Interview with Chaplain (Brigadier General) Israel Drazin, USAR RET.
JAW: General Drazin, tell us a little about yourself and your background.
GID: My great-grandfather came to the US before the turn of the century. My grandfather grew up in NY and went into the clothing business, as most Jews did at the time, but he went bankrupt. He was a very religious fellow, and he bought into the Talmudic concept that “When one’s name and residence is changed, one’s luck is changed”, so he changed his name from Drusin to Drazin and moved to Canada, where he became a millionaire. My father, Nathan, was a well-recognized scholar, and originally worked for him, but was more interested in being a rabbi. He got a PhD, became a rabbi, and moved to Baltimore, where he was the first rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, and served there for 31 years. I succeeded him for 7 years, but whereas he was a full time rabbi, I only did it along with the other things I was doing at the time. I only went there on Shabbat and gave a sermon.
Ever since I was a youngster, I always had to do more than one thing. That’s just my nature. For example, when I went to high school at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, in my junior year, I became interested in chemistry and biology, and my school only taught one, but I wanted to learn the other also. So what I did was I went to a high school called City College, and I took night courses there. Then I became interested in physics, so I took that course at night; and then I studied math at night. The result was that I graduated with five years of high school instead of four years. It’s just my nature – I need to do more than one thing at the same time. Even today, I do multiple things. I read about 200 books a year, and I place book reviews on about a dozen different sites. Amazon rates their reviewers, and I’m in their top 300 reviewers. I also have a website called booksnthoughts.com, and I put articles on that site and on Times of Israel, as well as a few other sites. In addition to that, I write books.
JAW: Your interest is primarily theological?
GID: Yes; philosophy and the Bible. I’ve written or contributed to 55 books. My first published book was a major study on Targum Onkelos.
JAW: There was nothing military in your home, though?
GID: One of my uncles was a sailor in the Navy during WWII, but other than that, no.
JAW: But you were the youngest military chaplain ever, at 21 years old. So how did that happen?
GID: Well that’s a funny story. This was 1957. As I told you, I did a lot of study as a youngster, and even when I went to Ner Israel Rabbinical College, I went to Johns Hopkins at night. I finally got tired of studying, so I told my parents that I was tired of it and I wanted to go into the army to escape from study. My father said, “Well if you do, go in as a chaplain.” The Dean of Ner Israel, Rabbi Ruderman, gave me semicha, and that’s what I did. But the joke of it was when I finally got into the Army, it was with a pile of books! So I thought I could escape it, but I couldn’t.
I was on AD for close to three years, and then I went into the Reserves. While I was in the Reserves, I took advantage of the GI Bill, and two Masters degrees in psychology and Hebrew literature, as well as a law degree and my PhD. As a result, one of my assignments in the Reserves was to lecture in the chaplain school on such things as confidentiality. But I never was sent into battle or anything like that.
Eventually, I was invited to an event in Annapolis, Maryland, where they had a fellow from the Judge Advocate General offices speaking. He was trying to explain to the chaplains a brand new court case coming up of two Harvard students who were suing the Army for having the Chaplain Corps, as a case of government-sponsored religion, a violation of the First Amendment prohibiting the government from getting involved in religion. But the chaplains assembled there could not understand what he was talking about. So I raised my hand and said perhaps I can explain it. And I did, and apparently it made a big enough impression that when the suit was filed, people recommended that the Chief of Chaplains have me handle the case. So I was called back to active duty to do so.
JAW: And that’s really where you made your mark. Tell us about that case (Katcoff v. Marsh), and the changes made as a result of it.
GID: One of my primary roles was to defend the chaplaincy. Why does the government pay for clergy? Why not use civilians? So that was what I was addressing. What I wanted to show was that a civilian clergyman could not do what a military clergyman could do because of the chaplains unique training. One of the things I wrote to the court was that when the North Vietnamese attacked in the Tet Offensive, the military pushed aside the chaplains, because the military felt that the people serving as chaplains would be a disturbance rather than a help in the battle. The chaplain, at that time, was like a civilian. There were also a number of civilian clergies, and they were also pushed aside, because the military felt they could not understand the needs of the soldiers. And that’s why I made the change to have all chaplains responsible to people of all faiths – to provide for the Free Exercise of every soldier. By “provide,” I meant that the chaplain did not have to do work contrary to his or her religion, but would assure that the soldier’s religious needs were taken care of. For example, if the soldier was a Native American and had a religious problem associated with his faith, the unit chaplain would bring in a Native American clergy to care for this religious need. As a result, the word got out that I would help people of all religions. I had so many people calling me for help with their religious accommodations that I decided to tabulate the amount of people calling me at the Pentagon in one year. It’s hard to believe but I had 100 cases in that one year! Cases like: the Protestant who wanted to keep Passover, or the Catholic who wanted to keep the Sabbath and not work on Sunday, or the Muslim group whose chaplain did not let them use the chapel, because “they would desecrate it”, or a soldier who wanted to wear the Mormon religious undergarments… That last case came all the way up to the Pentagon. I simply pointed out that no one sees it – it’s an undergarment! Like the tzitzit! So I was able to help them, and the Mormons – unrequested – paid me back later by doing a genealogical study for me.
Another example of the shift that I made is: then, as now, there was a shortage of Catholic priests, so they made priests what they called “auxiliary chaplains”. I objected to that, because I pointed out that what the Catholics were doing was in essence proving the Katcoff case, that civilians can serve the military. That caused a bit of a rift in the office of the Chief of Chaplains; the Catholics thought I was a bigot. But I would say the same thing about rabbis as auxiliary chaplains, so I didn’t feel that way at all. These people went to the Chief of Chaplains, who himself was a Catholic, and complained that I was hurting the Catholic program, but he supported me 100%.
JAW: So it’s an interesting balance, because the military still does not have enough rabbis or Catholic priests, so the military has many contract priests and even a handful of contract rabbis to plug the gaps; although that’s done out of desperation. What’s your take on that?
GID: It has to be made clear that the contract clergy is only doing the religious service. Because of their lack of training, they do not really understand the needs of the military personnel. They cannot do counseling or anything of the sort.
JAW: In your book on the case, “For God and Country”, it’s quite clear that you were frustrated with the approach that the government’s lawyers took to defending the chaplaincy. Can you talk a little about that?
GID: The Department of Justice lawyers, who argued the case in the courts, didn’t fully understand the uniqueness of the military chaplain over the civilian clergy, and I felt it was my position to educate them on that.
JAW: You wanted them to bring the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the lawyers were satisfied when the case was won in the lower courts. What would have happened if it went to the top?
GID: If it went to the Supreme Court, it would become the law of the land. If it just goes to the circuit court, as happened with this case, then it does not become the law of the land, and someone can file the suit again. And, in all probability, someone eventually will do so, and we’ll have to start all over again. It’s just a matter of time.
JAW: So why didn’t the lawyers want to go all the way to the Supreme Court?
GID: The problem is that there were layers of the defense – me at one level, JAG at another, and then finally the Department of Justice. JAG did not argue the case in court, DOJ did. Those people changed every once in a while. JAG, of course, understood the chaplains better than the civilians in the DOJ. But what happened was after several years and changing personnel in the DOJ, the people who came onto the case didn’t understand it and felt it was too complex, and nixed the idea of pushing it to the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in the case realized that the chance of winning in the Supreme Court at that time was very small, so they wanted to stop the case, also.
JAW: Did you ever meet Katcoff and Weider, the plaintiffs? What are your thoughts about their motives in the case?
GID: I thought they believed what they were saying, that chaplains are a violation of the First Amendment. They were idealists. I think their argument was sensible, and we had a hard time coming up with a solution.
JAW: So there seems to be a very delicate balance between chaplains being the officers responsible for the Free Exercise of Religion, and at the same time, filling the commander’s needs. What would be the comfortable balance there?
GID: The free exercise clause is understood by the courts to mean that an individual can believe whatever they want. That doesn’t hurt anybody. But in regard to practices, the court in essence says that you can only prohibit someone if there is a compelling state interest. It has to be compelling. The military doesn’t buy into that now, or in my day; but I think they should. The military buys into the concept of military necessity, which means nothing; it means whatever the commander thinks. Whereas the civilian standard of compelling state interest is very different. There are lots of problems with how to deal with these matters. For example, how do you know the soldier is telling the truth? The solution that I came up with is there’s already a regulation on conscientious objectors regarding what you look at – the “sincerity and depth of conviction of the applicant”. Those items should be the same regarding someone who makes a claim about a religious practice.
JAW: You famously received a request by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to talk about the Seven Noahide Laws to military chaplains. Can you tell us about that? Why was it important, and would that work in the chaplaincy today?
GID: I understood the Rebbe to be saying that we are all to act properly, and one way of expressing that is through the Seven Noahide Laws. The basic teachings which are taught by all religious – but not necessarily followed by people of all religions – teach the same things, and for the most part, it would be to have people practice what the seven Noahide commandments want us to practice. I found no difficulty giving a speech on the Seven Laws at a Catholic service, because I felt this would be something that would encourage them to be better Catholics. But the Noahide Laws are still important to stress, to remind people what they need to do. For example, one of the Laws is to establish courts of law. There are individuals who think there is too much law, but the Sheva Mitzvot remind us that you need law. And the last command, the command to not eat the flesh of a living creature, is meant to teach us respect to all creatures, and I don’t think that has not caught on yet. So society still has a way to go.
JAW: Where do you see military chaplaincy going from here?
GID: I get the impression that the chaplains have forgotten what I taught and are falling back to the way things were before 1980. For example there are complaints about certain “evangelical” (in attitude, not denomination) clergy that insist upon their right to teach what they want, or Catholic chaplains who insist that they don’t want to cater to or help Protestants or certainly not Mormons. I think those problems still exist. I put it in a regulation that the endorsing body has to certify that the individual who wants to be a chaplain can provide for the free exercise of all people in the command. I put it in the regulation, but I don’t think it’s observed today.
JAW: For you the ideal chaplain would be?
GID: A person that’s concerned for all people, whether that person is male, or female, Jew or a Satanist. Everyone is a human. A basic teaching in Judaism is we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. The purpose of that story is to teach that all people should be treated equally. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s that simple.
Originally published in the May-June 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.