Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Beard and I

I wear a beard. Does one wear a beard? I have a beard, then. Is it a possession, to be had? Let's just say I sport a beard, though the competition isn't all that fierce. In my family, with the exception of my brother, who has better things to do with his time, the overwhelming consensus is that I should shave my beard. The reasons are many and fluid, depending on what logic my family members think will succeed at the time, though their impassioned arguments can be distilled into three main points.

The beard ages me, robbing me of my youthful looks. Since my late teens, I've looked young for my age. At 27, without a beard, I could probably pass for a 20 year old. With a beard, however, I'm rarely even carded purchasing liquor anymore. This especially concerns my father, who believes I am depriving myself of one of the benefits of youth - youthfulness.

It is considered backward, old-fashioned, un-modern or just odd by the rest of society to grow a beard these days. Thus I am mocked for it, overtly or behind closed doors. Alternatively, even if I'm not being ridiculed now, I draw unnecessary attention and the potential for problems in the future. Coming, as my family does, from the Soviet Union, there is an added undertone that the negative social connotations that go with a beard may adversely affect my scholastic or professional prospects.

Finally, no one in my family has worn a beard for generations. We know this to be true, to the extent that we can know such things after the vast majority of my family, on both sides, was exterminated, because there remains a photograph of my great grandfather on my father's side, Avigdor. More than inheriting his name, I inherited his looks, to a remarkable extent, though the beard obscures this a bit. Avigdor survived the war, and my father remembers him fondly, growing up in a small town in Moldova.

Avigdor was a proud Jew, as my father never tires of repeating, and he didn't wear a beard. Needless to say, neither of my grandfathers, my father or my uncle have beards, and though my brother did, for several years, he has since reconsidered, removing and trimming whatever facial hair he had. As someone who believes in the value of tradition and custom, that it gives an individual roots and strengthens their connection with others, such as family members, this argument carries more weight with me than others.

With regards to Jewish law, halacha, there is a fair amount of clarity on the subject. Jewish men are forbidden from shaving their facial hair with a razor blade - the way such things were once done, and still are by most men in the world. The simple explanation is that we do this to not mimic idolaters, for whom the practice of shaving hair off large portions of their bodies was once common, and may still be.

Related laws prohibit us from rounding off the hair on one's head by completely eliminating sideburns, as certain idolaters once did. Thus, Jewish men who shave their beards will retain sideburns down to a certain point on the ear. It is a custom of some Jewish movements to grow the sideburns out, over months and years creating the well known Jewish sidelocks. Chabad does not have such a custom to grow sidelocks, though some children and adults do so. Interestingly enough, it's not a custom I've seen among any other nation.

For those that wear a beard, we are forbidden from trimming the corners of that beard - the "thirteen locks" of a beard, representing the thirteen divine Attributes of Mercy - though here, it is not clear cut as to whether the restriction is on trimming the corners at all, or on doing so with a razor blade, leaving communities and individuals to decide for themselves.

Plenty of orthodox men trim their beards with an electric razor, while many others go clean shaven in this manner as well. Normative halacha accepts the use of an electric razor, as the scissor-like action performed by the cutting blades is considered different from that done by a straight razor. Newer models of electric razors, which lift the hair before cutting it, may pose a problem, however. Chabad Chassidim - a hassid is a pious person who beyond above the letter of the law - follow additional, more strict halachic rulings against cutting any part of the beard, including with a non-razor like instrument.

In addition to the legal codes and customs, underlying them, there are spiritual, mystical reasons that strongly preference growing a beard, and preventing any damage to its natural state. Once again, without going too much into detail, it has to do with the thirteen Attributes of Mercy, of divine energy drawn from G-d's compassion that is channeled through a beard's "thirteen locks", and into the beneficiary.

To a Jew, the reasons for growing a beard are compelling, and while trimming the beard with certain, approved instruments is technically permissible by most halachic rulings, even down to the skin, many communities and individuals choose not to do so.

My family, indeed, most people, assume I wear a beard because I am an observant Jew, to the extent that I'm observant. I belong to a shul, a community of Chabad Chassidim, where men have beards, so it is natural, goes the reasoning, that I would have one also. It is true that I probably would not have grown a beard had it not been acceptable, or even welcome in my community to do so. However, much as I love Torah and mitzvot, even going beyond what is expected, at times, my reasons for growing a beard were less noble.

Shaving is a stupendous hassle. From the age of 17, when I began to shave, through my 23rd year of life, I enjoyed not a single shaving experience. Irritation and burning, usually made even worse by "sensitive" foams, bloody nicks, faulty razors, clogged up drains, all combined to create a dreaded weekly or, if I could avoid it, bimonthly ritual.

Out of sheer absent-mindedness, assisted by general antipathy for the act, I allowed first two weeks to pass before shaving, then a three week stretch that left me with a considerable soft stubble. For two or three months it went like this, with me testing how far society would allow my stubble to grow before I was shamed into mowing it down. Finally, towards the end of a semester, in a time of stressful exams, first two weeks passed, then three, then five, and no blade grazed my cheeks. My long-time girlfriend at the time did not mind, indeed, she claimed to like the look, which endowed my boyish looks with a manly demeanor. Two months passed, then three, but I had long stopped counting. With a beautiful girl safely at my side, and a Jewish community that implicitly welcomed the change, for whom did I need to shave? I had beaten the system - the lure of female attention or, conversely, the disapproval of a woman, along with fear of social ostracism which are the foundation for why all men shave. I was free, and I didn't look half bad!

Having long since lost the girl - she wasn't Jewish and had no wish to be - and spending more time away from my community than I'd like, I've been more sensitive to my family's pressure of late, which tends to come in waves. As their specific arguments hold little intellectual sway with me - with the possible exception of family tradition - it is more likely that I feel more impacted by their nagging now, because I myself have been considering the outcome they suggest, but for different reasons.

In the four or so years that I've worn a beard, I've never felt disadvantaged by it. I can't attribute a single instance of mockery or ill temperament directed at me as a result of wearing a beard. Quite the opposite, I can think of numerous examples where I was afforded more respect and consideration, possibly even more trust, as a consequence of my facial hair.

In fact, there is one demographic among which I have seemingly become supremely popular - African Americans. It's not a simple thing to explain, but I draw on the experience of several dozen incidents, spread out over the last few years, where I have been treated with greater respect by black men than the social circumstances would dictate, and what my experience had been up till then. In addition, black women routinely walk up to me - and not Asian or Scandinavian women - to compliment me on my beard, unanimously urging that I keep it, in some cases making quite direct romantic advances.

How to explain such a thing? I have one working theory, while a close friend of mine has another. At first, I thought the beard, complimented with a cap or hat - I usually wear a second head covering over my kippah - made me look like a skinhead or a Southern country hick, and black men were simply apprehensive of me. So, I asked a black classmate about it, and he dismissed this idea with a hearty laugh.

My current theory is that, with green eyes, chestnut hair and a reddish-brown beard, I... Well, how does one put this... I kind of look like Jesus. Stereotype it may be, but a high proportion of African Americans attend church services and are deeply faithful. In many black churches, the only white guy in attendance is made of plaster and hanging from a cross, looking down on impressionable congregants from their earliest memories, all the way through adulthood.

I had a very strange experience a couple of years back, which first spawned this notion. A young black man was collecting donations for his church and rang the doorbell to my parent's home. When I opened the door, he launched into his pitch, pushing a clipboard into my hands, his fingers directing my attention to one item on the sheet or another. He then looked up, right into my eyes, and stopped talking mid-sentence. Within moments he looked to be in shock. "You look just like... Are you..." I thought it was a joke until he began to have trouble breathing. I assured him I wasn't and sat him down on the porch. By the time I came back with a glass of water, his eyes were streaming tears. "So you're not..." I explained that I am a Jew, like Jesus was. The poor guy never finished his donation pitch.

As for my close friend, he proposed that most young black men simply can't grow lush, long beards, and so possession of such a beard suggests advanced age and wisdom, naturally eliciting respect. Maybe there's something to it, I don't know.

In theory, as I only grew the beard out of convenience, should it become unwieldy or hard to manage, I wouldn't feel particularly bad trimming or removing it entirely, in a halachicly permissible way, of course. In practice, however, because others have ascribed particular reasons to my wearing a beard - supposing that I did so out of conviction for my faith, for example, which I didn't - shaving it off becomes quite problematic, as it could give the impression that I've lessened my faith in G-d. For others, Jews and non-Jews, to perceive, even mistakenly, that an observant Jew has lessened their faith in G-d could constitute be a desecration of G-d's Name, G-d forbid. If I were ever to seriously contemplate changes to my facial hair, this would be a primary consideration.

Due to such complications, when it comes down to it, the only reason for which I would conceivably trim or eliminate my beard would be in the context of a serious relationship - or the prospect of such a relationship - if my future partner or spouse requested that I do so. Until then, or pending some unforeseen accident, and much to my family's chagrin, the beard stays.

1 comment:

  1. Victor - urgent
    I'll enjoy your post later in the day ...
    read this the next step is in the making - read all of it

    we've been all wrong, the Marmara exported JIHAD from TURKEY

    - that's a FIRST for Turkey and if Erdogan endorses it then Turkey has turned itself into a rogue state at the blink of an eye - if that comes to pass then the best we can hope for is a successful military coup in Turkey.
    I hope it will be possible for divers to search the sea bed for discarded weapons - Michael Oren wrote there were foreign bullets aboard.



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