By Daniel Eric Minkow, 1st Lt USAF
Can a Jew wear a Kippah while in military uniform?
I came upon this very important question and its answer, this article, when USAF Capt Rebecca Minkow, my sister, posed the question to me. As the Jewish Lay leader for Travis Air Force Base, I felt it was important for me to find the answer to this question so I contacted the wing Chaplain, who forwarded me the DoD Directive Number 1300.17 (Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services) which includes guidance on the wear of religious headgear in uniform. The Directive is very brief (6 pages) and signed by the Deputy Secretary of Defense. I found the directive very empowering because of its strong support for a wide range of religious observances. I had originally felt that the military frowned upon certain types of religious observances that were outside the norm or standard. However, the directive starts out with the following statement.
3.1 A basic principle of our nation is the free exercise of religion. The Department of Defense places a high value on rights of member of the Armed Forces to observe the tenets of their respective religions. It is DoD policy that request for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline
From here you can see that the military actually encourages commanders to go out of their way to accommodate different religious obligations and practices. The Directive addresses worship services, holy days as well as the wear of other religious articles (including items like Tzitzit (talit katan)). For it states:
3.2.6. Religious items or articles not visible or otherwise apparent may be warn with the uniform, provided they shall not interfere with the performance of the members military duties.
I like to consider the talit katan (small four cornered garment with fringes worn underneath the shirt) as part of a Jewish Uniform namely as the all important Jewish spiritual Kevlar, protecting the wearer from a wide range of day to day hazards.
This is, of course all good news, but what does this directive say about wearing a Kippah while in uniform? The directive continues on to explain that any visible items of religious apparel while in uniform must be neat and conservative. So what does that mean?
18.104.22.168. In the context of the wearing of a military uniform, neat and conservative items of religious apparel are those that :
22.214.171.124.1. Are discreet, tidy, and not dissonant or showy in style, size, design, brightness, or color.
126.96.36.199.2. Do not replace or interfere with the proper wearing of any authorized article of the uniform.
The directive even gives an example and says:
A Jewish yarmulke may be worn with the uniform whenever a military cap, hat, or other headgear is not prescribed. A yarmulke may also be worn underneath military headgear as long as it does not interfere with the proper wearing, functioning, or appearance of the prescribed head gear.
Exceptions to the wearing of a kippah in uniform are logical. It says that a kippah may not be worn when it interferes with safety health or interferes with the operation of equipment for example, gasmasks. Also, the final word is up to each military department however, any denials must be sent up to each services Headquarters. So they are saying that the military better have a very good reason when denying the wear of kippah.
The specific Air Force guidance is AFI36-2903 page 95 and states on Religious head coverings: Indoors: Installation Commander and chaplain may approve plain, dark blue, or black religious head coverings
Finally, the instruction describes the approval process and proper routing.
We now know that it is, in fact, possible to wear a kippah in uniform. This leaves us with a different dilemma. Why aren’t we?
I have to be upfront and say I currently do not wear Kippah in Uniform unless at a religious event. I am struggling with this idea which is why I chose to write about it. Maybe it has something to do with working up to my courage and kavanah (intention) or honestly, I might not be ready (yet). Because no matter how much I would want to down play it I would be making a huge statement. I would be making a very public statement about my personal identity and religious observance. However, when I see someone from a different culture or religion wearing a required or traditional dress, I do admire their courage and ability to disregard what others think. I, in turn, like to think that any statement I might make could also be interpreted with the same courage, pride, trust, observance, and affiliation.
Many people may feel that they are not ready or that they don’t want to stand out in the military, and I assure you that I share this concern. It is possible that it could draw unwanted attention. As noted on Aish.com, (the Kippah) is perhaps the most instantly identifiable mark of a Jew. In the Western world, it is customary to remove one’s head covering when meeting an important person. In Judaism, putting on a head covering is a sign of respect. I wouldn’t want people to first meet me and only see a kippah. I wouldn’t want to be known as that guy with the beanie, but instead someone with a strong sense and awe of God.
Wearing a kippah is an essential part of the Jewish Uniform, but to wear it while also in the uniform of the United States Military? Wearing of any uniform is an important part of understanding the ideology behind it. Wearing a uniform of the US armed forces says that you stand for the ideals of the constitution and gave an oath (something Jews don’t take lightly) to defend. The way I look at it is, the reason I wear my military uniform is ensuring our rights to practice being Jewish. I lace up my combat boots every morning so I can don my teffilin and I put on my BDU uniform so I can wear my kippah. There is a direct correlation between the “Jewish uniform” and the military uniform. In fact, it was the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, who said to be good Americans we must be better Jews. Along this line of thinking, wearing a kippah is a very American thing to do!
Maybe it leaves us asking ourselves, are we good enough Jews to represent our people in the military or in public? It is a great Mitzvah to be a Kiddush Hashem or to sanctify God’s name. We do this when we do good works that others notice and relate back to the Jewish people and their faith, and it can be noted that blessed be the God of the Jews. There are not many Jews in the military, even in the country. I have even met people who have told me I was the first Jew they have ever known! This is certainly a huge responsibility to be the representative of an entire people and culture as it related to the non-Jewish world. It is possible that someone I meet may base their entire opinion the Jewish faith and people, based solely on my actions.
So why do Jews wear a head covering to begin with? Well one of the only references in the Talmud about Kippah or head covering is hinted at in the blessing we say every morning, thanking God for “crowning Israel with splendor” (Talmud – Brachot 60b). Also, the Talmud says that the purpose of wearing a kippah is to remind us of God, who is the Higher Authority “above us” (Kiddushin 31a). External actions create internal awareness; wearing a symbolic, tangible “something above us” reinforces that idea that God is always watching. The kippah is a means to draw out one’s inner sense of respect for God. (Aish.com)
In conclusion, I have come to believe that the Kippah, along with the talit katan, are part of the Jewish Uniform that should be worn proudly and honorably just like the uniform of the armed forces. I’m not saying that everyone must wear kippah, but at least maybe struggle with the idea of wearing it. This quandary forces us to ask ourselves, who are we really? What is our identity as Americans, soldiers, and Jews? In the mean time it might be best to strive to be a good person follow and do other mitzvot first and then consider wearing a kippah. I may not have come to a solution in my struggle of whether to kippah or not to kippah, but maybe you can help or maybe I have helped you?
For further information, I highly recommend the articles about Kippah on Aish.com, referenced below.