Reform Rabbis Debate Whether Chaplains Should Serve in Civilian or Military Capacities

American Reform rabbis debated today whether Jewish chaplains in the armed forces should serve in a civilian or military capacity and whether Christian-Jewish dialogues should be limited or broadened in scope. The debate developed during the second day of the 80th annual convention here of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic body of Reform Judaism in America. The convention had before it a proposal to substitute a civilian chaplaincy for military chaplaincy. Under the proposal, rabbis who presently serve as officers in uniform under military command would be replaced by civilian chaplains contracted by the armed forces just as many other civilian services are contracted.

The resolution stated that the change was essential because “the fulfillment of the role of the clergyman requires his independence, and tends to be frustrated by his being subject to military command…a clergyman, whose purpose is to enhance life, wearing the uniform of a military establishment, whose purpose is to deal death, portrays an unseemly contradiction.”

According to Rabbi Joseph B. Glaser of San Francisco, one of eight rabbis who signed the proposal, civilian chaplains would be subject to military authority only in times of obvious emergency or actual combat and would not be subject to evaluation as a military officer which, except for the Air Force, is now the case. In another area involving the chaplaincy, the convention had before it a recommendation of the CCAR’s executive board to abandon the draft of rabbis for military service and a report of a special committee on chaplaincy chaired by Robert I. Kahn. which rejected the executive board’s proposal and urged continuance of the draft on the grounds that voluntary systems do not work.

Rabbi Levi A. Olan, CCAR president, urged in his opening address yesterday that a lower priority be assigned to theological discussions with Christian spiritual leaders because of their “neutral” if not “antagonistic” attitude toward Israel. Rabbi Olan said the interfaith dialogues should be limited to a “common attack against the social evils of our day.” Many of his colleagues disagreed and thought that inter-religious discussions should be extended and intensified. Rabbi Olan attributed what he called the Christian world’s failure to support Israel in its “struggle to survive” to “church doctrine that Israel’s successful existence is a Christian heresy.” He accused church organizations, without naming them, of uncritical acceptance of the “Arab propaganda line.”

At a meeting before Rabbi Olan’s address, the CCAR’s executive board adopted a statement rejecting any limitation on Christian-Jewish dialogue as “artificial and in the long run untenable.” In a paper titled “The Rabbi and the Christian Community,” Rabbi Abraham D. Shaw of Baltimore conceded that effective dialogues had been undermined by “Christian silence” over Israel’s survival at the time of the Six-Day War. He noted, however, that “a significant number of Christian clergymen responded in a pro-Israel way.” Rabbi Shaw said that “although it may be true that many of us are now inclined to approach the whole area of interfaith relationships with a somewhat jaundiced eye… dare we permit this to break off the dialogue?”

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