War Crime Dictator: Jew Edition

I know we’re a progressive Jewish blog, and have made arguments in favour of welcoming Jews of different flavours before. But there’s got to be a limit, right? This is that limit.

Charles TaylorThe headline is slightly misleading (“Charles Taylor converts to Judaism“), but Charles Taylor, the former dictator of Liberia currently being held in prison, awaiting trial, in the Hague on charges of war crimes, has told his wife he is now a Jew.

He’s still a Christian, but he’s a Jew too. Because of that whole Jesus thing…

Q. So he’s now a practicing Jew?

A. He’s now a Jew. He’s practicing Judaism.

Q. Tells us about that? What led him to that?

A. Because of the difficulties, he always wanted to know God in a very different and special way. From a very small boy — because we talk about his childhood a whole lot — he asked himself questions about Christianity. Too many questions about why certain things happened. And why, this one and that one. Just too many question in Christianity and the whole thing about Christ because he does believe in Christ. When he got to the Hague, he got to know that he really, really wanted to be a Jew. Wanted to convert to Judaism. And that…

Q. Does that mean he has rejected Christianity then? Because that’s quite a radical departure.

A. No, no, no he hasn’t rejected Christianity. He has always been a Christian. He just decided to become a Jew. He wants to follow the two religions.

Transcript of the BBC radio interview courtesy of Joshua Keating at the Foreign Policy blog.

As Joshua writes, “Madonna [becoming a "Jew"] was bad enough, but this is really beyond the pale.” Seriously. What’s with celebrities taking on Judaism (or, faux Judaism – as in the case of Madonna)? Madonna’s version of Kabbalah is not what Jews study; Taylor’s version of Judaism isn’t Judaism. What part of his history as a mass murderer – ethnic cleansing style – made him think, “You know, my ethics and practices align with Christianity so well, I should also embrace Judaism?” You’d think after he failed at many of the ten commandments he would have quit there…

18 Responses to “War Crime Dictator: Jew Edition”

  1. Perhaps this is some sort of a publicity stunt / push for sympathy? Maybe he thinks that if he converts to Judaism, people will see him as sort of “born again” and will start to take pity on him? Of course, no one would buy that, but I can’t think of any other reason why Taylor would suddenly claim to have become Jewish.

    Naomi · June 8th, 2009 at 9:39 am
  2. perhaps he’s trying to make tshuva?

    Justin · June 8th, 2009 at 10:09 am
  3. What part of his history as a mass murderer – ethnic cleansing style – made him think, “You know, my ethics and practices align with Christianity so well, I should also embrace Judaism?”

    Taylor is a religious kook–to put it mildly–so this fits right in. During his warlord years he practiced, believed in, and forced his soldiers to practice some madly insane voodoo-esque doings, including (as has been allged in the charges against him) burying people alive, cutting off men’s penises (soldiers would then dry them out and wear them as amulets), possibly cannibalism, and a wide array of other horrific things. He’s also known for his hypocritical use of religion.

    Going off on a tangent, I’m not sure Taylor’s actions constituted ethnic cleansing. He engaged in horrifically violent, brutal, and bizarre actions against anyone who opposed him, including specifically those of other ethnicities, but I’ve not sure I’ve heard it deemed ethnic cleansing before.

    Rooftopper Rav · June 8th, 2009 at 10:51 am
  4. Has he actually engaged in a formal conversion process?

    Is there a rabbi overseeing his conversion?

    Is there a way of documenting that this is, indeed, not happening? (i.e. no visits or correspondance with a rabbi, no Jewish education, et cetera?)

    Ian Thal · June 8th, 2009 at 10:55 am
  5. To follow up on my previous questions:

    Has he even approached a rabbi about converting?

    Can he find a rabbi willing to take him on as a convert?

    Ian Thal · June 8th, 2009 at 10:59 am
  6. I’ve got no problem with a penitent criminal coming to Judaism. I do have a problem with it if he’s also a Christian. Whatever that means.

    David A.M. Wilensky · June 8th, 2009 at 11:08 am
  7. By Kung Fu Jew’s definition, he is definitely Jewish.

    Mas · June 8th, 2009 at 12:52 pm
  8. Mas, what?

    David A.M. Wilensky · June 9th, 2009 at 11:08 am
  9. Even I can tell you it is not possible to be Jewish and believe in Jesus at the same time. “Jews for Jesus” are Christian, no matter what they do with their time.


    Sara · June 9th, 2009 at 6:40 pm
  10. KFJ has a bunch of posts, both here and on his own blog, that say that anyone who identifies himself as a Jew is one (For example: jewschool.com/2009/04/09/15850/half-jewwhole-jew/#comments). In a comment there, he writes:

    “As far as self-identity is concerned, one does have to accept whoever says they’re what they are. It’s silly to argue against their self-definition.”

    “n many ways, if someone claims to be Jewish and if a community can assert some case (ANY case) for their Jewishness, well, what can you do? No one body, org or movement represents THE Jewish people in order to define anyone as an outsider.”

    By that standard, Taylor is in.

    Mas · June 9th, 2009 at 6:47 pm
  11. Even I can tell you it is not possible to be Jewish and believe in Jesus at the same time. “Jews for Jesus” are Christian, no matter what they do with their time.

    Well, at the risk of starting an entirely other discussion, I have to say that I think that this statement is actually false. I understand very well the reasons why many people instinctively feel this way, but instinct doesn’t always tell the whole story.

    Even apart from the halakhic definition of Jewishness, which would include many messianic Jews, I’m not sure you can think of too many definitions of Judaism which, while excluding messianists, don’t also exclude a lot of other people who you wouldn’t want to exclude.

    miri · June 9th, 2009 at 9:11 pm
  12. miri-
    the way it was explained to me is this. messianism is not inherently a contradiction in Judaism, rather it is an integral part of its theology. The issue is with the nature of the messiah, and this is why religious Jews tend not to have issue with chabad messianists. If someone calls themselves the messiah or others call him/her the messiah, that is not heretical to Judaism. So the problem with Christianity falling into the boundaries of Judaism is not that people think Jesus is the messiah. The issue is when that messiah or the messiah’s followers encourage people to stop observing mitzvos. This was the problem with Jesus, Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, and perhaps why we remember their names while the rest of the plethora of purported messiahs in the past have been forgotten. So ultimately, you are correct, that a person can be a Christian and Jewish if they believe in Jesus as the messiah and his ability to forgive sin AND they are observant of the mitzvos. I’m sure they exist, I’ve never encountered one.

    Justin · June 10th, 2009 at 3:34 am
  13. First of all, halakhically speaking, a person can be a Christian and a Jew if their mother is Jewish. Full stop.

    Second of all, why is “the nature of the messiah” a definitive issue? I mean, I see the point you’re making, but why is that issue the one which “disqualifies” people as Jews? Particularly when the problem with the bad messiahs is that they encourage Jews to stop keeping the mitzvot – which only a small percentage of Jews today actually do anyway! (Also, did you mean to claim that Shabtai Zvi’s followers renounced their Judaism by their belief? I’ve never heard that before).

    So, yeah, I don’t buy the argument, at least not without some reason why “the nature of the messiah” is a disqualifying factor when all the other possible infractions aren’t. As I said before, I totally understand the instinctive reasons why we would want to deny messianic Jews a claim to Judaism. But instinct doesn’t always stand up to critique.

    miri · June 10th, 2009 at 9:54 am
  14. MAS: What “community” is accepting of his Jewishness? Or asserting his Jewishness?

    ML · June 10th, 2009 at 11:45 am
  15. what I meant to say re: shabbtai tzvi is that he told his followers that they no longer needed to obvserve mitzvot because he was the messiah. All I was trying to say is that simply believing someone is the messiah is not heresy, how one reacts to the belief that they are the messiah could be.

    Justin · June 10th, 2009 at 3:24 pm
  16. simply believing someone is the messiah is not heresy, how one reacts to the belief that they are the messiah could be.

    Sure, I guess so – though if the Jesus-followers are disqualified, I don’t see why the S”Z followers wouldn’t be. And you still haven’t indicated why that ostensible heresy is worse than any other one.

    The point is, I don’t have a problem with arbitrating who is and isn’t a Jew per se. (Well, maybe I do – but that’s another topic). What bothers me is the inconsistency of the arbitration. But, as I said, I understand why it instinctively seems wrong in this case, people going on about Yeshua and so forth.

    miri · June 10th, 2009 at 9:11 pm
  17. Miri,

    What is the inconsistency that bothers you? Aren’t most communities pretty consistent in who they define as a Jew?

    ML · June 10th, 2009 at 10:38 pm
  18. Well, no, not really. Insofar as a Jewish Buddhist generally is thought to retain their Judaism (even if their Buddhism makes their grandmothers unhappy) while a Jewish Christian is thought to have utterly abdicated theirs, that doesn’t seem that consistent to me.

    Ironically, it’s the Orthodox who generally have the most consistency of definition, with their reliance on the halakhic definition of Judaism. I’m not advocating for this definition, but it’s worth noting. For myself, I tend to think that we should spend less time than we often do determining who’s in and who’s out, and more time doing other stuff. But I do at least think we should approach the issue with more intellectual integrity than we sometimes do.

    miri · June 11th, 2009 at 3:14 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik