Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem suggested in a scholarly article publicized this week that rabbinic judges should be lenient in accepting non-Jewish IDF soldiers interested in converting to Judaism because their military service demonstrates the scale of their commitment to the Jewish people.
If conversion is a process in which a non-Jew makes a conscious decision to tie his or her fate to the Jewish people, argued Amsalem, what test of loyalty could trump the willingness to give one's life if necessary for the Jews' protection? The selfless devotion of the IDF soldier is nothing short of a mitzva - a holy commandment - that changes his or her status in the eyes of Halacha.
Amsalem's words on the mitzva of IDF service rang true this week when the Jewish people and many others mourned the death of Cap. Assaf Ramon after the F-16 he was piloting crashed into the South Hebron Hills. The tragedy of Assaf's death was compounded by the fact that his father, Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, had been killed in the space shuttle Columbia disaster six years ago.
Ramon the father had performed a tremendous kiddush hashem - sanctification of God's name - when, as a NASA astronaut who excelled in his position as payload specialist, he also proudly identified as a Jew. Although he was secular in his private life, Ilan Ramon knew that he represented the entire Jewish people on his mission.
He became the first Jew to eat kosher food in space. He consulted with rabbis regarding how to observe Shabbat while orbiting the earth. As a son of Holocaust survivors, Ilan brought with him into space central symbols of his Judaism: a pencil sketch called Moon Landscape, drawn by 14-year-old Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz; a microfiche copy of the Torah; a Holocaust-inspired barbed-wire mezuza; and a dollar from Chabad's late leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Perched in his shuttle high above our planet, able to view humanity in its entirety, Ilan Ramon did not forget his own people. Though he was on a mission for the US space program, he was also a member of the IDF and a Jew.
Assaf Ramon announced his plans to follow in his father's footsteps as a pilot shortly after the Columbia tragedy. In 2006 he enlisted in the IDF and passed the IAF's grueling examinations and trials for the prestigious pilot's course.
But Assaf, who finished at the top of his pilot cadet class, also shared his father's personality traits. Those who knew him have highlighted his modesty as well as his selfless commitment to protecting the Jewish people. Until the day his plane went down not far from where, according to tradition, the patriarchs and matriarchs of our nation are buried, Israelis and Jews had been hoping that, like his father, Assaf would one day represent Israel in space and, unlike his father, would safely return.
SHAS'S AMSALEM argues, in the context of conversions, that service in the IDF is proof of a soldier's firm connection to the Jewish people. Assaf and Ilan showed in their short lives that, if performed thoughtfully, military service can constitute a form of Jewish expression.
This represents a fundamental change in the essence of what it means to be a member of the Jewish people. During the long years of exile, when we were devoid of a country and a military force to protect it, the religious aspects of Jewishness were emphasized. But since the creation of the State of Israel, more nationalist components, prominently including IDF service, have become incorporated into what is means to be a Jew.
Judaism teaches that while Rosh Hashana is celebrated only by Jews, it is nevertheless the day of judgment for all humankind. Perhaps we can derive from this the simultaneous obligation to strive, like Ilan and Assaf Ramon, for the heavens, for the very best, while also, like that exemplary father and son, never forgetting our own peoplehood.