Photo Credit: Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Rabbi Dr. (Psychology) Simcha Goldman entered the military like many others, as a means to pay for his education. This meant that he owed the military four years of active duty to pay back the government for his graduate work. During his deployment he wore his yarmulke without controversy, but this was going to change in April, 1981 when a vindictive airman reported that Goldman was violating the Air Forces headgear regulations.

After the complaint was lodged, Colonel Joseph Gregory, the Hospital Commander where Goldman was stationed, a devout Christian who unseamlessly managed to get Christianity into every military matter – even announcements – limited Goldman to wearing his yarmulke exclusively to the hospital; everywhere else on the base it was verboten. But, law-abiding, mild-mannered, Simcha Goldman was nonetheless, unprepared to obey this command.

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If you were counting, this would have been Goldman’s second, blatant mistake.

Albeit there is a Constitutional right guaranteeing the freedom of religion, that does not mean that one may violate military protocol based on this principle. The Constitution also protects the right of free speech, but if what you say is deemed unsuitable you are liable to be arrested. And yet, and yet, Goldman decided to single-handedly take on the armed forces.

The Hospital Commander had the Base’s Legal Office contact the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) ecclesiastical board, which governs the policy for Jews in the military. The Air Force wanted to know whether it was truly necessary for a soldier to wear a yarmulke while in service. The man who posed the question was a Catholic chaplain, who was acquainted with Goldman and the fact that he was an ordained Rabbi.

The woman who answered the phone at the JWB, strayed a tad above her pay scale to offer her opinion. It was non-other than her own personal opinion – assuming the imprimatur of the JWB from whose office she spoke – that it was not necessary for a Jewish soldier to wear a yarmulke while in service. Well, there you had it.

Just like with the military prosecutor, likewise with this staff Chaplain, there was baggage and a score was settled. The chaplain was aware that Goldman was angry with him for diagnosing patients, although he did not possess psychological training. Although the chaplain was in the wrong, he wasn’t about to admit it. Motivated by the friction, he allowed himself the liberty of inquiring about a rabbi to a very much non-rabbi, and reported a non-informed, ignorant opinion to the base commander.

Captain Goldman was aghast at what had been perpetrated by one who knew much better. He confronted the chaplain as to how he could warrant such misinformation. The chaplain said in his own defense that when he called the JWB there were no rabbis present, so he took what there was. Goldman wondered if there existed a lamer excuse.

The world was closing in on Simcha Goldman. While nobody should be judged at his worst, how one deals with hard times says far more about a man than his waltz down Easy Street. These were crushingly hard times for Rabbi Goldman and he realized that he was on the verge of serious trouble from an adversary that never threatened innocuously. His career, his pension, legal ramifications and penal discipline were on the line. He therefore turned to a military defender as he pondered his next move.

Lawyers, characteristically, write “lawyer letters.” Goldman’s meeting with the defender resulted in such an epistle. However, when the base commander received it, a souring situation began to ferment, making Goldman about as popular in the base as bank foreclosure.

When Pharaoh was threatened he harshened his edicts, and devout Colonel Gregory took his Biblical cue. Upon receipt of the lawyer’s letter the Commander extended the order to forbid Goldman from wearing a yarmulke in uniform while in the hospital as well.

Simcha Goldman now pulled a hat trick for mistakes by refusing to comply. There must be a metaphor somewhere about not starting up against a bereaved bear and the military. Goldman’s commanding officer reacted by issuing a formal letter of reprimand, withdrew a recommendation that Goldman’s active duty service be extended, and threatened to have him court-martialed.

This was followed by Captain Goldman being commanded to sign that he was refusing to obey an order which would be placed in his file. This order was considered so vital that Goldman was ordered to drop what he was doing and appear before the Hospital Commander to sign. At the time he was conducting a therapy session for ten airmen, but he was not allowed to delay this command. So he had to stop, interrupt – indeed destroy what he had developed until then ‑ and abandon the therapy for the non-time sensitive issue of formally confirming his recalcitrance.

And this order he also refused to comply with. (This disobedience was not as blatant as it appears as he was aware that the command could be fulfilled if witnesses (of which there were no dearth) signed that he refused. He, personally, could not bring himself to sign that he was compliant in the removal of his yarmulke.)

(To be continued)

Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

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