The Necessity of Serviceby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
On October 28, 1701, William Penn signed the Charter of Privileges, the original constitution of Pennsylvania, written when the Keystone State was still a British province. 50 years later, in honor of the golden anniversary of the charter’s signing, the Province of Pennsylvania commissioned the London firm of Lester and Pack to make a commemorative bell that would be placed in the steeple of the Pennsylvania seat of government, later called the State House, and known to all of us as Independence Hall. To find the right inscription for the bell the jubilee planners turned to the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25, verse 10, which begins: v’ki’dash’tem eit shanat ha’cha’mi’shim Shanah, “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year.” The next clause in this verse is uk’ra’tem d’ror ba’a’retz l’chol yosh’veh’ha, the English of which is the engraved words themselves, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
This jubilee celebration bell first cracked around 1752, long before the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the start of our revolution. It was then recast by John Pass and John Stow. The crack was gone. Through the following decades, the bell saw plenty of action drawing attention to a wide variety of important events. Then in the 1830s, this very bell became a symbol of anti-slavery societies who gave it the name by which it has been known ever since: the Liberty Bell. At some point during 1835, as the clapper struck the bell’s mouth, a fracture appeared, the famous crack in the Liberty Bell with which we are all familiar.
The clause on the Liberty Bell from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” also appears in this Shabbat’s Torah portion, B’har. It seemsbeshert, meant to be, that this portion with this clause is assigned to the Shabbat when I have the distinct privilege of speaking with you about why I think it so necessary to serve this nation as a Jewish Chaplain in the United States armed forces.
Now I said necessary, I did not say why I thought it was a good idea to serve as a Jewish chaplain, or why I thought it was an honorable thing to do, or use any other words to convey my view of such service. It is all those things indeed, but, first and foremost, I believed, when I volunteered in 1968, I believed it was necessary to do so. And, I believe it still today.
It is unseemly that the Army, Air Force, and Navy Chaplain Corps have to beg rabbis to become Jewish chaplains. The reverse should be true: in America―the military chaplaincies should be placed in the position of having more excellent rabbis under the age of forty seeking admission than could possibly be taken. I am here tonight to tell you why!
Never…never…never…in the history of the Jewish people, from ancient times to this very moment, never have Jews found as much freedom as we experience in the United States of America. Not in Europe, not in South America, not in Asia, not in Africa, not in Australia, not in the Middle East…not anywhere as much as here.
Rather, we know painfully well what struggles, limitations, and far too often what horrific persecutions, assaults, expulsions, pogroms, even genocides were visited upon us one time or another nearly everywhere else.
To me, this history matters and I must tell you that as a Reform Jew and a Reform rabbi, there are privileges I have in America that I would not even be granted in the blessed, modern State of Israel.
Should rabbis and the rest of American Jewry reflect on our past and present and take deeply into account the difference America makes? You bet we should, and we should never lose sight of it. Does that mean we should not criticize the policies of the politicians in power at any given time? Of course not. Does that mean we should never try to change realities in America, including bad laws, when we believe such changes are good for this nation and its people? Of course not. Does that mean we should give a pass to any expression of anti-Semitism or any other form of bigotry? Of course not. To do so would be to diminish the promise of America and contradict the whole idea of that Liberty Bell and the inscription from Torah upon it.
In 1985, I went to prison for twelve days for peacefully protesting in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC. It was against the law to do so. That law was created in 1938 to protect the Nazi German Embassy from protests. And let me tell you how the Navy reacted to my incarceration…One month after my release from the Federal Correctional Center in Petersburg, VA, I was promoted to full commander.Soon after, the Supreme Court of the United States determined in a unanimous decision that the 1938 law established to protect the Nazi German Embassy from peaceful protesters, and that had just been used to imprison five rabbis including me, was unconstitutional! 9 to zero! This very bad law was rescinded.
Jews should fully engage in every privilege of citizenship here, including the right to engage when necessary in peaceful civil disobedience. We should not be shy. But, we should know our history and flock to engage in service to America, especially because of what we have learned from thousands of years of other experiences. We know the difference living here makes!
I was born in November 1945 on the day my father was discharged from the United States Navy. 1945 was also the year my family in America learned that one afternoon during the Second World War, our family remaining behind in Odessa, had been taken from their homes, stripped, tied to a stake and burned to death. Those family members included my grandfather’s sister Rose and 32 others. Why were they murdered? They were Jews. They were Jews. I have photos of Rose. I have letters she wrote to my grandfather, her brother. But it would never be possible for me to meet her. Never.
My grandfather came here from Odessa in 1905 after a particularly vicious pogrom. Cossacks rode into Jewish neighborhoods putting men to the sword, raping women, burning synagogues and homes. It was an official act of persecution orchestrated by the mayor and conducted to help convince Jews to stop being Jews.
My grandfather had a temper. He did not take kindly to what had happened. Neither did some of his friends. Soon after the pogrom, they waited on a rooftop across from City Hall. When the Mayor of Odessa emerged, they fired their rifles and killed him. Then they got out of Dodge. When my grandfather arrived here, he did something he never would have done for Tsar Nicholas II—my grandfather joined the army, the United States Army. This was a country for which he would fight to the death, if need be, to protect. For years thereafter he tried to convince his sister Rose to follow him here. She was never quite ready to do so. Then one day it was too late.
So let me say it again, Jews should flock to engage in service to America. And it surely should not be the case that the Army, Air Force, and Navy Chaplain Corps should have to go begging for young, qualified rabbis. In October 2003, I became the only Navy chaplain in history brought out of retirement and sent to a war zone. Knowing my attitude about service, the Navy Chief of Chaplains called me in September and simply asked: “Bruce, do your uniforms still fit?” When I answered “Yes,” he responded with a single word, “Bye.” Why did he want me, a retired Navy chaplain to head for the Iraqi theater in October 2003? Because he, a devout Christian, recognized that young Jewish personnel in a war zone should have a rabbi with them at least during the High Holy Days and Sukkot. And I must tell you that for me the hard part was not going. That was as easy as breathing. The hard part was leaving the troops behind, Jews and non-Jews, when the period my orders covered ended.
Why, it should be asked, why were there not more than enough Jewish chaplains already in the active duty and ready reserve pool to provide the coverage well before it became necessary to tap a retiree? The lessons of Jewish history matter. The lessons of the Jewish experience in America matter. The ideal of national service matters.
Do we not think our Jewish sons and daughters serving throughout the armed forces should have access to rabbis? Do we not want the men and women of all faiths going through our nation’s service academies to meet a rabbi or two during their training? Do we not think it is a good thing for senior NCOs and Officers of both operational and shore commands to better understand Jews and Judaism through interaction with competent Jewish chaplains? Do we not think Jewish chaplains are vitally important ambassadors to all members of the US Armed forces wherever they deploy? Do we not want rabbis who understand the military community, its culture, rules, mission, and personnel? Is it not healthier for the country and the Jewish community in America to have an abundance of Jews, including rabbis, fully integrated into our military realm? Has not history taught us this is so?
Let me close my comments on this Armed Forces Shabbat with just a few reflections about military service that are true for all personnel including chaplains. I begin with the term “shipmate.” Many of you here understand its depth as well or better than I. Shipmate is that 24/7, 365, amid all circumstances and conditions, no matter the danger, camaraderie that few outside the military ever know.
You who served grasp how humbling it is, what a privilege it is to answer up when your country calls, to step forward even before being asked, to put on the uniform and embrace the commitment.
And each veteran here knows what such service demands of our families, and the gratitude that reaches into the deep silent places of our hearts for their willingness to abide by our chosen way of life.
You who have served or serve now, understand as well or better than I that we may leave the service, but the service never leaves us. It abides within, it permeates our identities, it changes our lives forever, and we would not have it any other way.
There is much about life in uniform that flat out does not translate to the civilian world. But much does. On this Armed Forces Shabbat at this historic synagogue in the area that is home to the largest naval presence on the planet, I hope it is clear to you why this rabbi found it not just a good idea, not just something noble or nice or loyal, but necessary, absolutely necessary to wear the uniform and serve this nation as a military chaplain, as a Jewish chaplain.
And on this night, let us be most mindful, that military service permits everyone else not engaged in it, to pursue life as we choose.
As a Jew, as a rabbi, as a retired naval officer, and Jewish chaplain, as an American, I stand before you to confirm what we all must surely perceive of military service and let there be no doubt about it―military service safeguards the promise on the bell, a promise still advancing towards its sacred fulfillment: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants thereof.”
Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D. D. - CAPT, CHC, USNR (Ret)
Delivered at Ohef Sholom Temple’s 15th Annual Armed Forces Shabbat in Norfolk VA.