Expert Witness

I would like to reply to Jonathan J. Klein, Esq., Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve (Retired), who disapproves of soldiers who fight for the right to keep their beards.

Klein was replying to “The Battle for Beards,” waged by some military chaplains (Features, “Got You Covered,” 2 Nisan 5777/March 29, 2017) Regarding the issue of beards in the military, there is a minimal level of alignment between the concerns relevant to the military and those associated with the allowance of beards in prisons.

In 1985, the issue of the prohibition of beards longer than one inch in the New York State prison system was the subject of a federal court case which eventually was elevated to Supreme Court consideration.

I served as an expert witness in that case (qualified based on having authored what the court considered a scholarly work on the topic [the sefer, Hadras Panim Zakan]) and testified regarding the significance of the beard in Jewish law and whether the proscription of wearing a full beard constitutes a violation of religious rights. Ultimately, forcing the prisoner to cut off his beard was declared unconstitutional.

The issue of whether a Jewish soldier should insist and campaign to wear a beard in a secular army has already been ruled upon by the most universally accepted and revered halachic authority of modern times, namely, the saintly Chofetz Chaim. One of the sefarim of the Chofetz Chaim is entitled Machne Yisroel, a handbook for Jewish soldiers in the Russian army, in which the Chofetz Chaim strove to be as lenient as possible, due to the immense pressure and torment Jewish soldiers were exposed to, as explained in the introduction.

Yet despite the extreme extenuating circumstances of the Russian army, the Chofetz Chaim writes (in Chapter 13) that Jewish soldiers should not even trim their beards with scissors to make them shorter, even if they are persecuted or suffer major monetary damages as a result of keeping their full beard. If a soldier cannot withstand the severe distress and pressure, only then should he trim his beard, and with scissors.

If the Chofetz Chaim ruled thus regarding Jewish soldiers in the oppressive, anti-Semitic Russian army, how much more so should a Jewish soldier in the U.S. Army emphatically insist on wearing a full beard and crusade for that right.

(It should be noted that the Chofetz Chaim never addressed the issue of whether or not a Rabbi — or frum Jew — should enlist in the first place in a volunteer army. Such a concept would have been outlandish in the world the Chofetz Chaim lived in.)

The U.S. Army prides itself on being inclusive and accommodating whenever possible. They want Jews to enlist. They want and need Rabbis to service the religious needs of those Jews. Many Rabbis feel strongly that a beard is a religious requirement. The fact that there are some Rabbis who do not, does not make it correct to exclude those Rabbis that do. Moreover, it is laudable not only from the army’s standpoint of inclusiveness, but also from the standpoint of religious obligation — the Jewish concept of arvus — for Rabbis to put their careers on hold, and risk their lives, to minister to their fellow Jews who are serving their country. The fact that there may be Rabbis without beards is not an answer. That’s like saying, “I don’t need to help my fellow Jew — someone else will do it!”

Add to that the pragmatic fact that a very large proportion of Orthodox Jewish chaplains in the armed forces come from Chabad, and therefore subscribe to the view that beards are mandatory in Halachah. If beards were prohibited, many would be precluded from serving in that vital role and there would likely be a severe shortage of frum chaplains, leaving many Jewish soldiers at the mercy of non-Orthodox or even non-Jewish clergymen, R”l!

Rabbi Moshe Wiener