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December 11, 2011 3:06 am

Gays and Bearded Rabbis In the Military

avatar by Eliyahu Federman

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Rabbi Menachem Stern.

The military Chaplain Accession Board found Rabbi Menachem Stern fully qualified to serve, but then rescinded a formal letter of acceptance because he refused to shave his beard.

Although beards are not required according to Jewish law, Stern is a member of Chabad, which encourages its members to grow beards in accordance with a literal interpretation of Leviticus 19:27, which states that “one shall not mar the corners of the beard.”

The military argued that beards violated uniform and appearance regulations. Rabbi Stern filed suit in federal court arguing that his constitutional right to religious freedom had been violated, and the military finally settled. His swearing-in ceremony was held on December 9, last Friday.

The case was reminiscent of a 2009 incident in which Capt. Kamaljeet Kalsi, a devout Sikh, successfully fought for the right to sport a turban, beard and unshorn hair. Then, too, acting Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gina Farrisee stated that factors such as “unit cohesion, morale, discipline, safety and/or health” are considered when deciding whether to allow beards in the military.

The beard issue is particularly relevant in light of recent legislation repealing the ban on gays openly serving in the military, thus putting an end to government-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBT community. The military’s rationale for discriminating against homosexuals was not far removed from its reasons for discriminating against rabbis, Sikhs and Muslims with beards.

On July 20, 1993, General Colin Powell testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that being openly gay “undercuts the cohesion of the group” because it “is too far away from the norm.” The argument was that allowing gays to serve would undermine unit cohesion.

It seems clear to me, and hopefully to others, that individuals who desire to serve our country, regardless of their sexual inclinations, should not be prevented from doing so on unsubstantiated claims that they are a threat to “cohesion.”

There are of course cases where religious garb could undermine the safety of military procedures. For instance, a beard interfering with a gas mask could pose a real threat, and in that case protecting the soldier’s life should undoubtedly outweigh his right to religious expression. But that was not the case, either for Rabbi Stern or for Captain Kalsi.

But there is no justification for requiring people to violate the tenets of their faith because of government-issued, seemingly aesthetic, unsubstantiated, vague notions of “cohesion.” Religious men in the armed forces should not be prevented from growing a beard. Homosexuals should not be prevented from serving merely because they are gay.

THERE ARE strong reasons the military should encourage religious individuals to serve. By virtue of a dedication to a belief in a higher power, the devoutly uncompromisingly religious person is in fact inclined to notions of self-sacrifice, selflessness and unyielding loyalty. Those qualities bring clear benefit to the military.

Furthermore, besides the fact that denying qualified, bearded religious people from serving in the military is unconstitutional, silly and a disservice to our military’s efforts to recruit competent soldiers, it is also counter-intuitive because beards are historically a sign of masculinity and strength.

Militaries are institutions with longstanding aesthetic and social traditions related to uniform and appearance. However, when those aesthetic traditions infringe on religious rights and prevent qualified American citizens from being able to serve their country, then those traditions must come under scrutiny.

In addition, it is ironic that the US military, an institution that fights for the rights of Americans to practice their faiths openly or express their sexual orientations free from discrimination, would curtail those very same rights in their own institution.

I salute the brave men and women serving in our military and also recognize that these broad policies do not detract from the self-sacrifice they have shown our nation. With Rabbi Stern’s case and the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it seems like the tide is finally turning.

In December 2011, Kalsi received a Bronze Star, the fourth-highest combat award, for using his expertise in emergency medicine to save lives in Afghanistan – including the resuscitation of two clinically dead soldiers.

Another example of a person in the military donning a beard for religious reasons is Rabbi Col. Jacob Goldstein, who has had a distinguished career since 1977, fighting in Bosnia, South Korea, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Over 30 years ago, Goldstein was granted an exclusive, one-time exception to wear a beard. After the September 11, 2011 attacks Goldstein also served as the senior chaplain for all military units at Ground Zero. Their self-sacrifice and dedication to their comrades-in-arms and to the ultimate American values of freedom awareness and better police-community relations in and justice are the best possible argument to favor Constitutional rights over vacuous, undefined notions of “cohesion.”

The writer is a graduate of the City University of New York School of Law, where he served as an executive editor of the law review. He has advocated for gender equality in voting rights, sexual abuse Crown Heights.

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  • John

    Interesting comparison which makes lots of sense when you think about the reason for the discrimination.

  • I have often wondered why an Israeli could wear a beard in the military as could most other Middle Eastern soldiers, but American soldiers could not.

  • Response to salvage

    Salvage this article is about how unconstitutional discrimination, whether against gays or rabbis with beards is wrong. It has nothing to do with theism or anti-theism.

    • salvage

      >It has nothing to do with theism or anti-theism.

      I think it has a little to do with theism but you’re quite right in the abstract, his motivation is not really the issue, he wants to be in the army, the army says this is how it has to be and he is free to walk away.

      That seems perfectly reasonable to me, if he thinks his god’s rules on facial hair is worth more than an army career than that’s his decision.

      Being gay on the other hand is not a choice, he or she simply cannot stop being physically and emotional attracted to the same sex nor should they because it really doesn’t matter. Gays can shoot up whole villages of Muslims just as well as any straight.

      Now you could make the argument that facial hair is on par in the “doesn’t matter department” and I’d say well that’s true enough but the army seems to think it matters and it’s their club, they can set rules like that.

      My main point is the argument is ridiculous and the comparison pure apples and oranges.

      I just brought the theism up because I always like to point out when theists are insisting that one rule be obeyed while studiously ignoring the rule right next to it. It’s one of those things that theists do but never explain why.

      • Response to salvage

        The point is that BOTH ones sexual orientation and ones religious belief (albeit even if you deem it ridiculous) are constitutionally protected classes and the military has no right to use either as a basis for discrimination unless they can meet the burden to prove that the regulation serves a substantial government function of safety etc. How does a beard interfere with ones service? It doesn’t just like being gay doesn’t. That’s the only point.

        Yes it is true that ones sexual orientation is not a choice but whether to be open about it is a choice – albeit a choice that soldiers are thankfully now allowed to exercise. The analogy isn’t perfect but it goes at the heart of the issue that both ones religious practice of growing a beard and ones sexual orientation should not be a basis for the military to discriminate because they are both protected classes under the constitution.

        • salvage

          > How does a beard interfere with ones service?

          I have no idea, you’d have to ask the military but I do know that armies have been setting hair standards since the days of Ancient Rome so there’s probably some reason. Perhaps it speaks to the uniform? Maybe it’s a hygiene thing?

          But I still think the comparison is at best petty.

          • Response to salvage

            If you read the article closely you would see the striking similarity between Staff Maj. Gen. Gina Farrisee explanation of the reason for forbidding beards to that of General Powell’s reason for justifying DADT. The basis is virtually identical and if you research the issue you will see that the SAME justifications are used for both discriminating against gays and bearded religious people.

          • salvage

            It’s not “Bearded religious people.” it’s it’s “Bearded people”.

            And the reason why they discriminate against gays is because many people hate homosexuals in part because their religion tells them that their god wants gays dead.

            I don’t think that anyone hates bearded people because they can grow facial hair.

            So no, there is no reasonable comparison to make.

  • salvage

    If only the gays could shave off their gayness!

    It’s amazing how the author of this piece doesn’t seem to underdtand how the whole sexual orientation thing works.

    Of course the irony here is that the same book that commands him leave his facial hair alone commands him to kill gays.

    It’s adorable the way theists pick and choose the goofy laws to obey.