What on Earth can we do for a Loved One in Heaven? Rabbi Perl Reflects on Recent Mormon Proxy Baptisms

The latest unwitting recipient of a posthumous Mormon baptism was revealed as murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — much to his parents’ chagrin.

The Jewish reporter is among a number of people who were baptized by proxy without any authorization — a group that includes Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called for the end of the ritual posthumous baptism of Jews after learning the names of his late father and grandfather were entered in a baptism database.

What on Earth can we do for a Loved One in Heaven?

Chasidism espouses a after-death care program for departed souls. The movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, speaks of “tikun ha’neshamot,” the “fixing” or “mending of souls.” Before the Sabbath he would help all those souls that had passed during the week peacefully make their entry into the world beyond. It was known that at the Mincha service on Friday afternoons he would recite an extra-long prayer service –the Amidah, and through his deeply concentrated devotions would act as a guide on behalf of the souls of the dead.

Similarly, there are —the chevrah Tehillim and chevrah Mishnayot (Mishnah Society)—that take upon themselves the task of providing after-death care for departed souls by reciting Psalms, the Kaddish and selected texts of the Mishnah.

Are the Dead Aware of the Living?

The living are linked to the dead in yet another way. Just as parents spend their lives transmitting their learning and values to their children and grandchildren, so these children in turn reflect back upon their parents the merit the latter have earned in leaving the world a better place than before they walked upon it. 

In a reversal of the common wisdom that everything that goes up must come down, Judaism teaches that what goes down also comes back up. This concept is known as “bera mezakeh abba”—that “a child can reflect merit on the parent,” especially after the parent’s death. 

This reflection of merit from children to their forebears testifies to an ongoing connection between the generations, even beyond the grave. 

In this notion, we find the mirror image of the time-honored idea that children are simply the creation of their parents, the apples that do not fall far from the tree. Rather, Judaism claims that creation actually works both ways: that the generations help develop each other.

But Judaism takes this idea of generational transmission one step further. Authentic religious merit travels upward to the previous generation as well as downward to the next.   Every day children cast a glow onto their parents, who created and nurtured them. For Jewish parents, deriving such “nachas” (Yiddish for “pride” and “pleasure”) from children and grandchildren gives meaning to life, because parents receive their true reward when their children live productive lives. Excellence resonates, enhancing all the lives it touches.

The opposite is also valid: The departed carry into the next world the influences of those who were beloved by them. Whether we enhanced or burdened their lives, the individual who has now passed on became a different person because of our effect upon him or her. Are we not then, in a metaphorical sense, accompanying our departed to the new world?