Friday, January 16, 2004

Yom Kipur and the Military

There was a story reported in Haaretz (which is down, so I found in Google's cached version) about a couple, the Chaikins, who were training in the US military to be human intelligence gatherers and were discharged for missing class on Yom Kippur. This has me a bit worried. The US army, you would expect, would be fairly accommodating to things like this. Naturally, it is understandable that the army cannot accommodate every little religious request that someone has, but this is going too far. The army's policy is to accommodate religion to the point that it would have an adverse impact on unit cohesion. Missing a class, or even a day, could not have this impact.

Missing a class is pretty bad. The army is big on accountability. Everyone always needs to be accounted for. For someone to be missing is very very bad. But on the other hand for a commander to not accommodate his soldiers so that they be able to miss class one day, seems like the commander had some problem. The couple should have gone up the chain of command to see what more could be done. Unfortunately they did initially go up pretty high. If the battalian commander said "no" the only place to go is the brigade commander or your congressman (both of whom are equally accessible).

The army should not be alienating talented people because it has a problem with Yom Kippur. I would urge the army to reinstate them, or at the very least reclassify their discharge as "honorable".

Personally, in so far as it comes to halachic issues, in this day and age, I see the whole military enterprise as one big case of pikuach nefesh (life-threatening danger). Everything that a soldier learns, does, trains for, etc has the ability to save lives. Mistakes get your buddies killed. (I heard this about a zillion times in basic, and have seen it in every newstory about battle casualties. Ask Jessica Lynch where her drivers were on the day they learned to read maps in the army.) Now, I am sure there are those who would sit around and lecture me on how since the danger is indirect as far as each particular incident goes, all the pikuach nefesh dispensations do not apply. In Israel, there are books written on this. (I personally own two books called Hilchot Tzavah.) However that is in the context of a society that is able, and accustomed, to accommodating religious issues and work around them. In the US it is slightly diferent. The US Army is not able to accommodate this. It could not, and still be combat effective. (On the other hand, I have sat through army classes, and I can tell you that everyone knows that missing one will not harm anyone. (It might be different for different classes though.)) I am thus inclined to believe that pikuach nefesh can usually be assumed to be the case with all military training, unless there is some specific psak (by one who understands the military and halacha) claiming that someting is not. Thus it is even doche (pushes away) Yom Kippur. Naturally, one should not do more than is absolutely necessary (like avoid taking notes. . .).

It would be nice to see some of the military chaplains deal with this. I am certain that there are a few orthodox ones. (I met one.) It is their responsibility to handle cases like this.

If you remember I had a somehwat better Yom Kippur story with the army, so I am thankful for that.

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