Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Conversion of Charles Taylor

There is a running story that Charles Taylor, the brutal West African dictator, has converted to Judaism. It's almost certainly false -- not his claim, but the truth of it, as there is no evidence he has studied under a Rabbi, and he still claims to believe in the divinity of Christ.

But the Forward asks an interesting question (related, I think, to our discussion on what we want Judaism to be): what if he really did want to? Should we let him? And in the midst of answering, this fascinating anecdote of a former KKK leader converted to Judaism by the very Rabbi he threatened to bomb was revealed:
One person who knows firsthand about the spiritual transformation of people with evil pasts is Rabbi Michael Weisser. When he was working in Lincoln, Neb., a white supremacist named Larry Trapp began threatening and harassing him and his family. Trapp, state head of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan, had a long history of terrorizing black, Asian and Jewish families in the area.

Weisser decided to confront Trapp. He called the KKK leader’s racist hot line and left messages, until one day, he finally got Trapp on the phone and managed to strike up a conversation. Eventually, Weisser and his wife met with Trapp and inspired him to renounce racism and antisemitism. Eventually, Trapp converted to Judaism at Weisser’s Reform synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun — the very synagogue that Trapp once had planned to bomb.

Anyone can change, and therefore, anyone can be a candidate for conversion, Weisser told the Forward — even someone as bad as Larry Trapp or Charles Taylor.

“There’s a spark of decency in everybody, no matter how bad they’ve been,” Weisser said. “The truth is, human nature is good, not bad.”

In Trapp’s case, Weisser said, the former KKK Grand Dragon truly repented for his many sins and expressed remorse, asked for forgiveness from those he’d wronged and tried to set things right. Trapp called and met with people he used to harass to apologize and beg their forgiveness, and he spoke publicly to high schools and other groups about how he had repudiated bigotry and hate.

When Trapp first mentioned converting to Judaism, Weisser said he was concerned that guilt was the motivation. But Trapp studied hard, reading about 50 serious books on Judaism, and showed a genuine desire to join the faith for positive reasons.

“If we believe what we say we believe [as Jews], how can you go against it?” Weisser asked. “I think when Larry died, he died a good Jew.”

Obviously, when dealing with the sort of supreme evil of a Charles Taylor, we test the extremes of our principles. But there is a large part of me that wants to believe that nearly anyone could be a viable convert to Judaism, so long as their conversion path incorporated sufficient atonement and restitution for their sins.


chingona said...

They don't, of course, revoke the Jewishness of born Jews who do bad things, even evil, horrific things.

Not that I'm eager to claim Charles Taylor nor that I really believe he is sincere.

But converts end up serving as a sort of conduit for all kinds of anxieties about Jewish identity and Jewish values.

David Schraub said...

Well sure, but in most entities it is easier to stay in than to get in. The grades that would get me kicked out of UChicago Law are considerably lower than those needed to get into UChicago Law.

chingona said...

I wonder if anyone has ever had a conversion revoked for committing human rights violations. Or just any kind of crime that would overlap with a violation of halakha.

I mean, there have been women whose conversions were revoked for wearing pants. If that same woman killed someone - not by accident, but in a cold-blooded murder - but was modestly dressed, would they revoke her conversion or not?

I also wonder if Christians have ever publicly rejected anyone who claimed to find Jesus in prison because they just didn't want to be associated with that person. If not, is it a form of gentile privilege, not to worry about how your faith will be judged if some really nasty person claims to believe in it all of a sudden?

PG said...

I think conversion-oriented religions like Christianity and Islam are fundamentally different in this respect from more ancestry-tied ones like Judaism and Hinduism. Christianity is pretty big on the idea that someone is reborn in Christ upon accepting Him as Lord and Savior; if one is a sincere convert to Christianity, then one's past acts can be forgiven. Hinduism doesn't make any distinctions based on your beliefs. Karma operates regardless of whether you're an atheist or a priest.

chingona said...


I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but yes, I think you're right.