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to serve, but then rescinded a formal letter of acceptance because he refused to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 27:19, 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 that 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
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.”
of course cases where religious garb could undermine the safety of military
procedures. For instance, a beard interfering with a gas mask could post 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 for 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 and justice are the best possible
argument to favor Constitutional rights over vacuous, undefined notions of
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 and interned for civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby.
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