Saturday, October 29, 2011

On Judaism and Beards

Slate has an interesting if ultimately lacking article on the religious significance of beards:
An Amish splinter group has gone on a crime spree, forcibly cutting the beards off of their rivals. Many religions, including Sikhism, Islam, and sects of Judaism, encourage or require their men to keep beards. Jesus Christ is often depicted with a beard. Why does God like facial hair so much?
Because it’s manly. Although beards appear repeatedly in religious texts, God never explicitly tells us why they’re so holy.

I was reminded of an article I randomly read of the late Chaim Bermant  z"l on his love of the beard:

I recently heard a broadcast by Mr John Sparrow, a former Warden of All Souls, which made me bristle. It was an attack on beards, the proliferation which he regards as a reversion to savagery. Mr Sparrow is a classical scholar and his aversion falls within the classical tradition which expected a civilised man to be shaven and regarded the unshaven as barbarians, and, indeed, the literal meaning of barbarians is the bearded ones. [Not true: it derives from foreign and uncouth speech. Ed. JC]. I, on the other hand, grew up in a world where hairiness was next to holiness, and where bare-faced rabbis were as uncommon as bare-headed rabbi’s wives. And not only Rabbis. All the burghers of note, all the pillars of society were (if I may be allowed to mix my metaphors) bearded and it seems to me that the main reason why women been allowed a full part of Jewish communal life, derives not so much from halachic (Jewish religious law) injunctions as the fact that they cannot grow beards (though looking back on it, I can think of some exceptions)

It seems to me that a rabbi without a beard is like a high priest without his canonicals, for who will take spiritual guidance from a man without hair to his chin? The United Synagogue tried to compensate with canonicals and has encumbered it’s clergy with dalmatics and copes and chasubles, but between the, they do not generate the authority of a good, honest beard. Fashions have changed and in recent years while rabbis have not quite allowed their chins to grow wild, most of them have acquired semi-beards varying in size and shape from Arafat sephira (the period between Pesach and Shavuot) beards to well-kept Van Dyks. Today it is chins rather than theology that divide the denominations. The Reform movement is clean-shaven, the United Synagogue is semi-bearded; the Federation is bearded and the Adath is over-grown. (It seems to me, to judge from recent pronouncements, that Adath rabbis grow beards inside their heads as well as outside them.)
From all of which you may infer that I too am unshaven and I will confess that I am attached to beards. I have had three in my time (consecutively rather than concurrently). The first I lost when a budding Delilah clipped off half my beard and put the other half out of it’s misery; the second I lost when I fell asleep in a barber’s chair and woke up with a small tuft on my chin like the back end of a duck; the third is the beard I have now. I regard it as one of the tools of my trade and snatch at it every time I get stuck in the middle of a sentence. Scripture, too, regarded beards in a fairly benevolent light. ‘A hoary head,’ we are told, ‘is a crown of glory.’
But in the main, it is a form of compensation. When the head has lost it’s crop what is there left to do except cultivate the chin. 

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