Is 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Ethical?
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Q - Is "Don't Ask Don't Tell" Ethical?

A. Since you're asking, I'll tell:  "Don't Ask,, Don't Tell" is unethical.

At the time it was instituted, President Clinton's "See No Evil" formula, based, somewhat surprisingly, on an article from an Orthodox Jewish publication, was a step forward in reducing discrimination, even if it did evoke memories of the immortal Sgt. Schultz.

But times have changed.

As ethicist John Marshall explains on his insightful blog, Ethics Alarms, "The law treats gay Americans in a biased and discriminatory manner, reinforcing negative stereotypes and the irrational fears. It also hurts the military and the nation by robbing it of able soldiers and military personnel."

Compounding the problem, a recent survey sent to military families to assess attitudes toward gays only reinforces those negative stereotypes, posing leading questions like, "If a wartime situation made it necessary for you to share bathroom facilities with an open bay shower with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian service member, which are you most likely to do?"

Imagine a similar survey regarding whether a soldier would leave his wallet on the nightstand if the guy on the next cot were a Jew.

I'm all for keeping one's bedroom behavior private, especially in this age of TMI. But sexual orientation is less about bedroom behavior than identity formation, and the evidence clearly points to it not being a choice. That has become even more evident in the years since Clinton's policy was enacted.

An interesting Talmudic conversation centers on the Torah's injunction that conscientious objectors are exempt from fighting in a discretionary war (as opposed to a war of survival). Some rabbis expanded this include anyone burdened by sin. But since every person sins, this ruling, taken to its logical extreme, would exempt us all from fighting. What if they gave a war and nobody came? Now, I don't believe that homosexuality is a sin, but, by this logic, even those who do should be able to see how "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has earned its dishonorable discharge. Why should a convicted felon be allowed to serve publicly, and not an "outed" homosexual?

Maybe it's time for the military to keep all forms of sexual expression out of the barracks. We can start with those demeaning pin up posters that objectify women. Of course war is all about objectifying the Other. That's understandable with regard to the enemy (though ethically questionable) - it is much easier to kill him that way. But why dehumanize our friends too? In Israel, the army is the great unifier, the place where social barriers come down, where women and men, Jew and non-Jew, Orthodox and secular, gay and straight, all serve together. In Israel, the gay issue is no big deal. And I can see why. Personally, if I'm going to be in the line of fire next to someone, confronting together our deepest fears, it would be terribly burdensome to live a lie. Life becomes transparent in a foxhole.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at


Last Update:

11/16/2010 - 22:51
Don't ask don't tell, Ethics, Gay rights, military

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I am happy to see that Rabbi Hammerman, someone I like and admire, has come forth to say that DADT as a policy is unethical. I don't want to disagree with anything he has said, but instead, only add a few additional thoughts -- based on my lifetime (or what seems like a lifetime!) in the military. My full military history is online at, but the fact is that I began military service as a line officer (non-chaplain) in Vietnam, where a Protestant chaplain (Episcopal Priest) encouraged me to be a rabbi. I served another couple of years (then in Naval Intelligence) to finish up my obligated service, then studied at JTS to become a rabbi, and served for 25 additional years of active duty as a rabbi. Also, from 2006-2007 I had the honor of serving as a civilian with the Air Force: as Special Asst for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force. So, with that background, I can say that I have served alongside brave and honorable men and women, some of whom were "straight" and some "gay" (and some, still trying to sort things out!). As a chaplain, I have counseled hundreds if not thousands of men and women, in such groups. I think it's important to separate thoughts about this policy into three categories: (1) the policy itself, whether or not one thinks being gay is a sin; (2) allowing gays to serve, whether or not one thinks being gay is a sin; and (3) whether or not homosexuality is a sin. I don't want to comment on this third question at this point, because I think it is besides the point when it comes to considering questions (1) and (2). Because I think that when there are issues and actions about which religious groups disagree in terms of whether or not they are sinful, the government -- and military policy -- should remain neutral. So, for example, some religions think drinking alcohol is a sin; some think getting a divorce is a sin; some think it is a sin worthy of eternal damnation not to accept the divinity of Jesus; and some think abortion is such a sin that it is a form of murder. Military personnel can disagree on all these issues, but serve side by side. I know that not every Christian will agree that my Jewish beliefs (which include rejecting the divinity of Jesus or the belief in the Trinity) will not ultimately damn me. In the same way, I know that certain individuals will not be persuaded that being gay is not sinful. However, when it comes to military service, and fighting the great evils that threaten us all, we Americans have always agreed to disagree, and fight side-by-side. In fact, when it comes to religious disagreements, I have fought for the rights of Jews for Jesus, just as it was a Catholic chaplain who fought for my right to wear a kippa -- and (as I mentioned earlier) a Protestant chaplain whose encouragement led me to be a rabbi. When it comes to the second question -- as to whether gays should be allowed to serve in the military -- here, Rabbi Hammerman has mentioned all the key points. Gay men and women have always served in our military, although they have done so in secret. However, we work more and more now with military forces of other nations, most of which (including more than 25 nations that are part of NATO) allow gay personnel to serve without restriction. So the question facing congress and the military now is the first question: the policy of DADT. And every fiber of my body -- from my time as a line officer, to my time as a chaplain, to my time as an advisor to military leaders -- tells me that not only is the current policy unethical: it is downright frightening. Because the message the policy sends is that military personnel can avoid consequences by concealing the truth. This message goes against every bit of our core values efforts to teach our military personnel to tell the truth, even when it might hurt their careers. We teach(even preach and teach) about responsibility, honor, and truth -- but we maintain a policy that ultimately forces every person in the military who is gay to learn how to hide truth. More than that, I don't think I have ever spoken with someone gay in the military (under the protection of confidentiality) who has not admitted that he or she has had to lie...even in the smallest ways, such as changing the gender of a pronoun when referring to the person he or she dated or a loved one back home. From the time I have worked with values and ethics, I know that we must build up "moral muscles" in the same way we build up physical muscles: we build up the muscles that help us tell the truth...or we are building up the muscles that make it easier to lie. One more note. Although it is true that something like 70% of those surveyed in the military have now gone on record as saying that repealing DADT is either a move they consider positive or one they do not consider negative -- the largest group that seems to be against the repeal is that of chaplains. Some retired chaplain groups have even spoken out in the press against a repeal, saying that if the policy is repealed, and gays serve "openly," then chaplains will be hamstrung when it comes to preaching and teaching, because they will not be able to voice their beliefs that homosexuality is a sin. Of course, religions do take differing positions on the issue of homosexuality: some religions do see being gay as being sinful, while others have ordained gay men and women as leaders of their churches and religious groups. But even for those chaplains who view homosexuality as sinful, thinking that a repeal of this policy will dramatically change things only indicates to me that they do not have any sensitivity to those in their chapels and congregations right now! The fact is that those who hear their sermons already fall into three categories: (1) heterosexuals; (2) gays who fall under DADT; and (3) gays who do NOT fall under DADT. Those third group includes all the civilians who work with the military. It includes family members of those on active duty, including college-age children who attend chapel services. And it even includes retirees -- and many chapel communities, at least here in the States, are made up of groups where retirees are in the majority. (There are even veterans groups of gay men and women who have served who can only now identify themselves as gays after they leave the service, including many who have retired.) And on even the smallest forward bases, in areas that include Afghanistan and Iraq, we have civilian contractors, many of whom come to the chaplains for worship, for sacraments, or for advice. When I was in Beirut, in 1983, after the truck bomb attack that took 241 lives, I used my kippa to wipe the blood and dirt off a wounded Marine's face. It was a Catholic chaplain at that point who tore a piece of his camouflage uniform off, to make a temporary head-covering for me. That was not the time for us to compare theologies. That was the time to work side by side. In many countries around the world, populations are separated into warring segments, based on beliefs. Right now, despite our disagreements on so many issues, our military personnel serve side by side. We do that even though we are often convinced that the beliefs of others are wrong-headed -- and often, those beliefs are, according to our theologies, sinful. But we have been told that what keeps us together is the trust that we will live up to our oaths, and if need be, put our lives on the line for the men or women in our unit, regardless of the color of their skin, their accent when they speak, or the house of worship they attend -- or whether or not they attend any at all. Of all people, chaplains should know that when push comes to shove we are all sinners... But for some reason -- perhaps partly because of politics -- the so-called sin of homosexuality seems to be the one that must be kept secret. The military has long held a policy of "non-fraternization." That means that there can be no romantic entanglement or relationship among two people when one might have to give an order to another, so that relationships endanger justice and fair play. That policy must extend to include all relationships, regardless of whether the individuals are "straight" or "gay." So, is DADT unethical? The answer for me takes the form of the question: is the policy we want one that teaches that military personnel can avoid consequences by hiding the truth? Or do we want a military that is ethical enough to speak the truth -- even truth to power -- because the choice is whether we want truth or lies to lay the foundation for decisions and actions higher and higher up the chain...? It is an ethical imperative, I think, for those in our military not to hide the truth. And it is my hope that those of us not in uniform will honor and thank all those young men and women today who risk their lives in our military, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender -- or sexual orientation. Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff

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