My Beard Bothers The World

In February 2008, I read an essay in Commentary magazine by the clean-shaven Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik on the role of the beard in Judaism.

It laid out the reasons for why the beard (as opposed to the clean-shaven look) was Judaism’s preference for men.

I don’t remember all the reasons given in the essay but among them were:

* It was to distinguish you from Egypt, where clean-shaven was the ideal
* It is the acceptance of adulthood and the abandonment of attempts to look young while growing old
* It demarcates adults and children, men and women

Among the additional reasons that I have a beard is that it is a constant reminder of who I am. I can take off my yarmulke and tzitzit and I can dress like a goy, but my beard does not come off so easily. I think twice and thrice these days before stepping inside a non-kosher restaurant. Before, I’d just take off my yarmulke and tuck in my fringes.

I’m fascinated by the way so many people give me a hard time about the beard. Goyim generally do it because they think it is weird and ugly.

Jews give me a hard time about the beard because they think I am trying to pose as more religious than I am.

They are right. I am trying to pose as more religious than I am. As Shakespeare wrote, “Assume a virtue if you have it not.”

I’m fascinated by the objections that Modern Orthodox Jews have to my beard. I’m fascinated by how many Torah-learned Modern Orthodox Jews list off for me the reasons why a beard is not mandated by Jewish law.

I understand a beard is not mandated by Jewish law. Many of Judaism’s preferences are not mandated by Jewish law, but you can’t have the slightest acquaintance with the Torah and argue that the beard is not its ideal for Jewish men. For one thing, the Torah makes it very problematic to shave.

Why would so many Orthodox Jews tell me that my beard is not Jewishly necessary?

I guess it makes them nervous. I guess I disturb their Jewish comfort level whereby if you do one more mitzvah than them you are a fanatic (and one less mitzvah and you are a goy, notes Dennis Prager).

I remember one Orthodox woman told me, “Don’t you have to earn a beard?”

Well, do you have to earn Sabbath observance? That is a public statement to the world just like a beard. Do you have to earn wearing a kipa and tzitzit? Do you have to earn the right to do a mitzvah? Do you have to earn the right to publicly identify as a Jew?

I’ve had Orthodox rabbis give me a hard time about wearing a beard. They said it was showy. It reminded them uncomfortably of the Haredim.

What fascinated them was how much it bothered them. Jews are not normally bothered by a lack of humility in their fellow Jews. They’re used to. They’re numb to it. But for some reason, the beard is just over the top self-assertion.

One Orthodox rabbi told me, “A Jew is not by appearance. It is by action.”

But appearance matters a great deal in the Torah. God is always telling the Israelites to wash up and to clean and mend their garments. The Torah has a lot of rules about appearance.

Jesus said in the Gospels, “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles but what comes out.”

Judaism holds that it is not only what comes out of your mouth that matters but also what goes into it. It is not only your deeds that matter, but also your beliefs and your appearance.

If the Torah is true, God cares about a lot more than just the heart or the deed or the creed. If the Torah is true, God cares about a lot more than just religion.

I remember a story told by Reform rabbi Mordecai Finley. He was raised in Conservative Judaism. He once went into a Reform temple on a Shabbos morning wearing his tallit gadol and noticed nobody else was wearing a prayer shawl. “We don’t wear those rags,” somebody told him.

In that Reform temple, the rabbi’s prayer shawl was as offensive as my beard to many Modern Orthodox Jews.

If you tell people in Conservative Judaism that you don’t drive on Shabbat, you’ll often be regarded as a religious fanatic. Or if you wear your kipa out.

If you are just a bit more ritually observant than your crowd, you’re gonna stand out like a sore thumb, like a nail that needs to be hammered in.

RABBI RABBS POSTS ON MY FB: Long before Shakespeare, the Torah said m’soche sh’lo lishmah, bo lishmah (from doing things for the wrong reasons, comes doing things for the right reasons). In other words, it’s good to “fake it”, because faking it leads to doing it for r…eal.

Anyone that argues against that is arguing against Torah.

As for the so-called “Orthodox rabbi” that told you “A Jew is not by appearance”, you might want to show him the Midrash that says the Jews were redeemed based on four merits, and one of those four was that we maintained our Jewish appearance.

It is brought down that maintaining our Jewish appearance will again merit us for our final redemption.

Anyone that scoffs at your beard doesn’t want the final redemption.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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