Chaplain Rabbi Mitchell Geller served in the Air Force for 22 years without incident, the last seven sporting a goatee which was grown during the mourning period for his father. Although he was in the Reserves, he was still subject to military regulations, and having a beard did not conform. The base chaplain presented him with the following offer, “Either you go to the barber shop or you go to jail.”
Geller found neither option appealing, not that his opinion was being solicited. No pun intended, the beard had grown on him. It was appropriate, and as far as he was concerned, the Air Force had no right to strip a Jewish chaplain of his beard.
As stated, the Air Force saw it otherwise, and since he did not comply with having his beard removed, he was discharged from the service. If it wasn’t clear before, the seriousness of Geller’s predicament was now apparent in dread clarity.
At stake was not only the principle, but Mitchell’s long-earned pension. Twenty years of Reserve Duty qualifies for a pension; however, if you are forced out of the military you become disqualified.
After a twenty-two-year investment, Rabbi Geller had adequate incentive to judiciously explore his legal options. Initially he contacted the JWB, but they were unsympathetic to his cause and saw no justification for a beard. Geller then turned to a local lawyer who offered nothing more than undeserved legal expenses.
In desperation, Rabbi Geller turned to COLPA (the National Coalition on Law and Public Affairs) that was founded that year to defend and advocate on behalf of the rights of observant Jews. COLPA agreed to accept the case, and they duly handed it over to Nathan Lewin.
The defense had a difficult task as the Air Force, like any branch of the military, had every right to demand uniformity. Not only is standardization the cornerstone of a fighting force, but deviations from the dress code are viewed as undermining discipline. This is because the military’s goal is to make everyone become and look equal; as a team works best when there are no distinctions. Furthermore, a beard is a hazard in the event a gas mask is required.
This was a difficult argument to counter. However, Lewin is a master at comprehending the winning argument. Hence, he did not argue Constitutional Law and avoided precedent. He stuck to the strongest weapon in his arsenal: pure logic. Mitchell Geller was inducted as a Jewish chaplain; a rabbi and a beard go hand in hand. To tell a rabbi to take off his beard would be akin to telling a Catholic Father to remove his collar.
Judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr. (the very same judge who sentenced Jonathan Pollard) found this reasoning very compelling and left little room for appeal in his decision. So much so, the government did not even attempt to challenge the decision.
Rabbi Geller was awarded his pension, the government restored back pay that had been lost in the interim, and Geller retired from the Air Force a Lieutenant Colonel.
(To be continued)
Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!Rabbi Hanoch Teller