a big deal because they make light of an important issue, namely women's safety and autonomy.

Posthumous baptism in the Mormon church makes light of my beliefs and denies me and my ancestors the autonomy to make our own spiritual decisions. It treats us like children who chose not to become saved in our lives, so it's going to be done for us whether we want it or not. Rather than letting us go, according to their own belief system, and letting our eternal souls live with whatever the consequences might be — even if they are very negative in terms of Mormon beliefs — they hunt us down and force us into their vision of salvation. To baptize me as a Mormon doesn't actually make me a Mormon as far as I'm concerned, as far as my family would be concerned or as far as God is concerned. It doesn't mean, though, that I don't want my choice to remain not-a-Mormon to be respected. Your right to throw punches ends at the edge of my cheek; your right to religious actions ends at the edge of my religion.

I'm writing as if there is a monolith. There isn't, of course. For dissenting views, see this Slate roundtable discussion amongst its Jewish staff writers about whether they'd object or not to being baptized posthumously. I don't agree with him, but I do like Matthew Yglesias' formulation of his position as: "I feel that the Mormon view that they should posthumously baptize me so I go to heaven is better than the orthodox [sic?] Christian view that I should just burn in hell forever." But as for me, I prefer the flip side. There is a material distinction between a Catholic praying for my soul or for my conversion and Mormon acting to effect it, and the distinction lies in the respect for autonomy.

It has been argued in the blogosphere that since only our names are implicated, we shouldn't be so worked up about it. But the sanctity of our names is everything. People can and do desecrate our graves and our bodies — even today and even in the United States — and so our names are the only thing that we ever truly and fully possess. Man is not remembered by his corpse but rather by his name; names are central to mourning rituals and to remembrance. A typical honorific that is said of a dead person is "may his memory be a blessing." It is frequently also given as, "may his name be a blessing." We honor our dead not by mourning them, but by remembering them and by sanctifying God and studying in their names. We read out the names in synagogue of those whose death anniversary fell during the previous week in order to honor their memories. We observe Holocaust Remembrance Day by reading out the names, for twenty-four hours straight, of Hitler's victims. To curse someone in the strongest terms, we say: "Let his name be erased!" The sacred name of a dead Jew is anything but a triviality.

By the by, doesn't everyone want control of his or her name? Witness the trademarking, for example, of variations on Jeremy Lin's name, to cite only the most recent of celebrity examples. Take a look at the famed British libel laws. And as Juliet learned as she implored Romeo to "doff thy name" and begged to understand "what's in a name," for however trivial a name may seem, its power is inescapable. We may have specific cultural and religious reasons to object to the co-opting of our names, but it's not as if the rest of the world can't understand it.

Writing about this issue has forced me to better articulate the reconciliation between the day-to-day secularism of my lived life and the belief system that is at the core of my identity. I live assimilated, but still believe. I think that a lot of secular writers dismiss religion as a lot of hokum. Even as I used to, as well. One of the things that really changed my mind was reading Madeleine Albright's memoirs, and specifically the section in which she wrote about realizing that taking people's religious claims seriously had to be part of the Middle East peace negotiations. You couldn't just tell Christians that their claim to the Holy Sepulchre was a silly attachment to a building or Muslims that they should swap out the Temple Mount for more land in the West Bank because what's a rock, anyway? You might think it's silly. I might think it's silly. Madeleine Albright might think it's silly. But it is still real in that it is going to govern how people behave, and that must be accounted for. This kind of dismissal is practiced, then, by people who will never be able to understand why it is upsetting and who will never be able to be compassionate to the suffering that this kind of practice causes. Religion is something to be accounted for even if you don't believe it fully or at all.

Even though I have come around, perhaps it is still hubris and secularism that allows me to say that I'd rather be damned, thanks. But even if I were deeply religious, I would come to the same conclusion even though the reasoning is different: You believe that you are right and I let you; I believe that I am right, so let me. And let God sort it out in the end.

It's real even though it's not real. It doesn't change things. As Daniel Pearl's parents said when the news broke, with more grace than I would ever be able to muster, he died as a Jew and his eternal fate is as a Jew. But that also doesn't mean that it's not important or that we're wrong to be disgusted by the practice. It's one of those sensitive, cracked-up paradoxes to be held only by a first-rate mind: This thing that doesn't matter at all is everything.

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