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By CH, Capt Levi Welton, USAFR

Reviewed by Ch (BG) Israel Drazin, USAR Ret.

This book is better than Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Although virtually all fans of Tom Sawyer do not live or think like Tom, they have enjoyed and still enjoy his adventures, Mark Twain’s sterling writing, his humor, and insights. The same applies to Levi Welton’s magnificent memoir, Be Like the Moon. Welton’s book contains wonderful insights and more. Before I go into what I love about this book, I will give some background information that will provide some context and ultimately connect with Welton’s message.

In 1979, the US Army called me, a lawyer and rabbi, to serve on active duty at the Pentagon to help win the legal challenge that the military chaplaincy violates the first amendment to the US constitution. It allegedly defies the requirement that the government cannot be involved with religion. We won the case by defining a military chaplain as a clergy member who provides for the religious free exercise of all members in the command. This does not mean they provide the services themselves – for example, a protestant chaplain does not have to render Catholic services – but they make sure that the religious needs of every military person are secure. Civilian clergy do not do this. I was awarded by being promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General.

I retired from the Army in 1988 after 31 years. However, I was recalled several times during my retirement to handle sensitive issues. One concerned the military’s attempt to forbid service personnel to practice all aspects of their religion. For example, a Jewish soldier wanted to wear a yarmulke but was forbidden to do so by his commander. The case went to the US Supreme Court. The military argued that “military necessity” required service personnel to conform to what it considered correct. The military won the case despite the obvious fact that “military necessity” means “whatever Isay is needed is needed.” A New York congressman then proposed a law allowing Jewish service personnel to wear yarmulkes. The military requested that he wait until a committee of military officers investigated the matter. I was recalled to duty to serve on the committee with others.

One of the issues the committee faced was beards. Those who supported forbidding beards argued that a beard would prevent the application of a face mask in the event of a gas attack. I argued that the State of Israel allows its soldiers to have beards and gives bearded service members masks that will protect them. Without going into other details, I can summarize the results as winning some fights and laying the ground for further allowances.

After this experience, I advised the Chabad movement, a Hasidic Jewish group filled with bearded rabbis, that they could organize a system to bring bearded Chabad rabbis into the military as chaplains. I suggested that they hire retired chaplain Colonel Sandy Dresin (Aleph’s Director of Military Programs, and no relation to me) as its leader. Chabad accepted my suggestion. Today, the various military bodies
have many bearded Chabad chaplains. They care for Jewish and non-Jewish personnel providing for their first amendment to the US Constitution, its Free Exercise of religion clause, and do so brilliantly. Chaplain Levi Welton is one of them. He is currently serving in the US Air Force.

Welton’s book shows how he is the perfectly placed clergyman to help all people practice their religion and live a full and satisfying life. As I said previously, his book is a joy to read. Instead of summarizing it, I will give some of the most powerful ideas mentioned that resonated with me:

  • I learned that prayer is not a time to ask for what you need, but to discover what you’re needed for.
  • Better than being Superman is being a mensch (Yiddish for upstanding
  • As the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, advised a father who complained that his son had abandoned his Judaism, saying “Rabbi, What should I do?” the Baal Shem Tov replied, “Love him more than ever.”
  • G-d did not create us to simply be creatures, but to be glorious creatures.
  • Many people want to win for G-d, but how many are willing to lose for G-d?
  • Perhaps it is my spiritual gift to show you that even a rabbi struggles with darkness like you and that underneath it lies our light which has been there all along.
  • Love starts with acceptance – for your neighbor and for yourself.
  • I pray that we can create space for those who believe they have nothing to give others to realize they have so much to offer.
  • How can you work with Muslims, Christians, and other groups that have a long history of persecuting yours? Find common ground.
  • The Lubavitcher Rebbe was once asked by a woman how he could stand and greet people for hours on end without tiring. The Rebbe replied with a smile, “Every soul is a diamond. Can one grow tired of counting diamonds?”
  • Life is short. I can either spend my life pontificating G-d’s existence or spend my time doing G-d’s work.
  • We shouldn’t just aim for a culture of tolerance. We must create a culture of mutual respect.
  • I believe that seeing good is seeing G-d in our fellow human beings.
  • Unity is not conformity, but a celebration of diversity.
  • Small acts of goodness and kindness can be just as heroic as running faster than a speeding bullet.
  • My heroes taught me that I must be like the moon, deriving my strength by mirroring the light I receive from another.

These ideas show that wearing a beard does not hurt the military. In the case of Chabad chaplains, it helps. The US is better for having chaplains like Levi Welton.

Originally published in the Chanukah 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.