This Friday, after nearly two years of requests for accommodation, Rabbi Menachem Stern will be sworn into the U.S. army as a chaplain––with a full beard.(1) Stern went so far as to file a lawsuit when his efforts to receive an exception to the Army’s no-beard policy failed.(2) Now, exactly one year after the suit was first filed, the rabbi and the Army reached an out-of-court settlement, whereby the Army agreed to grant a waiver that will allow Rabbi Stern to keep his beard while serving as a chaplain.
What is interesting about this case is that having a beard is not necessarily required by Jewish law. Although a man is certainly prohibited from shaving certain parts of his face with a razor,(3) trimming one’s beard with scissors or shaving with an electric shaver are permitted according to many authorities. (For a detailed discussion of the laws of shaving, click here.) Nevertheless, there are those who maintain, based on kabbalah, that one may not trim his beard at all.(4) Also, it is my understanding that Lubavitcher chassidim do not trim their beards, even with a scissors, because the Tzemach Tzedek (the 3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe) ruled that it is prohibited.(5) This explains why Rabbi Stern, a Chabad rabbi, has insisted on keeping his beard.
Although it may not be required by Jewish law, wearing a beard in the army appears to be protected by the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. In 1973, the Air Force ordered Rabbi Michell Geller, a chaplain, to remove his beard.(6) The chaplain sued, asking the court to declare that the Air Force regulation prohibiting facial hair was unconstitutional, as applied to him, because it violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. One of the Air Force’s counterarguments was that wearing a beard is not actually required by Jewish law. In its decision, the court stated an oft-recited, but important principle of “free exercise” claims:
There is no requirement that the religious practice be absolutely mandated in order to elevate plaintiff’s claim to a level of constitutional significance. It is not the province of the Courts to dictate which practices are or are not required in a particular religion. See, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 49 L.Ed.2d 151 (decided June 21, 1976); Teterud v. Burns, 522 F.2d 357 (8th Cir. 1975). The Court is persuaded by the record as presently constituted that the wearing of beards, although not required, is a well established religious tradition among members of the Jewish faith and that plaintiff wore his beard in furtherance of that religious practice.
(2) Stern v. Secretary of the Army,
(3) See Vayikra [Leviticus] 19:27; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah § 181.
(4) See Be’er Heiteiv, Yoreh Dei’ah § 181; Birchei Yosef, ad loc.
(6) Geller v. Secretary of Defense, 423 F.Supp. 16 (D.D.C. 1976). Rabbi Geller was represented by Nathan Lewin, the same attorney who represented Rabbi Stern.