Who may become a Jew? What should the criteria be for proper Jewish conversion?
Which rabbis should the Jewish people trust? Israel is in constant conflict over
these questions, as thousands of technically non-Jewish Soviet émigrés risk
their lives for the Jewish state. Indeed, Russian immigrants are highly
motivated and well-represented in IDF combat units and among its
And so the IDF chaplaincy has seen fit to provide Jewish
instruction and conversion to those young men and women in uniform who express
serious interest in becoming bona fide members of the Jewish people – by
adopting Jewish culture and traditions (and undergoing, in the case of males,
circumcision) in order to live and die as Jews, to be married into the Jewish
people and to be buried among their comrades should they, heaven forbid, be
among those who make the ultimate sacrifice.
By contrast, civilian
rabbinical courts – under the control of some anti-Zionist rabbis – have striven
to annul the Jewish identity of even those who have already completed the
How such rabbis came to usurp control of courts paid
for by taxpayers (i.e. everyone but their own adherents) is troubling. Even more
troubling is their rejection of any conversion that does not affirm a lifestyle
of strict adherence to extreme interpretations of the mitzvot bein adam l’makom
(between man and God), but tolerating quite loose adherence to the mitzvot bein
adam l’havero (interpersonal relationships) – specifically laws against
cheating, embezzlement and gratuitous hatred, as well as laws mandating
responsibility for defense and public service.
Are these rabbis motivated
by spiritual idealism, or is their posture just part of an escalating haredi
power grab? When it comes to conversion, the written Torah offers little
information. We do know a mixed multitude (eirev rav) accompanied the Israelites
out of Egypt, and were ultimately amalgamated under the greater Jewish
The Torah also teaches that a gentile woman captured in battle by
an Israelite soldier may become the bride of her captor. A non-Jewish slave,
too, becomes Jewish by virtue of his manumission.
RABBINIC LAWS governing
Jewish conversion are based on the Book of Ruth – which we read on Shavuot –
specifically Ruth’s declaration to her former mother-in-law Naomi: “For where
you go I will go, where you will sleep I will sleep, your people are my people,
and your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16).
The utterance of a Moabite widow
once married to a Jew who had abandoned his land and people, serves as the basis
for what constitutes halachic conversion. Her unwitnessed declaration to Naomi
is definitive, and she becomes a progenitor of the Davidic/Messianic
Ruth’s declaration could be made sincerely by any IDF soldier
wishing to cast his lot with the Jewish people.
Now, while the Torah is
vague about conversion, it is very clear about which Jews may be counted as
members of the community: “every male... 20 years old and upward, all that are
able to go out to the army” (Numbers 1:3-4). In order to be included in the
Israelite census, a man must be over 20 and eligible for military service.
Conversely anyone who is not simply doesn’t count.
If these are the
criteria for being numbered among the Israelite community, then soldiers serving
on the front lines who go where Jewish soldiers must go, who sleep where Jewish
soldiers sleep, who consider the Jewish people their people and the Jewish God
their God must surely be counted as members of our people.
haredim, whose Jewishness is with respect only to God but not the Jewish people,
should certainly have no voice in determining who is a Jew.
converted to the Jewish people primarily and to the Jewish faith secondarily. By
her reasoning, it is understandable why a young soldier whose parents hail from
Russia or Belarus or the Ukraine, one who has Jewish DNA, who serves in the
Jewish army and who wishes to be part of the greater society in which he lives
and with which he identifies, should wish to become a Jew – and why he should be
welcomed as such.
These young men and women who are defending the State
of Israel (and its masses of haredim) both meet and exceed the criteria set by
Ruth herself – not only because these soldiers would qualify as Jews under the
Nuremberg laws, but because they prove their Jewish identity through their
actions, their uniforms, their sacrifices, their language and their adopted
culture. Israel dares not cynically exclude them as a way to feed a haredi
craving power. Israel dares not exclude them, for the sake of its own
The writer is an advertising creative director who made aliya in
March. His son, who preceded him, is a lieutenant in the IDF.