Ashira's song and the issue of IDF converts to Judaism

“It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away.” – The Bee Gees, 1967

A WOMAN converts to Judaism in the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court (photo credit: FLASH90)
A WOMAN converts to Judaism in the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Shiksa: Slang for non-Jewish woman. Derogatory term, derived from the Hebrew term for “abominable” or “abhorrent,” as in describing the Torah’s attitude toward idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:26) or in the prohibition of bal t’shaksu – forbidding doing anything revolting or disgusting.
When United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus used this highly pejorative expression recently regarding female IDF soldiers who underwent conversion through the Nativ program, he managed to insult no less than three categories of exemplary citizens in one, ill-phrased rant: women, the IDF, and converts to Judaism. Not exactly the speaker you’d want for International Women’s Day. Pindrus’s comments came on the same day the High Court of Justice ruled that Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel would be recognized for citizenship purposes.
Though Pindrus was said to apologize for his comments, his words haven’t lost their sting. It’s one of those “The jury will strike those remarks from the record” kind of retraction. Words have power in Jewish thought and in Jewish law; they not only take your heart, they can break your heart, and the Torah holds you accountable for every syllable that comes out of your mouth. (That’s why you have the double gates of your teeth and lips to guard your speech). Lashon hara is not just gossip or idle chatter; it is, literally, using the power of your tongue to speak evil.
I take Pindrus’s defamation quite personally. For one thing, I’m married to an amazing woman (these days you actually have to specify that), and I have five fantastic daughters and daughters-in-law. For another, I’m a fierce defender of the IDF, whose soldiers protect us day and night at the risk of their lives and are the closest thing to tzadikim out there. And, to boot, I am privileged to be a teacher in Tel Aviv’s Nativ conversion course (civilian division) and proud to count converts in my own family.
I would have thought that the MK – purported to be observant – would have known how harshly the Torah reacts to maligners of converts. In no less than 36 instances the Torah notes the obligation to love the convert or to refrain from causing him or her any anguish or pain, a mitzvah emphasized more than any other. Indeed, while there is an all-encompassing commandment to love one’s fellow Jew as himself – “V’ahavata l’rayecha kamocha” – God singles out converts for special attention, either because of their vulnerability in society or their lack of an inherent support system. And so, while we have no specific obligation to love our spouse or our children, we must love the ger. No less an authority than Maimonides states that the obligation to love the convert is parallel to loving God, for He, too, “loves the convert, and gives him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)
THERE IS, of course, a legitimate debate as to what one must learn and practice in order to join the fold of the Chosen People. The Orthodox will consider Reform and Conservative observance far too liberal and weak; the Reform and Conservative, in turn, will accuse the Orthodox of setting the bar much too high, driving potential converts away due to their maximalist requirements. And no doubt the rabbinic establishment fears a slippery slope that may come to affect their exclusive control of life-cycle events – particularly marriage and divorce – that can lead to an irreparable schism in the nation and create two – or several – Jewish Peoples.
However, this is no reason to summarily dismiss the legitimate yearning of those who wish to come closer to God and to Judaism, in whatever fashion they choose. Hashem will judge them – using the criteria He deems most appropriate – while we must be careful to follow the rabbinic maxim of “bringing close with the right hand while pushing away only with the left.” Converts tend to bring passion, exuberance, optimism and extreme self-sacrifice to the communities they join – qualities that are often lacking among Jews from birth. Think Ruth, Onkelos, the Prophet Ovadia, Queen Helena, the predecessors of Rabbi Akiva and, I would add, Ivanka Trump. All of them made enormous contributions to Jewish life and continuity, and inspire us to make our own mark in society.
Let me tell you a story. Suzanna grew up in Ukraine, where, in a sense, the Holocaust began, and where it would ultimately claim more than a million-and-a-half Jewish lives. Her grandfather survived the Holocaust but decided to remain in Kiev. Fearful of attack by hostile neighbors, he disguised his Jewish identity and married a non-Jew. He raised children and saw his grandchildren, but buried his Jewishness deep inside. For 17 years his granddaughter Suzanna had no idea her grandfather was a Jew; she only learned of it when a visiting cousin accidentally blurted out the truth.
Suzanna began to read about Judaism, about flourishing pre-Holocaust Jewish life, and about the suffering that came in 1941. Like most young people, she was determined to learn her roots – who she was and where she came from. Her family was reluctant to speak much about it, but they consented to send Suzanna to Israel on a Birthright trip. Suzanna fell in love with Israel and decided to stay. She didn’t want to be an outsider, so she joined the army. There she was introduced to a conversion class, which she joined and passed with flying colors.
On the day she became a Jew, she changed her name to Ashira, after the prayer she had learned, “Ashira l’Hashem b’chayey – I shall sing to God with my life.” It was a life she came close to losing one day while on patrol in the Old City when she stopped a terrorist outside the Jaffa Gate, helping to prevent a potentially fatal attack.
What shall we do with this female convert soldier? Shall we condemn her, ostracize her, isolate her, reject her? Or should we welcome her, teach her, guide her? Rather than mute her, I propose we all join in singing Ashira’s song. The words, and her story, just might actually take your heart away.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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