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Does military service make an Israeli a Jew?

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 12, 2008 | 5:43 pm

The ultra-Orthodox, who often opt out of compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces, better hope not. A survey published yesterday in Ynet found that most Israelis thought military service was a greater show of a sincere conversion to Judaism than religious observance.

This is shocking because for a few thousand years, aside from being God’s chosen, the most important element of being Jewish was practicing Judaism. Who is a Jew? That’s a tough question to answer. But how a Jew lives? Until maybe two centuries ago, that was a lot clearer. (Think “Fiddler on the Roof” before “Fiddler on the Roof” and the subsequent “Jewish Century.”)

Of course, times have changed. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, Jews have political sovereignty in Israel, something they have handled less than stellarly. Jews no longer wear kippot and peyot (sidelocks) en masse, davening every day, avoiding treyf and keeping Shabbat. They are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and, yes, Orthodox. In Israel, many aren’t religious at all. Living Jewish is as much about social values and cultural appreciation and social affiliation as it is about practicing Judaism. And I guess now we can add to that list of defining characteristics the silly notion Michael Chabon fictionalized in “Gentlemen of the Road” (nee: “Jews With Swords”).

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David Hazony at Commentary suggests the expectation of a Jewish warrior is tied to the political sovereignty achieved in the creation of Israel:

Given the large number of former-Soviet immigrants who are not Jewish according to halakha, and are not observant but do serve in the IDF, this is a serious claim to be making.

From the standpoint of traditional Jewish law, army service means very little in the conversion process, which focuses principally on acceptance of the Torah’s commandments. Yet at the same time, there is something deeper going on in this poll than simple Israeli patriotism, or the militarization of secular-Jewish identity — something that reaches deep into the Jew’s historical perception of himself. The classical example of the convert in Jewish tradition is Ruth the Moabite, who famously told her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people is my people, your God is my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Ruth then married Boaz the Judean, and one of their descendants was none other than King David. Ruth’s commitment was not simply religious (the belief in the God of Israel), but national as well (the belief in the Jewish people). Following this vein, for centuries rabbis would discourage converts, telling them about the horrific trials that the Jews have faced through history, and only accepting them once they had bound their faith up with that of the Jewish people.

Now that the Jewish people have a state, what greater indicator of national commitment can there be than a willingness to fight and die for one’s country?

What, though, would this mean for American converts to Judaism?

I remember speaking last year with Monica Horan Rosenthal, who had a role in the show her husband created, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism, in part, because she wanted to stand in solidarity with a people who had been oppressed for millenia. And a few months ago, I heard Ruth Wisse describe Israelis as the fist of Jewry and Americans as its articulate voice.

Heaven help us if most American Jews thought their neighborly converts should join the Jewish Defense League.

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