Hasidic sailor can keep beard for now (plus why some Jewish men grow beards)

Court case cites "the hidden meaning of the Torah which is not explicitly stated in the text."

A U.S. federal judge says a Hasidic sailor serving on board an aircraft carrier can keep his beard for now.

The U.S. Navy requires sailers to keep their face clean-shaven unless a shaving waiver is authorized by a commanding officer. The waiver is sometimes used to grant religious accommodations or other special interests such as medical. The military says a clean shaven face is needed for safety reasons (preventing hair from getting caught in moving parts, and the need for a close seal while wearing protective gear). Similar religious accommodations have been made for Sikhs and Muslims already serving in the U.S. military.

Soldiers attend a pre-Rosh Hashanah service on Sept. 3, 2013. Maryland National Guard Capt. Chesky Tenenbaum is the first bearded defense force chaplain of any state (Photo: SSgt. Thaddeus Harrington/Maryland National Guard)

On top of the United States allowing religious accommodations for beards, the militaries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and India do as well.

Edmund Di Liscia, an electrician’s mate (nuclear) 3rd class, is serving onboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. He previously obtained a religious accommodation for his beard but the ship’s commander rescinded the order saying he must shave or face disciplinary action. He could be courtmartialed and dishonorably discharged if he does not comply.

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt transits the Pacific Ocean Jan. 25, 2020. (Photo: Kaylianna Genier/U.S. Navy)

Di Liscia was notified on Thursday that he had to shave his beard by Friday. The judge’s ruling puts in place an emergency injunction that allows for more time for a final decision to be made.

In the documents supporting his case Di Liscia wrote the order to shave is “extremely humiliating and deeply jarring to my psyche and soul.”

“Di Liscia sincerely believes that he must maintain a beard to comply with his religious obligations,” the documents continue. “Within this form of Orthodox Judaism, it is a religious requirement and an expression of obedience and fidelity to God for men not to cut the side and edges of their hair… The growth of facial hair also promotes physical and spiritual modesty and is a sign of spiritual maturity in his faith community.”

“Chassidic Judaism, in particular, encourages adherents to engage in open piety and observance of their faith in everyday life,” his lawyer argues. “This faith tradition is steeped in religious commitments regarding holiness, and Chassidic Jews such as EMN3 Di Liscia strive to keep even the hidden meaning of the Torah which is not explicitly stated in the text.”

Why some Jewish men grow beards

An Orthodox Jewish man photographed in 1913. (Source: Library of Congress)

Some observant Jewish men, particularly those that are Hasidic or Ultra-Orthodox, grow beards in custom with the rules outlined in Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:27:

לֹ֣א תַקִּ֔פוּ פְּאַ֖ת רֹאשְׁכֶ֑ם וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁחִ֔ית אֵ֖ת פְּאַ֥ת זְקָנֶֽךָ׃
You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

Traditionally this text has been interpreted as a prohibition against removing any facial hair with a razor. Today many observant Jews do not grow beards, reinterpreting the text saying that electric shavers allow a close shave without a razor ever touching the skin. (In the 1700 and 1800s some Orthodox men removed their beards using chemicals or tweezers to get around the no razor touching skin prohibition).

Some Hasidic groups take it a step further pulling from Kabbalah, which regards the beard as holy for mystical reasons. A paper written in the 1700s from a Kabbalistic point of view went as far as saying that a beard shouldn’t even be touched by scissors or a human hand “for fear that a single one of its hairs might be inadvertently removed thus damaging and uprooting also one of the conduits [of divine grace].”

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