April 7, 2009

The IDF's "War on Beards"


Published in The Jewish Press on April 10, 2009.

An identifying mark of the Jew has been, and for many still is, his beard. The foundation for this is the commandment in the Torah: “You shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shall you mar the corners of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27).

The Second Book of Samuel provides an early example of the importance of the beard. There, the Ammonite King shaves off half the beards of King David’s messengers to insult David. The messengers were so embarrassed that David instructed them to wait until their beards grew back before returning to Jerusalem.

Medieval Biblical commentator Rabbi David Kimhi notes that implicit in the story is the fact that the messengers’ other option – shaving off the other half of their beards – was too humiliating to contemplate.

The beard is also a sign of piousness and the wisdom that comes with age. The Hebrew word for beard and elder is derived from the same root letters of “Z-K-N” (זקן). In Jewish liturgy, the beard is a recurrent symbol when describing a pious or a wise man.

In modern times, many religious Jews would not shave off or even trim their beards, actions strictly forbidden by Hasidic and Kabbalistic teachings.

The Jew’s beard also made an easy target for anti-Semites. In 19th century Poland, then controlled by the Russian Empire, a government decree banned Jews from having beards and payot (side-locks). Many Hasidic Jews were heroically ready to face prison or exile rather than comply. Fortunately, a group of Jewish rabbis and community leaders convinced Polish and Russian authorities to annul the decree.

Despite the significance of a beard for many Jews, the IDF has initiated a “war on beards,” as a headline in the major Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Acharonot put it, announcing new regulations restricting the ability of soldiers to grow and keep beards.

Previously, the IDF placed no restrictions on a religious soldier’s ability to grow a beard. The old order (Directive 33.0118) states that “a soldier, observing a religious lifestyle, can grow a beard for religious reasons.”

Under the new rules, however, a soldier must obtain a recommendation from the Rabbi of his unit and then a permit from a Lieutenant Colonel.

If the soldier transfers to another unit he must renew his permit in the new unit. And, if the soldier shaves his beard or if he is tried for a disciplinary violation of the new regulations, he must wait a year before obtaining a new permit.

In the memorandum sent to all soldiers announcing the new regulations, Lt. Cl. Avishai Azulai explained that growing beards outside the regulations violates the “image of IDF soldiers in the eyes of the citizens of the state.”

These new guidelines place considerable obstacles in the path of a religious soldier wishing to observe what he considers central to his identity. They violate soldiers’ religious freedom. At the very least, they force the IDF to question soldiers’ religious beliefs and pass judgments on religious sincerity. How will the IDF pass such judgments? For example, if a soldier only recently became religious – how long must he wait to show his religious sincerity before growing a beard? If a soldier observes Shabbat and Kashrus, but not other mitzvot – is he sufficiently religious to grow a beard? What if a soldier is only traditional?

Having such judgments made by the IDF, in and of itself, requires state intrusion into a person’s belief system.

Further, there are no guidelines for the Lieutenant Colonel who issues the permit. He, sadly, may be hostile to or have little-to-no understanding of Judaism. As a result, soldiers in different battalions will face different and unfair requirements.

The requirements imposed by the directives are themselves no small obstacles, especially for young and impressionable teenagers. A soldier should not be forced to request official approval for and embarrassingly attempt to prove his religious sincerity to the IDF. As the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, an Israeli civil rights organization, wrote in a letter of protest to the Chief of the General Staff on March 2:
“[A] soldier, especially a young or freshman soldier in a combat unit, does not easily approach an officer of the Lieutenant Colonel rank . . . for any purpose. . . . [T]here is a real concern that religious or traditional soldiers . . . will be afraid to obtain a permit to grow a beard under the stated conditions.”

The new directives also provide no exception for soldiers who only refrain from shaving during specific times of the year as prescribed by Halakhah. Those soldiers will have to go through an arduous process several times a year, and a Lieutenant Colonel who does not understand or even disdains the Halakhah may simply reject such requests. The Legal Forum therefore requested that the new directives be clarified to include such exceptions.

The mandatory one year waiting period before applying to grow a beard after shaving a beard is itself a judgment on religious sincerity. Here, the IDF falsely concludes that someone who shaves their beard once must not have a sincere religious motivation for growing a beard after that, regardless of any other facts.

The mandatory one-year waiting period imposed for a violation of the directives, implies that the IDF will use prohibitions on religious practices as a method of punishment for disciplinary violations.

As a symbolic matter, intentionally or unintentionally, the regulations send a message of hostility to the Jewish character of IDF and the State.

The IDF, the primary arm of the state, has immense social, political and even religious relevance to Israeli and world Jewry. For world Jewry, the IDF is a Jewish military, unique in modern history, the last line of defense against another Holocaust, the reversal of the Jew’s historical position as the helpless victim, and heir to the Jewish military tradition of antiquities. For Israeli Jewry, the IDF is a right of passage, a social training ground, where many form social, business, and political connections that can endure a lifetime, and society’s protector against terrorism and war. The enactment of new anti-beard regulations send an official message of disparagement toward traditional religious practices symbolized by beards, which Lt. Col. Azulai implied are not in keeping with “the image of the IDF.”

In any case, Azulai’s implied assertion that beards violate the IDF’s image is plainly false. Half of the young combat officers are religious and 40% of all graduating officers in 2007 were religious. Recently, Operation Cast-Lead produced many pictures of religious soldiers sporting beards, kippot, and payot, in uniform, sometimes in combat and often while praying. The religious soldier – beard and all – is, in fact, fast becoming the real image of the IDF.

In addition, many religious soldiers were very recently forced to question their assumptions about the IDF due to the IDF’s participation in expelling 8,000 Jews from their homes and barring all Jews from part of the homeland as well as recent threats to disband Hesder units, which combine Army service with religious study. The new regulations can readily be viewed as insulting, if not as a direct assault on religious soldiers.

But any public relations problems posed by the new directives to the national-religious sector are dwarfed in comparison to the potential for damage with Israel’s growing Haredi community, a large portion of which views the State of Israel and the IDF as anti-religious institutions.

Practically 100% of the Haredi community, constituting 11.5% of each year’s enlistment, does not enlist for IDF service for religious reasons. In order to reverse this problem, in 1999, the IDF, in cooperation with a group of rabbis, created Nahal Haredi as a venue for young, nationalistically inclined Haredi men to serve in the IDF while adhering to the highest religious standards. From a small unit of 30 soldiers, Nahal Haredi has grown into a full battalion with close to 1,000 troops, already aiming to grow to a fully operative infantry brigade.

The new anti-beard regulations, however, could set back the public relations gains made with Nahal Haredi. They will only enforce Haredi perceptions and arguments that the IDF and the state are hostile to Judaism. Taken together with newly proposed reductions in exemptions for Haredim, the regulations could spark even greater Haredi resentment toward the IDF and the State.

Lastly, the regulations are unnecessarily overbroad and arbitrary. Purportedly, they were enacted in response to data showing a rise in soldiers who grew beards in violation of regulations. But if this is the case, then all that is really needed is improved enforcement of the old regulations, not onerous restrictions which impinge on religious freedom.

A better rule would be, as the Legal Forum has recommended, to simply accept “a soldier’s declaration that he grows a beard on a regular basis for religious purposes or that he grows a beard temporarily for religious purposes.” Absent evidence that the soldier is lying, an onus should never be placed on a newly drafted young Jewish soldier to justify his religious sincerity.