Rabbi not allowed to serve in army with beard

August 20, 2010 8:33:14 PM PDT
An Orthodox rabbi is being forced to choose between serving his country or his religion.

The rabbi was recently accepted to become a U.S. army chaplain, but the acceptance came with the condition that he shaves his beard.

That demand directly contradicts Jewish law that states shaving is forbidden.

"Everybody has a beard. This is not just a rabbi, us as a community. That's the norm. We don't touch it, we don't shave it," Rabbi Menachem Stern said.

Rabbi Stern is talking about the Chabad community.

It's a faith practiced by his family for generations, and they are beliefs he brought with him when he came to the U.S. from Jerusalem at age 13.

"Yes there are many people out there who are Orthodic Jews, and many who consider themselves Hasidic that shave," Rabbi Stern said.

Rabbi Stern does not shave and neither do Chabads.

The U.S. Army said that he'll have to shave it off if he wants to be one of their chaplains.

"I went through my interview with the Chief of Chaplain, I went my interview with the chaplain at West Point. I went through my medical and physical. I went through my FBI background check. Everything was approved," Rabbi Stern said.

Rabbi Stern found out about a shortage of army chaplains two years ago, and quickly applied.

A letter dated September 1st documents his acceptance as a first lieutenant.

But, in a letter dated the very next day, the army rescinded his offer.

"It said, we apologize, but this commissioning is pending the shaving of your beard," Rabbi Stern said.

Army Command Policy states, "Males will keep their face clean shaven" and, "Grooming practices based on religious reasons will not be singled out for special accommodation."

The army stopped giving out exceptions to their grooming policy in 1984. But, soldiers who already received a waiver have been allowed to continue to serve.

Colonel Jacob Goldstein is one of seven Orthodox Jewish Chaplains in the army.

He's a Chabad Rabbi who enlisted 33 years ago.

The army says Stern can still serve as a chaplain, and then apply a waiver to grow beard once he begins his service.

"That's hypocrisy in my eyes," Rabbi Stern said.

Last month, Senators Gillibrand and Lieberman wrote a letter on Stern's behalf saying, "No man should have to choose between his religion and service."

"It compares to the 13 attributes of God, because a beard 13 parts to it. It's a channel of God's blessing into the day to day life of a person," Rabbi Stern said.

It's a blessing he won't be able to share with the troops, if he keeps his beard.