Culture, Identity, Mishegas

My soul nests in my beard

My beard is a constant source of conversation (especially with my mother). So when I saw an article in Commentary titled “Why Beards?” you can bet my interest was peaked. In the article, Meir Soloveichik examines the Jewish beard, from its biblical origins to modern America.

Wherever we look, writes Kass, “we see in Egypt the rejection of [bodily] change and the denial of death.” Shaving was a key element in this rejection. “No shaggy outlines or blemishes mar the perfectly smooth look. What appears to be an unveiling [of the human face] is actually also a veiling of age and disorder.” With this in mind, it begins to seem no accident at all that the Hebrew Bible, which steadily sets itself against pagan practices of every kind, should have positively enjoined the opposite practice—that is, the wearing of beards—thus visibly and deliberately repudiating the false blessing of eternal youthfulness and underscoring the fact of our eventual and inevitable mortality.

Soloveichik explains the halachic reasons many men are able to keep their faces clean shaven (electric razors), and moves on to the parallels between ancient Egypt’s obsession with youth to modern America’s – even as far as the practice of rising for the bride and groom at Jewish weddings:

The affluence is without question a great blessing, but within it there can be found a loss and even a potential curse—one that is nowhere more evident than at an Orthodox wedding. Typically such events are lavish and expensively catered affairs, and why not: Judaism stresses continuity, and a wedding is the happiest moment in a Jewish life. But inevitably there comes a moment when the groom and his extended family, followed by the bride’s family and the bride herself, proceed down the aisle, and the crowd, having remained seated and chatting away as grandparents in their seventies or eighties have walked haltingly to their places, rises reverently before the young couple, beautiful and handsome, young and radiant.
While there may be a good reason for this relatively new practice, standing up for the bride and groom is not required by Jewish law; standing for the elderly, at any time, and any place, is a biblical obligation. The same chapter of Leviticus that instructs male Jews to grow a beard insists that we “rise before the aged, and glorify the face of an elder.” Is it possible—or probable—that even traditional Jews, whose very appearance ought to teach them to revere the aged, have forgotten why weddings are so special to Judaism: because we plant for those who come after us, just as those who preceded us planted on our behalf?

I find his approach fascinating – saying that a Jewish man wearing a beard in modern America is in some sense bucking the system – saying “I don’t buy in to your culture of perpetual youth.” That being said, I prefer the holy Ari’s take on beards: “It is fitting that a man not uproot any hair from his beard at all, for the beard hairs are channels of divine spiritual abundance.” (Source)
Full story.

12 thoughts on “My soul nests in my beard

  1. what a great article!
    it seems that their is a core idea that isn’t very well clarified, perhaps because it is so obvious. As boys become men, they grow facial hair, cutting it might imply that somehow one has not left boyhood.

  2. Hmmm, hate Commentary, love Jewish men. Hate neo-cons, love Jewish men with beards. I can’t take this much emotional turmoil on a Monday morning. Guys, you don’t need Meir Soloveitchik (or Commentary, ugh!) to tell you what to do– just put down the razor!! (And yes, leave that little boy stuff behind.)

  3. lemme guess, women are more naturally attuned to all that divine spiritual abundance, and don’t need extra help from beards.

  4. i don’t mean to be a huge jerk, but what sort of radical jewish blog keeps on posting articles from the jewish week and commentary?
    (not too serious, but kind of serious)
    (don’t hate)

  5. Is this a radical jewish blog? I’m not being facetious, I honestly have never thought of it that way. I think of it as being geared towards our generation and progressive, but I’ve never thought of Jewschool as radical. We draw on a lot of the traditional sources- Forward, JTA, OU. Our perspective may be different (or not) but we don’t break news so much as add commentary (no pun) to what’s in the mainstream. What do you think?

  6. Usually “traditional sources” refers to the gemmara or shulchan aruch, its a bit funny to see the Forward and JTA referred to that way.

  7. There was a time when Jewschool tended more towards genuinely radical content, but moved away from that direction very intentionally, in order to have it’s impact be more… receptable?
    Me and some friends used to sigh about that a bit, about Radical Torah also. How radical could a site that only allows certified academics and ordained rabbis or students to post actually be?
    But thank G-d, Jewschools got a nice range, the pious and the perverse, blogging in harmony. It’s coming into it’s own nicely now in the post-Mobius era. It just so happens that Judaism tends to fold back into it’s own mainstream AND spiral off into unrecognizeable strains, and its (kinda?) cool to see that a little reflected here. I’m tripped out by reading pieces by people seemingly stunned by things that they’ve “discovered” about Judaism that I almost completely forgot about, and that’s the nature of growing while looking back at the same place.
    Even the occasionally radical nature of Judaism still has a super-conservative bent, endlessly concerned with itself and it’s maintenence. And unless Jewschool was more willing to be more anti-semetic, how radical could it be?

  8. More Radical doesn’t have to mean anti-semetism. The term does not actually mean anything other than advocacy for massive political/ethical changes. That could be changes of that manner to oneself, community, region, or the world. I know we can think of, and live change, beyond what this website contributors have been talking about the last year or so without be anti-semitic. In fact this statement implies that it is necessary to undertake hatred of Judaism and Jews to have massive changes???
    Mobius’s era in js was founded on a jewish variant of a poststructuralist anarchist politic, which is:
    Libertarian socialist values consistently viewed through a contingent and fluid lens of poststructuralist perspectives on the interlocking nature of force relations (Adams ‘Postanarchism in Bombshell’ 2003). Based in libertarian socialist advocacy for stateless, voluntary, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, pro-community, pro-environment, pro-networking forms of social organization. Commitments following from this definition are against authoritarian and oppressive relationships, such as racism, ableism, heterosexism, patriarchy, capitalism, religious intolerance, or the state form. They stand for the freedom of the individual while encouraging voluntary collective action and the creation of social networks.
    This is different, more radical, but doesn’t have to be anti-semitic does it?

  9. I hear you, you’re saying good. But how much do we ever change ourselves for the better, without hating, or at least rejecting what we have been?
    Hate is a strong word, I don’t anti-semetism has to be a hatred of, as much a a rejection of, whatever terrible thing “Semetism” is being identified with, be it institutional or ideological.

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