WASHINGTON (Washington Jewish Week) – Rabbi Menachem Stern’s bushy black beard is at the center of a federal court case.
Rabbi Stern, 29, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Brooklyn, filed suit recently against the U.S. Army saying that a no-beard restriction violates his religious freedom.
In January 2009, Rabbi Stern had applied to become a chaplain in the Army, which has been historically short on Jewish spiritual leaders.
That June, his application was accepted, according to a lawsuit filed Dec. 8 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., with one condition: He must shave his beard to comport with Army regulations prohibiting facial hair.
An Orthodox Jew who follows traditions barring the shaving of facial hair, Rabbi Stern maintains the Army’s requirement that he be clean-shaven is overly burdensome and violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
But rules are rules, the Army asserts, and Rabbi Stern — like the 550,000 other enlisted personnel — must adhere to the military’s strict regulations if he wishes to serve.
Rabbi Stern, however, argues that his journey through the Army’s bureaucracy has revealed widespread contradictions in the way its policies are applied to service members. Enlistees from other religions, he said, have been granted facial-hair exemptions in the past.
From the outset, Rabbi Stern explained in an interview, he made it clear that his beard is fundamental to his faith.
“By not trimming my beard, I represent the unadulterated view of the holy Torah, the way we believe a person should live,” Rabbi Stern wrote in his original chaplain application.
After submitting his application, Rabbi Stern then filed a formal request to be exempted from shaving his facial hair, according to court documents.
In his request, Rabbi Stern points to Leviticus chapter 19, noting that as a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, he is “strictly prohibited from shaving or removing” his facial hair “in any manner.”
On Sept. 1, 2009, the unshaven Rabbi Stern was appointed formally as a reserve commissioned officer and instructed to complete the Chaplain Officer Basic Course.
The following day, however, his appointment was rescinded.
A missive penned by Col. Scottie Lloyd, the Army’s director of Human Resources and Ecclesiastical Relations, noted that Rabbi Stern’s appointment was an “administrative error” wrongly sent. He did not qualify for active duty, Lloyd continued, “because of the military regulation prohibiting the wearing of beards.”
Rabbi Sanford Dresin intervened to advocate on Rabbi Stern’s behalf. As executive director of chaplains at the Aleph Institute, a group that certifies and provides support for Jewish chaplains, Rabbi Dresin thought he could run interference.
With just nine active duty rabbis serving as Army chaplains, Rabbi Dresin believes the Army should bend its rule to accommodate Rabbi Stern — as it has in the past.
“Do you think that one or two rabbis are going to destroy good authority and discipline in the army?” Rabbi Dresin asked rhetorically in an interview. “We are not asking for a blanket exemption.
An Army spokesman declined to comment on Rabbi Stern’s case specifically, but said in an interview that the Army’s guidelines are straightforward.
“We consider [people] on a case-by-case basis,” George Wright said. Any exemption that is granted, Wright added, would apply during an explicitly delineated period of time.
Moreover, no applicant can be granted a pass before formal admittance into the Army, which means that Rabbi Stern would have to shave his beard first before asking for permission to grow it back.
“I asked them [Army officials], ‘Do you want me to be a hypocrite?’” Rabbi Stern recalled in an interview. “To shave it only to grow it back?”
Unruly beards, others maintain, are unseemly and make service members appear sloppy.
“It’s unbecoming really of a person in uniform,” said Rabbi Marvin Bash, who served as a Jewish chaplain at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, Va.
While Rabbi Bash admitted that the military’s guidelines and policy for exemption can seem fuzzy, the beard ban itself is clear.
“I would either say [Rabbi Stern trims] it or he’s out,” Rabbi Bash said, explaining that in his opinion, “there’s no halacha that says you can’t trim the beard.”
While the Army has not formally responded to the lawsuit, Lewin said the suit is relatively “clean cut,” as a litany of documentation illustrates the Army’s unjust conduct. Lewin litigated and won a similar case against the Air Force in 1976.
For Rabbi Stern, the case comes down to duty and mission. n
“I believe this is my calling and mission,” he said. “I want to get into the service.”