By Lieutenant Colonel Arthur C. Zeidman (USAR, Ret)
The culmination of years of movement to greater accommodation of religious belief by uniformed members of the United States military services has finally reached critical mass, effective September 1, 2020. DoD Instruction 1300.17, “Religious Liberty in the Military Services” superseded the February 10, 2009 “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services” version of the same regulation, and everything herein came to be understood by looking at the title of the reg, before 2020 and effective 2020. Religious expression has changed from a reluctant accommodation to a celebrated liberty. That simple change, acknowledging and celebrating practices as a wholesome liberty versus an accommodated practice, shows that the legacy of Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986) was finally repudiated.
Rabbi Dr. Simcha Goldman was an Orthodox rabbi, and a reserve Air Force officer who worked as a psychologist for the Air Force when active. Rabbi Goldman had been a Navy chaplain from 1970 to 1972 and wore a kippah (also called yarmulke) on active duty without incident. He then attended graduate school and obtained a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and returned to active duty with the Air Force as a psychologist. For several years, his wearing of a yarmulke was either overlooked or tolerated until he testified on behalf of an airman in a court-martial. The trial counsel (prosecutor) notified Dr. Goldman’s commander, who ordered Goldman to stop wearing the kippah immediately. When he refused, Goldman received a letter of reprimand for, inter alia, violating Air Force uniform regulations (AFR 35-10), which prohibited the wearing of headgear indoors with a few exceptions (such as carrying weapons and official ceremonies). Faced with serious repercussions, Rabbi Goldman sued the Department of Defense. The case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against Goldman, citing “military necessity” among its reasons to uphold the Air Force (and by analogy), Army, Navy and Coast Guard regulations prohibiting beards as part of the grooming standards.
Congress responded to the Goldman case in the 1988 National Defense Authorization Act, (commonly called the Lautenberg Amendment”)1 allowing wear of modest religious gear while in uniform. However, this was a uniform statute, and did not automatically apply to other religious practices. Typical service regulations included Army Regulation 670-1,2 which allowed the wear of religious accessories and headgear.
Essentially, the regulations permit service members to wear religious head coverings, so long as they are modest, contain no writing or symbols and do not interfere with other military headgear or equipment. Modest kippot are those that have colors that match or are compatible with uniforms and are not oversized.
Over time, given pressure from numerous denominations, especially Chabad affiliate Aleph Institute, and with advocacy by Sikh service members and with the support of Christian fundamentalists, greater freedom gradually evolved until all services were allowing greater access to religious practice.
Unlike other religious requirements like Shabbos or dietary accommodations3, yarmulkes are generally allowed without the need to make a request. However, prudence dictates that service members should always inform NCOs and supervisors that the kippah is being worn for religious reasons in order to avoid unnecessary conflict with those who may be unaware of the statutory right to do so. Also, it is advisable that the soldier, sailor, airman or marine obtain guidance when special situations arise, like underwater training, specialized headgear, and gas masks. Remember to consult with your personal rav as to whether it is even religiously necessary to wear a yarmulke when wearing other headgear, such as a helmet or aviator’s cap.
The author spent twenty-eight years in military service, and for the first half of that service, did not wear a yarmulke with his uniform. Over time, as I became more observant, yarmulkes went from being in my glove compartment or at shul to being a full-time accessory. By the time I decided to observe the head-covering practice full-time, I was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, so my journey was undoubtedly easier than most junior officers and enlisted members. I also had the benefit of the Lautenberg Amendment. Nevertheless, it was a personal tectonic shift.
I immediately felt a responsibility to be more aware of my personal conduct and appearances, as I was more visibly representing Jews, both military and civilian. I had absolutely no resistance to wearing a yarmulke while wearing my insignia of rank. Occasionally, someone would make a remark when I was in unranked PT gear, but it was never anti Semitic in nature. Be ready for questions; the most common was, “Is that beanie authorized?” or “Soldier, you’re not allowed to wear a beanie in uniform.” I would politely explain that it was religious headgear permitted by law, and that always resolved the problem. I found small yarmulkes that would fit under my uniform headgear, and used Velcro strips to avoid bulky clips. I used larger ones for PT so they wouldn’t fall off.
Over the course of my military career, I only advised one or two soldiers who ran into problems over their kippot. A call to the first sergeant was all it took to fix the problem. If you decide to take this step and proudly wear your Yiddishkeit in uniform, keep the number of a chaplain or JAG legal assistance in case you run into any interference. Aleph can help, too.
1. The author received a black yarmulke in the mail from the campaign of Senator Frank Lautenberg, ovs, of his
ponymous amendment, along with a fundraising letter after the law passed in 1987. There are other “Lautenberg Amendments” pertaining to unrelated matters.
2. See also BUPERINST 1730.11 (Navy), AFI 36-2903 (Air Force).
3. DODI 1300.17 (Sept. 1, 2020) Section 1.2 Service members have a right to First Amendment right to free exercise, unless safety is adversely affected.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.