IDF conversions and the Book of Ruth

The Moabite widow once married to a Jew who had abandoned his land and people, serves as the basis for what constitutes halachic conversion.

‘RUTH IN Boaz’s field’ by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘RUTH IN Boaz’s field’ by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 officers.
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 conversion process.
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 tent.
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 dynasty.
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.
By contrast, 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.
Clearly Ruth 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 soul.
The writer is an advertising creative director who made aliya in March. His son, who preceded him, is a lieutenant in the IDF.