By Steven Philp
Today, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise when he signed the bill repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) the 17-year-old policy barring LGBT citizens from coming out while serving in the armed forces. A handful of Jewish groups have supported the effort for repeal, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Council of Jewish Women. “With today’s vote, Americans may serve without being forced to choose between their commitment to our country and their integrity,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the JCPA, in an interview with JTA.
A key sponsor of the bill was Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), who broke his usual Shabbat observance to champion the effort for repeal on the Senate floor. All thirteen Jewish senators voted for repeal, including outspoken LGBT allies Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Yet there have been dissenting voices from within the Jewish community. In a letter posted online, several Orthodox rabbis condemn Sen. Lieberman for his position on DADT. They emphasize that he “does not speak for the Orthodox Jewish” and that his “actions and opinions are his own and not that of the Torah.” Although their claim to represent the entire Orthodox community is similarly circumspect, they raise an important point: not every Jew supports the repeal of DADT. They point to the perceived friction between LGBT rights and conservative orthopraxy.
This statement makes them unlikely allies with a number of military chaplains who worry how the repeal of DADT will affect their job performance. According to an article posted on NPR, a majority of the 3,000 religious professionals in the armed forces are evangelical Christian, a tradition that maintains a conservative interpretation of Biblical passages condemning same-sex sexual relations. “What happens when the chaplain responds according to the dictates of his faith and says that type of behavior—like other types of sexual sins—is not in accordance with God’s will?” asks Daniel Blomberg, an attorney for the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund.
Although implementation of the repeal lacks clear guidelines for chaplains, the right to practice their faith as they see fit is protected, says retired Army chaplain Dennis Camp. However, he emphasized that his former colleagues are not allowed to act like “moral policemen” and openly discriminate against LGBT service people.
This raises salient questions for the handful of Jewish military chaplains, a small but important component of religious life in the armed forces. In contrast to the publicized resistance of their Christian peers, there has been no public dialogue among Jewish military personnel. Those of us in the Jewish community are left wondering where our chaplains stand on the coming change.
On one hand, they are a minority within a larger body that has resisted the repeal of DADT. At the same time, they are called to represent the entire spectrum of Jewish religious practice. Jewish military chaplains are asked to serve soldiers of varying levels of observance; with this in mind, the standard-issue siddur is published jointly by the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. In turn, our community is divided on the treatment of LGBT citizens in the armed forces. On one side are the Jewish members of Congress who have fought tirelessly for repeal, and their constituent organizations. On the other side are voices from within the Orthodox community who have condemned the Jewish effort for repeal. LGBT Jews in the armed forces have had their cause championed by their senators and representatives; whether they can find support from their chaplains, however, is another question altogether.