Last Monday morning, I found myself in an unexpected place, sitting silently with a group of Bay Area journalists in the Celestial Room of the Oakland Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — accompanied by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Dear reader, I can hear you scratching your head from here. Let me back up a little.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons, derived from their sacred text, the Book of Mormon) opened up the recently renovated Oakland Temple to the press. Normally, these temples are only for members of the church. But following the renovation — and before the temple is rededicated — it will be open to the public through June 1. The temple is monumental — if you’ve ever wondered at night about those dramatically lit spires in the hills above Oakland, now is your chance to see the temple from the inside. This is the first time it’s been open to the public in 55 years.
If you’re a fan of architecture or if you’re interested in religions, a visit is a must. I was there out of my love of religious architecture — and because I’d heard that these temples include architectural references to the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites as they wandered in the desert), as well as the ancient Temples that stood on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
The press event began with a lovely sit-down breakfast with local and global church leaders. Introducing myself and explaining that I work for a Jewish newspaper elicited gasps of excitement. This is a religion that loves The Jews™. In my experience, church members don’t always have the most accurate notions of what a modern Jew is, but they always feel positively toward us, perhaps as an outgrowth of their preoccupation with ancient Israelites. According to the Book of Mormon, some of the Lost Tribes set sail for the Americas when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple.
The Oakland Temple was built in 1964 in a modern midcentury style. Inside, there are Asian motifs. The outside has a slight Art Deco flavor. Like all of the church’s temples, it features prominent spires, although it is the only one in the world with five of them. Up close, the spires are intricate lattices of gold and blue mosaic tiles. A long garden leads up from the street to the temple entrance, with an artificial creek running the full length. On the street-facing side of the temple is a relief of Jesus with his 12 apostles. On the side offering an incredible view of the East Bay and San Francisco, a relief shows Jesus appearing to the people of the Americas.
The temple grounds are surrounded by a fence, analogous to the outer wall of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem; the space inside the gate is analogous to the outer court of the Temple, which anyone could enter. Likewise, any member of the public can enter the gates of the Oakland Temple grounds at any time (in this case, to enjoy the garden or take in the sweeping views).
The real fun began as Elder Gary Stevenson led us inside the temple, to the inner court.
At the Temple in Jerusalem, the inner court (or Priests’ Court) could be entered only by Kohanim, members of the priesthood descended from Aaron. Similarly, here only church members can enter. Stevenson is part of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a nonmember, to enter a temple with an apostle as a tour guide is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The interior bears little resemblance to a church. Indeed, it is not a church. Sunday worship, meetings and religious education take place in Latter-day Saints’ churches (or meetinghouses), numbering more than 30,000 worldwide.
The temples have a singular purpose in LDS ritual. Only here can “temple ordinances” be performed, such as the eternal sealing of a married couple or baptism of the dead. There are just 200 temples, completed or in the works, worldwide. The church’s goal is for 90 percent of its 16 million members to live within two hours of a temple, according to Emily Utt, the church’s historic sites curator. To live within reach of a temple is essential to the faithful.
Inside the Oakland edifice are gold carpets, marble, decorative Asian motifs, lush artwork of California nature scenes and romantic paintings of moments in the life of Jesus. The paintings are all done in a distinct style — think Michelangelo meets Thomas Kinkade. There are no crosses to be found.
Driving home the symbolism of the Temples in Jerusalem, the first painting visible upon entrance shows worshippers bringing Temple offerings (bulls, sheaves of wheat, etc.) to Jesus.
“Everything about the design is to bring us to remembrance of Jesus Christ,” Stevenson told the gaggle of reporters.
After the reception area, where church members present their IDs, we entered the Baptistry, a large chamber where proxy baptisms (aka, baptisms of the dead) are performed. Members of the church are deeply concerned with the integrity of the family — not just on Earth, but for all eternity. Doing genealogical research on one’s family serves a religious purpose. An ancestor who was not baptized isn’t able to join the rest of the family in eternity. When a family member discovers an ancestor who was not baptized in the church, the faithful can visit a temple to be baptized in the deceased person’s stead. The deceased can choose to accept or reject the baptism.
My sense is that church members know this irks people of different faiths, and they are careful about how they word it. Elder Jack Gerard, another senior church leader who accompanied us through the temple, explained that proxy baptism is “a gift offering — the deceased may choose to accept it or reject it.”
Stevenson jumped in to say, perhaps for my benefit, “We have a particular sensitivity for victims of the Holocaust.” In 1995, after an enormous public outcry from the Jewish community, the church barred members from baptizing Holocaust victims posthumously. “That simply no longer takes place,” he said, definitively.
In fact, that is not entirely true. Though the official policy is real and the church has made genuine efforts to stop the practice, the rank-and-file don’t always oblige. In 2012, it was discovered that a proxy baptism was performed on Anne Frank. As recently as 2017, a former member shared with the Associated Press evidence of the continuing baptisms of Holocaust victims.
Sadly, for many Jews, proxy baptism of Holocaust victims is practically the only thing they know about the church.
The baptismal font is perhaps the most magnificent part of the Oakland Temple. It looks like an unusually deep hot tub. Typical in LDS temples, the font rests upon 12 life-size faux-bronze bulls.
Hilariously, one of the men leading the tour gestured toward me, saying, “As our Jewish friends will know, this is the Molten Sea described in First Kings, Chapter 7.” Some church members seem to share a wild optimism about Jews’ familiarity with the Bible. I don’t think I know many who could tell you about I Kings, Chapter 7 off the top of their heads.
The Molten Sea, also translated as Cast Metal Sea, was a large basin in Solomon’s Temple used by priests for their own purification — hardly baptism of the dead, but the origin of the basin is clear. And indeed, it is described as an enormous basin of water resting on the backs of 12 bull statues, perhaps representing the 12 Tribes of Israel.
While describing proxy baptism and other rituals, our guides repeatedly emphasized that temples and temple ordinances are “sacred, not secret.” This is to counter the public perception of the church as secretive.
As we moved farther into the temple, we passed through rooms for educating the faithful, as well as the Sealing Room. It is here that members of the church can be “sealed” to their spouses (and children), bonding them for life — and beyond. As one of the tour leaders said, “Most marriages are only for time —‘till death do us part.’ But we say ours are ‘for time and eternity.’ ”
Finally, we passed beyond the inner court to the heart of the temple: the Celestial Room. This space is equivalent to the Jerusalem Temples’ Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies. In Jerusalem, it contained the ark (of Indiana Jones fame) holding the Tablets of the Covenant, the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter. It was here that the presence of God dwelled.
In the Oakland Temple, the high-ceilinged Celestial Room features couches and chairs, like a gilded sitting room. Here the faithful can sit in reverent silence, meditating or praying. Before we entered, Stevenson framed the experience for us, inviting all of us to “contemplate our relationship with our creator.” I chose to take notes instead, although I admit that I felt a thrill of audacity entering even an analogue of the Kodesh HaKodashim.
There is so much more to say about this magnificent structure. As a Jew, I experienced an exciting sense of standing within the grand sweep of history. Over centuries, the layout of the portable tent in the desert inspired a succession of ever more grandiose temples in Jerusalem — and, finally, 200 temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across the world. A holy tent in the desert echoes across history. It’s really something.