By Rabbi Avi Shafran
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 object of Christian veneration.
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 a gerus 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 to become a ger bespeaks a determination to change radically, and undergoing gerus creates precisely such a change. A convert, Chazal famously say, is “like a newborn baby,” detached from his or her previous existence.
The Gemara in fact recounts how two deeply odious people (one, as it happens, a mass murderer) joined the Jewish People. In Gittin, 56a, we read how the Roman emperor Nero, seeing that the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdosh was to come about through him, perceived HaKodosh Boruch Hu’s hand in history and feared being the instrument of Hashem’s wrath against His people. So he ran away and joined them.
A similar choice was made by Nevuzaradan, Babylonian general who, the Gemara 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 Beis Din would be right to be wary of a Charles Taylor-type who came knocking at the door. But if the quoted clergymen 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 Beis Din a truthful desire to change his ways and undertake shmiras hamitzvos, can, by immersing in a mikvah and, in the case of a man, undergoing milah, 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 “gerus” 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 been tovel lisheim gerus or to have undergone milah, much less to have demonstrated a sincere acceptance of the Torah’s laws to the satisfaction of any valid Beis Din. And his retaining of Christian belief would itself 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.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]