MK Amsalem
MK Amsalem Israel news photo: Flash 90

MK Rabbi Chaim Amsalem (Shas) is vigorously pursuing a plan that would ease the conversion to Judaism (giyur) of descendants of Jews who immigrated to Israel and served in the armed forces. The plan is seen as a revolutionary one, coming as it does from a rabbi and politician who belongs to the hareidi-religious stream, which is not known to favor military service at all.

The plan would help ease the plight of many immigrants to Israel and their children who made Aliyah from the former Soviet Union and who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law because they were not born to Jewish mothers. These immigrants are required to serve in the IDF and often risk life and limb for the nation, yet they are not recognized as Jews and encounter problems when they wish to marry a Jew. Many of them do not wish to live as observant Jews but are required to do so in order to be converted.

MK Rabbi Amsalem has now completed an essay explaining his idea and sent it to 1,000 rabbis from all orthodox streams in Israel, in the hope of receiving their support and comments for the plan.

Zera yisrael

"Everything that I have written about the need for easing the conversion process,” MK Rabbi Amsalem said, “was not said about regular gentiles who wish to convert, but only towards those who are descended from Jews and are known by the rabbinical authorities as 'the seed of Israel' (zera yisrael).”

MK Rabbi Amsalem issued a clarification Wednesday in which he explained that he never said that enlistment to the IDF is a substitute for obeying the Jewish mitzvot (commandments), but that it should be seen as “only a part of the mitzvot that the convert accepts upon himself.”

MK Rabbi Amsalem's initiative was lambasted by hareidi newspaper Yated Neeman a week ago. The newspaper said his idea was “less than what one would expect from a Conservative 'rabbi'” and claimed that it was contrary to the opinions of all the great rabbinical authorities. It called Amsalem a “low-grade political hack” and used an Aramaic phrase afra lefumey -- literally “dirt upon his mouth” – which means “he should shut up.”

Amsalem punched back at the paper, calling it a “tabloid” and saying it was beneath his dignity to respond to its misrepresentation of his initiative.

Tradition is enough

Amsalem has argued that by making conversion difficult for zera yisrael who serve in the IDF, the Jewish establishment is committing a chilul Hashem, or a desecration of G-d's name. He quotes Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who in another, similar context, asked: “What will the 'free' [Jews] who do not observe Torah and mitzvot say when they see that we push away from us those who risk their lives for Israel.”

Rabbi MK Amsalem noted that the obligation to observe mitzvot as a condition for conversion was in force when most of the Jews were observant, but this is not the case today. In our times, he says, “it is proper to see the service in the IDF and the connection to the nation of Israel as proof of their true wish to convert.”

He adds that he does not mean that the converts should not be required to make any changes in their lifestyle, but that it should be enough that they become “traditional” by blessing on the wine on Sabbath, fasting on Yom Kippur, avoiding non-kosher food, eating kosher-for-Pesach foodstuffs on Pesach, and respecting the holidays that symbolize Judaism. 

"Even the beloved mitzva (commandment) of tefillin,” he adds, “we see that many who do not observe the Sabbath properly lay them and pray with them. Would we consider these gentiles?”

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