Chaplains Praise Support: Torahs for Our Troops
The Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council has organized an effort called “Torahs for Our Troops,” with the intent of providing Jewish servicemembers with the religious materials they require for their spiritual needs:
[Jewish] chaplains have asked [the] JWB Jewish Chaplains Council to provide them with small, lightweight but fully kosher Torah scrolls to accompany them from site to site, as they move around ships and the combat theater…For Jews, writing or helping to write a Torah is an important mitzvah. JWB is giving people the opportunity to fulfill this religious obligation by contributing toward the completion of these new Torahs, as well as a way to thank those men and women who serve in the armed forces…
As noted many times on this site, obtaining spiritual resources for servicemembers in theatre and around the world can be challenging, despite the seemingly constant call and supply of ‘care packages.’ The JWB/JCC move is an admirable effort to help military Chaplains provide for the needs of their troops. This not only provides moral support for our troops as they are deployed in defense of our country; it also ensures US soldiers’ rights to religious free exercise regardless of their location.
Despite the positive attempts by the JWB and Jewish Chaplains to support Jewish members of the US military, their efforts are not without potential controversy.
Viewed through a jaundiced eye, the actions taken by some of the military members supporting the JWB/JCC effort might be open to criticism. During a presentation on this topic in November 2009, Chaplain (Colonel) Brett Oxman introduced a military color guard procession in “full” uniform* as a Torah entered. The procession was made up of dozens of uniformed servicemembers representing the four branches of the military service and ranks from Cadet (Midshipmen) to retired flag officer. The US military service flags appeared to be “dipped” below the elevated Torah scroll held high above the head of a uniformed troop. Some might say the Chaplain “endorsed” the JWB during the presentation, which, while an endorsing agency for Jewish Chaplains, is a non-Federal entity; he also appeared to solicit contributions for their efforts.
Is anything actually wrong with the actions of the JWB, Chaplain Oxman, or any of the troops in the video? Absolutely not. Their actions are a fine display of the efforts American citizens and servicemembers will take in order to guard the Constitutional rights of their fellow faith adherents in the US military.
Unfortunately, however, equivalent conduct by other military members has garnered criticism from at least one “religious freedom” organization, Michael Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation. In just one example, Weinstein’s MRFF has admitted to using the silver bullet of “participation with a non-Federal entity” as an avenue to oppose “all appearances by uniformed military personnel…regardless of how overtly sectarian the content of the program is [sic].” Thus, any military member who appears in uniform on a program could suffer similar public condemnation, including Chaplain Oxman (and potentially others in the video).
Of course, the MRFF has never taken public action against any religion other than Christianity, despite similar public conduct. Therefore, it appears Chaplain Oxman will be safe from Weinstein’s typical hyperbolic vitriol.
*Naïve criticisms of military members often include accusations against them being in “full” uniform, as if that adjective somehow changes the degree of use of the uniform. (See one example here.) There is no indication of what they believe a “partial” uniform would be.