By: Ch, Capt Mordechai Hecht, USAFR
Recently, I came across a miniature treasure: a comprehensive publication published in 1947, entitled “Responsa in Wartime”. It is a collection of halachic responsa, a series of important and common questions regarding real issues that came up during WWII regarding the treatment of military personnel in the battle theater, posed to Rabbinic authorities. One such question (page 5), was whether or not a Jewish nurse may wear a cross with her dog-tag. The chaplain who raised the question explained that her concern was that perhaps there was a chance she would be stranded somewhere in the South Pacific and the natives would simply see the cross as a symbol of friendship. The committee of Rabbis who published this book answered the question beautifully: “In Shulchan Oruch Yoreh Deah (178:1) the question is raised about Jews wearing non-Jewish garments, when prohibited and when permitted. The commentator Sifsei Cohen says that in times of persecution, it is certainly permitted for a Jew to disguise himself wearing non-Jewish clothes. Thus, if for example, the question were whether Jewish soldiers fighting on the European continent might not be permitted to conceal their Jewish identity by wearing dog-tags without the letter H for Hebrew so that if captured by Nazis they would not be mistreated, the answer would be that is certainly permitted.”
Parenthetically, I love how the Rabbis, in good Jewish tradition, answered a question with another question and only thereby to come to a clear answer.
The Responsa continues: “However no such concern exists in the South Pacific. When discussing the status of idols, Shulchan Aruch (141:1) states that objects meant for decoration only are not idols. The Ashkenazic authority Rabbi Moshe Isserles comments: ‘A cross meant to be prostrated to is a forbidden object, but one that is worn around the neck is merely a memento and is thus not forbidden.”
The Committee of Rabbis concluded: “To use a cross as the nurse intended to is not forbidden by law, but since it is clearly against Jewish sentiment, the committee refrains from advising her on this matter. She herself must judge how grave the danger is and how much help the symbol would give her.”
After reviewing this responsa several times, I was confounded. The poor nurse! European theater or South Pacific, the girl is giving up her tranquility, sense of safety and security of her home, possibly even her life. She was probably even drafted against her true free will. And yet the Rabbis are taking all the facts and details of circumstances into consideration, as if she were sitting on the front porch of her Long Island home in the suburbs somewhere, sipping an ice cold glass of lemonade, trying to earn brownie points with her neighbors.
Yet, after a few moments I realized something truly profound, and in it, a lesson for us all. If you’re in the army, there are protocols, rules and regulations, books and manuals that inform you what to and what not to do. As a nurse, she went to school and was trained what to do and what not to do. If she ever had a question, she would need to put it forth to her superiors, who would weigh the rules and the regulations carefully, keeping in sync with Military procedures and strict guidelines. Her following the guidelines set forth by her senior military or medical staff does not influence or compromise her care and or concern for her patients. Similarly, I thought, Judaism as a religion is a system of carefully considered methods, techniques, rules and regulations for a productive and healthy result and future of the individual person’s body and soul, along with their family and their children’s children for generations to come. Surely a military nurse would have no issue regarding and respecting this ideology, recognizing the value of having guidance from a higher perspective.
The Rabbis beautifully answered the question in Jewish law, yet wisely left it to her to make a decision on her own. For only a soldier on the front line can apply the true answer, considering the very personal results of that decision. To me, there is no greater sense of freedom and no more rewarding feeling than for a trained individual to learn how to make their own decisions based on their knowledge and training. And that is, perhaps the meaning of the Sages saying that you can’t judge a person unless you’ve… well, let’s say you’ve “worn their dog-tags”.
As for the dog-tags, you got to love them. Whether the H is for Hebrew or the J is for Jewish, let us wear them proud on the battlefield, in our homes and in our communities, and mostly on our hearts and minds.
May God bless America and G-d bless our troops.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.