Hardened Criminals and Newborn Babes

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Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, believed to be responsible for the murders and maiming of untold numbers of innocent African men, women and children, is now Jewish.

Well, at least in his own mind – and according to his wife Victoria, who also told the BBC that her husband still believes in the Christian savior.

Still, Mr. Taylor’s claim raises an interesting question, and at least one thoughtful reporter, the Forward’s Rebecca Dube, in a recent report, decided to ask it: What if a non-Jew with a criminal record genuinely wanted to become a Jew? Would he properly be considered for conversion? Could it be effected?

The answers – assuming the would-be convert is demonstrably sincere in his desire to join the Jewish people and accept Jewish observance (including renouncing crime) – are yes. By very definition, seeking conversion bespeaks a determination to change radically, and undergoing conversion creates precisely such a change. A convert, in the Talmud’s words, is “like a newborn baby,” detached from his or her previous existence.

The Talmud in fact recounts how two deeply odious people (one, as it happens, a mass murderer) converted to Judaism. According to the Talmudic account (Gittin, 56a), the Roman emperor Nero, seeing that the destruction of the Second Holy Temple was to come about through him, perceived the Divine hand in history and feared being the instrument of G-d’s wrath against His people. So he ran away and joined them.

A similar choice was made by Nevuzaradan, a Babylonian general who, the Talmud teaches (Gittin 57b), murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews before being struck with deep remorse and converting.

Ms. Dube reports that a Reform rabbi in New York considers a person’s sins to be a bar to conversion. There are, he says, “people whose total lack of ethics and morality would dismiss them at the outset.” Similarly, a “Modern Orthodox” rabbi in Baltimore is quoted as saying that while “it’s true that religion can change people for the better… the Jewish community is not a recovery house.”

To be sure, any responsible Jewish court would be right to be wary of a Charles Taylor-type who came knocking at the door. But if the quoted rabbis mean to say that human past performance is an automatic indicator of future returns, they miss the point. Human beings have free will, and a sincere (stress, again, on that word) desire to convert is itself a desire to change.

And so even a criminal, if he demonstrates to a valid Jewish religious court a truthful desire to change his ways and undertake Jewish religious observance, can, by immersing in a mikvah (ritual bath) and, in the case of a man, undergoing circumcision, become a convert.

The converse, though, is equally true: A non-Jew who is unwilling to live a Jewish life, no matter how upstanding a citizen, cannot convert; any conversion ceremony for such a person accomplishes nothing.

That latter truth is a timely one. Some, of late, have suggested that the Israeli rabbinate “convert” hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants, to bolster Jewish numbers and allow those thus “made Jewish” to more easily blend into Jewish society. Leaving aside the wisdom of those goals themselves, such conversions, if unaccompanied by sincere acceptance of Jewish observance, would not be valid.

The bottom line: The relevant question in converting to Judaism is not prior behavior but sincerity of future Jewish purpose.

And Mr. Taylor? Well, he has not been reported to have undergone mikvah-immersion or circumcision, much less to have demonstrated a sincere acceptance of the Torah’s laws to the satisfaction of any valid Jewish court. And his retaining of Christian belief would itself be sufficient to undermine his consideration by any such court. So it is a safe bet to say that, whether or not he is a changed man, his claim to Jewishness is spurious. But the report of his assertion is as good a springboard as any for propelling us to remember what conversion to Judaism isn’t, and what it is.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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7 Responses

  1. One Christian's Perspective says:

    “The only ones who have the moral right to forgive a murderer are the victims of his murders themselves.” – Comment by Raymond —

    I am trying to understand how this works. It would seem that under these circumstances, no one is able to forgive. Is a victim only the one who is killed ? Are not others severely impacted by this death/injury and as such are they not also a victim/captive of this immoral act ? Forgiveness sets the captive free. It is not cheap grace. It is always a painful process where every aspect of the pain is experienced afresh but it doesn’t end there. The process brings us to a place where we can look at those who have hurt us and separate the act from the person and say I forgive you. And truly as Joseph expressed it “what you did for evil, God used for good”. True forgiveness never operates outside of the love of God walking us through the process into His light. It is the miracle of love -Divine love – that can break the cycle of anger and bitterness and bring healing to those in pain and suffering. Unresolved anger leads to bitterness and hatred and destroys those it enslaves. Being willing to give up your right to be angry and “righteous in your anger” allows for an even greater miracle to take place in your heart – God himself removes the pain, the stain and the shame. In other words, He uses it for your good. The person who is forgiven no longer has the power to hurt you. They may be left off of your hook so to speak but they will still be accountable to God for their actions against you. God himself carries the pain that you tried to carry and could not. Joseph forgave his family and saved a nation.

  2. Raymond says:

    The only ones who have the moral right to forgive a murderer are the victims of his murders themselves.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Apparently Nero and Nevuzaradan behaved as proper Jews after conversion OR the retroactive revocation of a conversion was not accepted by the sages of that time.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    It is interesting to juxtapose the Jewish aggada about Nero running away and converting with the Roman story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Perhaps Nero was perceived as having developed a Jewish sympathy and this was said against him. It is also midda keneged midda — Jerusalem burning and Rome burning. Anyone have light to shed?

  5. Chaim wolfson says:

    BobF,
    Only in the world of political talking points, whose residents make a living from taking statements out of context, can the fact that Rabbi Shafran referred to Charles Taylor and Russian immigrants in the same post be in any way construed as comparing the two. Especially when the paragraph you seem to take exception to begins with the words, “The converse” and refers to “upstanding citizens.” In any case, “a commitment to the Jewish people” does not equal “a commitment to live a Jewish life.”

  6. BobF says:

    Its totally wrong to even compare, even just by implication a mass murderer like Taylor and theseRussians who who moved to Israel and served int he army in many cases, which certainly shows there commitment to the Jewish people/

  7. Ori says:

    Should Hebrew speaking secular Israelis consider their society “Jewish”, or something else, such as “Israeli”?