With the U.S. Senate’s repeal last weekend of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays in the military, it is anticipated that homosexuals, for the first time in U.S history, will be able to serve in the armed forces without having to hide their sexual orientation.
The Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council advised the Pentagon earlier this year that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would have no impact on Jewish chaplains in either their ministry or their counseling duties.
Some local Jewish chaplains, however, are less comfortable with the repeal of the 17-year-old law.
The JWB Jewish Chaplains Council serves as the endorsing body for Jewish military chaplains who serve in the armed forces and Veterans’ Affairs chaplaincy services. The organization is comprised of rabbis from the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), plus four active duty Jewish chaplains representing the Chaplains Advisory Group.
Even though the rabbis from each denomination have differing views of homosexuality, they were able to agree that the repeal of the law would not affect their abilities to serve as military chaplains, said Rabbi Harold Robinson, a Navy rear admiral and director of the Jewish Chaplains Council.
“At our meeting a year ago, we came up with a formal position for the Pentagon,” said Robinson. “Each [branch of Judaism] sees the matter of homosexuality differently. But the role of our chaplains is pretty much unaffected by that. On a daily basis, we deal with people who do all sorts of things we might be uncomfortable with, whether it’s not keeping kosher, or not keeping Shabbat or infidelity. We’re especially used to dealing with people who aren’t Jewish, and follow their own moral law. We meet everyone in terms of their own personal needs.”
Chaplains are legally protected from performing any rite or ritual that “does not meet their own personal religious requirements,” Robinson noted, so chaplains face no threat of being compelled to do or say anything that is not in accord with their beliefs.
“For example, if a rabbi is asked to do a wedding on a Saturday afternoon before sundown, he can refuse,” Robinson said, “even if it is a commanding officer making the request.”
Interacting with homosexual military personnel is nothing new to chaplains, according to Robinson.
“Most chaplains, if they know their unit, already know they (homosexuals) are there,” he said. “I knew that some in my unit were gay and lesbian, and I knew some that were hiding it. It never affected my role with them, and shame on me if I let it.”
Still, not all Jewish chaplains are comfortable with the repeal of the law.
“I can only speak for myself, but I feel like it’s one of those areas where political correctness takes over,” said Rabbi Eli Seidman, lieutenant colonel, spiritual leader for the Jewish Association on Aging. “I don’t think people should be persecuted [for being gay], but I think we need to bring them closer to what the Torah says. I can tell them in the course of Bible study what the Torah says, but I’m not sure where the legal fault lines are.”
In addition to uncertainty as to what will be legally permissible in terms of ministering to homosexuals, at least one Jewish chaplain is concerned as to what floodgates will open as a result of the new policy.
“I’m concerned about the next inevitable steps for the military (because all moral movement is dynamic and leads to further movement),” wrote Rabbi Nosson Sachs, chaplain (colonel), in an e-mail to the Chronicle. “Among them: Army housing for gay soldiers and their partners; benefits for partners; and Strong Bonds couples retreats for gay soldiers and their partners.”
“This vote is about breaking down one more bastion of resistance to becoming a society that openly supports, rather than condones or looks the other way regarding homosexual relationships,” wrote Sachs, a chaplain at UPMC Shadyside Hospital. “As a Torah True Rabbi, I am appalled by this development in our society. The Torah is clear that homosexual behavior is a sin. I believe that this movement will contribute to our further decline as a nation. As a patriot who loves the United States I mourn this.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)