By Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff
Two recent statements by former and current military leaders made news when they revealed vastly different visions for our nation.
We should take pride in the fact that the United States is unusual precisely because we are a nation that was not founded based on a shared faith, race, or ethnicity, but rather on shared support of ideas: self-evident truths such as equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Asserting that diversity is one of our strengths, current Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger announced a plan called Talent Management 2030, to make the Marine Corps more diverse “to reflect America, to reflect the society we come from.”
Berger has shared his view that America’s strength lies in its diversity, and the same is true for our military. He understands that “we don’t all think alike” but we are stronger because of that truth, not weaker. We have learned different lessons because as he said, “we didn’t come from the same backgrounds.”
Jewish teaching affirms this idea. We’re taught that G-d’s word is like a hammer striking an anvil, creating many sparks. Depending on our backgrounds and experiences, we understand the light and the brilliance of sparks that others will miss. The challenge is to share the insights we glean as individuals, so that we all might benefit as a community, a people, and a world.
Religious diversity is a particularly strong value for me because my life has been touched and enriched by the values and visions of so many separate religious traditions. Judaism has much wisdom to share with others, often based on our past experience as slaves and tied to that, our eternal belief in freedom, but also lessons from our history in the wilderness and search for a promised land.
Many of my non-Jewish friends have been struck by Jewish insights, including those gleaned from the way Jewish tradition finds wisdom in the connections between words and events. The time of the Omer, for example, linking Passover and the exodus from Egypt to Shavuot and receiving the commandments at Sinai, can help us understand the tension between rights and responsibilities.
From Passover we learn we are not slaves, but from Shavuot we learn we are not gods; from Passover we learn what to stand against, but from Shavuot, what to stand for; from Passover we learn about our rights, but from Shavuot we learn about our responsibilities.
I started my Navy career in Vietnam, on a ship that became the first commissioned vessel to enter the waters of Cambodia. As I faced fear and wrestled with issues of life and death, I often struggled with the war within that would define me as a human being – the battle between the better and lesser angels within me. During that time, a Christian chaplain, Father Les Westling, ultimately inspired me to make the decision to become a rabbi.
When I reentered the Navy as a chaplain, his footsteps were the ones I tried to follow.
From him and other non-Jewish chaplains, I learned lessons that have guided me ever since. I learned the lesson of Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel everywhere. Use words when absolutely necessary.” That teaching, that we share our lessons of hope and faith primarily through our presence and through our kindness, more than through our words alone, has been a guiding principle of my life.
When serving as a chaplain for the 6th Fleet, I was stationed onboard the USS Puget Sound, with the responsibility to visit all ships in the Mediterranean, as well as U.S. military personnel assigned to the peace-keeping force in Beirut. During my many visits to Beirut I saw a landscape filled with foxholes and bunkers representing the multi-national force personnel, along with those of Israelis and Lebanese.
What struck me about this experience was that in midst of foxholes filled with people representing one group or another, from the warring Lebanese Christians and Muslims to the predominantly Jewish forces of Israel’s IDF, we Americans had what I called interfaith foxholes. Thinking back on that time, amid religious wars around the world, I have said that if the world had more interfaith foxholes, perhaps we’d have less need for foxholes and have more room for faith.
On October 23, 1983 at 6:22 a.m., a suicide bomber in a van full of explosives attacked the American component of the multi-national force. The blast demolished a building 75 yards from where I was staying. Father George Pucciarelli, the Catholic chaplain assigned to the Marine Amphibious Unit, grabbed his purple uniform stole, and put it around his neck, preparing for the certainty that he would be administering last rights in the face of so many wounded and dying.
We lost 241 Americans that day. I remember how desperately we needed the medical assistance that would eventually arrive, a need made worse because many of the sailors who died were corpsmen.
We all did what we could until more help arrived. I tore my t-shirt apart to use pieces to wipe dirt and blood from the faces and bodies of the wounded and then I used my kippa, until I lost it in the rubble.
When we had a moment to breathe, Pucciarelli saw my head was uncovered, and he came over to me, ripping a piece of his camouflage uniform off so that I could use it as a temporary, makeshift kippa. I remember what he said to me – that in Lebanon, where every religion was fighting every other religion, he wanted our personnel to remember not only that American chaplains reached out to everyone, regardless of religion, regardless of whether anyone wounded even had a religion, but through the symbolism of the stole around his neck and the kippa on my head, he wanted our men to remember that we represented different faiths but worked together, side-by-side.
At that point in America, a debate had been raging about whether Jewish personnel could wear kippot with their uniforms. Normally Jewish chaplains were allowed to wear them, but it was unclear when it came to others, and often the default assumption was that they could not. For two years, the religious apparel amendment that would officially allow head-coverings for religious reasons had failed to pass Congress. After the story of Pucciarelli’s creation of the “camouflage kippa” was told in both the House and the Senate, and printed in the Congressional Record for both chambers, the amendment passed.
What I think happened was that many civilian and military leaders had been opposed to the idea because it conflicted with military uniformity. The story changed their minds. They saw uniformity as only a means to an end, and the end was unity, a unified effort to defend our freedoms, including freedom of religion. Cherishing our diversity could protect us from becoming one more nation torn apart by differences.
The religious apparel amendment laid the foundation for a series of instructions and directives outlining policies for religious accommodation within the military services. Some branches of the military still use that title, but as of September 1, 2020, the latest Department of Defense instruction chose a new title, religious liberty in the military services. For me, that instruction recognized our policies were not simply accommodating needs.
Instead, we were strengthening our freedoms, our rights, and ultimately, protecting the liberty we in the military defend.
Religions often have different ultimate visions, and those visions are mutually exclusive from those of other faiths. Therefore, our lesson must be that when it comes to interfaith cooperation, the more we focus on the end of days, the more we’ll disagree. But the more we focus on the end of today, to make today a better day for the sick, the hungry, for those suffering from pain or fear, the more we’ll agree. Then, we can all roll up our sleeves and work together. For me, that’s the secret behind the success of the military chaplaincy. We take strength from our diversity, then unite to help others, and do some good for our world.
At a time when religious tension, hostility, and even conflict are far too evident throughout our world, we must share the vision of interfaith foxholes, and the knowledge that our differing backgrounds, experiences, teachings, and faiths can strengthen and enrich us all.
I am inspired by the wisdom of Berger’s new vision. Perhaps the story of the camouflage kippa will become a part of that vision. In the meantime, I pray that the men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps grow stronger through their renewed respect for diversity as a strength. May they be ever faithful to that vision. May that vision and that strength be a blessing for our military, our nation, and our world.
Rabbi Resnicoff is a life member of JWV who began his Naval career as a line officer in Vietnam and with Naval Intelligence in Europe before rabbinical school and ordination. As a rabbi he served in chaplain assignments around the world, culminating in the position of Command Chaplain, U.S. European Command. Following retirement, he served as National Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee and Special Advisor for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Volume 75. Number 4. 2021