Service of a Symbol

August 22nd, 2011

Categories: Accommodation, Back to Basics, Collaboration, Compassion, Politics, Symbols

Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, an August 14 guest of Religion on the Line on WABC Radio in NYC, proposed an idea for US military chaplains that had merit and illustrated a spirit of collaboration and ecumenism that would benefit parishioners and congregants worldwide. If members of Congress adopted a similar approach as this retired military chaplain, all of us would profit.

Rabbi Resnicoff suggested that all military chaplains wear the same symbol to identify them as they did early on when any soldier or seaman, [no airmen then], would know a chaplain because he wore a shepherd’s crook on his uniform.

Today, said Rabbi Resnicoff, military personnel have no clue who the chaplains are. Christian chaplains wear a cross, Jews a Star of David, Moslems a crescent, but not everyone associates the symbols with being a chaplain. The rabbi pointed out that there are ministers of some little known religions with one chaplain in the armed forces who sport a symbol few could identify.

He noted that in our military, a chaplain is called on to facilitate the ministry of other faiths making it important for a soldier to be able to identify him/her. If a chaplain jumps into a foxhole, all the soldiers in it become his flock if they want to be.

So in addition to offering counsel and assistance to any soldier, a rabbi might ensure that a Catholic be let off duty to attend mass; a Catholic chaplain would order matzos for the Jewish soldiers in time to eat during Passover, and so forth.

In fact, an Episcopalian chaplain was largely responsible for this Conservative rabbi’s vocation which along with his military service may explain his ecumenical predisposition. This minister wrote the recommendation that got him into rabbinical school, which he said was unusual.

Given the history of religious wars we’ve suffered for centuries that continue to kill thousands yearly, more men and women of the cloth should follow Rabbi Resnicoff’s lead and recognize that their calling should benefit far more than their constituents. Do you agree? Do you think that there should be a universal symbol to identify chaplains in the US Armed Forces? What do you think of symbols in general?

10 Responses to “Service of a Symbol”

  1. C J Hoyt Said:

    During my two years compulsory service in the US Army, I never met a chaplain of any faith, which perhaps disqualifies me from commenting on your interesting question. However, I do recall that we all knew that the cushiest (and safest) job an educated draftee could get was being a chaplain’s assistant, and I also have strong feelings about symbols. Therefore, I’ll go ahead anyway.

    I recall that the vast majority of the enlisted men with whom I served were like myself, they rarely came across chaplains, had no strong feelings about them and certainly not negative ones. My own thought, at the time, was that the army was smart to have them – at least as a PR move at a time when conscription was unpopular – to reassure mamas that their little boy would still get his dose of religion (if he wanted it) while away from home.

    As to symbols, the first one that came to my mind while reading your post was the swastika. Symbols can make powerful, dangerous forces as much, if not more, for evil as good. Personally, I do not like them. I even refuse to wear clothing with logos. Why should I pay a manufacturer or retailer for the privilege of advertising his merchandize?

    As to whether chaplains should all wear one identifying symbol, or each one identifying his religion: Why not split the difference? Have all chaplains wear a like patch or shoulder emblem identifying them as chaplains, as well as a collar symbol identifying their religion.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I like your idea for the chaplains, and it’s a good compromise for those who would protest not being able to identify the religion they represent.

    However I like even better the concept that any chaplain can help any soldier regardless of religious stripe, that a universal symbol supports.

    I think that a chaplain can help soldiers well beyond the obvious: They can mentor and advise through all sorts of challenges as there’s little most haven’t heard before. A chaplain has no axes to grind.

    Amazing how one movement can pervert a 3,000 year old symbol such as the swastika.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    CJ Hoyts idea is ok, but why a second symbol when the one which identifies a given faith will do? While many of us would have no problem approaching a chaplain whose faith differs from our own, assuming we have a faith to start with, others cringe at the very idea, so my vote is for the specific symbol and not the generalization.

    Symbols are good identifiers, and while some represent repugnant activity, such as the swastika mentioned above, many more lend comfort and pleasure to those whose feelings they represent.

    I will gladly wear a “Defenders of Wildlife” hat or a “Nature Conservancy” shirt since these represent organizations I hope others will support. Wolves, bears, and all endangered animals and plants need all the help they can get. There are also some manufacturers, such as Ralph Lauren, who are deserving of the extra publicity. It supports charitable works along with a cancer clinic on the upper upper East side.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The concept for chaplains in the US military is that any one will help any soldier so the universal symbol seems to best reflect this charge. As the rabbi pointed out, there is only one representative of certain little known religions or beliefs so chances of finding a match for each interested soldier are slight.

    Anyone who feels so strongly about not confiding in someone who doesn’t share their religion should try to figure out why that is: Doesn’t sound like a very spiritual approach. Chaplains are there to help, not upset, confuse or convert.

    On another subject, I didn’t know that about Ralph Lauren. Thanks for the info.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    While I wouldn’t give a whit about which chaplain touts what religion, I am in the minority. In the majority are those of Christian and Jewish faiths, so why not accomodate the much greater number? If there is a god, he’s the same one and doesn’t metamorphose into “God” “Yaweh” “Bhudda” or “Zeus” depending who is calling, but the deeply devout usually don’t see it that way, ergo disputes and/or wars.

    It may also be wise to keep in mind that one persons idea of spiritual approach is not necessarily shared by all. It might be even safer to say that there may be as many such ideas as there are people.

  6. Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff Said:

    I am honored that snippets from my radio interview have been posted on this blog — but the above link is to the Washington Post “On Faith” guest voice piece that I wrote, which led to the radio interview. As you’ll see from my posting, my point was to have one symbol for all chaplains – but within that shared symbol, the Christian chaplain would wear a cross, and similarly the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains would each wear their symbol. Right now the separate chaplain insignias symbolize diversity – but following my recommendation they would symbolize both unity and diversity. Also, although we have chaplains of five different religions right now, there will be more in the future, I’m sure. If anyone is interested in a fuller description of my idea, please do use the link to read the article. Sincerely, Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Boy did I learn my lesson, Rabbi Resnicoff–no multi-tasking on Sunday mornings while listening to the radio for me anymore…..hmmmm. CJ Hoyt, who commented first, had it right!

    Thanks so much for chiming in and correcting me so politely.

    It makes sense that representatives of religions wear their appropriate symbols, although after listening to you I think most people lucky enough to receive your counsel would benefit whether or not they shared your beliefs.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Rabbi Resnicoff sent along another reference in an email: The Wikipedia article, “Religious symbolism in the United States military,” which includes a history of all the various insignia. He wrote that he also mentioned it in the Washington Post blog.

  9. DB Said:

    The rabbi sounds like a thoughtful man since a Chaplin should service all religious leanings while serving our servicemen.

    I grew up on Argentia Naval Station in Newfoundland and saw this first hand. I was a Methodist who attended the Catholic school and went on to choose Judaism. I think my tolerance for all faiths came from my growing up going to worship at the base chapel.

  10. KF Said:

    Doesn’t the rabbi sound like a great person to know. In a strange way, I’m glad for your error because now you’ve established a rapport with him. It was a good topic for your blog.

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