Monday, November 12, 2012

The Beard and Other Conformities

I no longer recall the author or the name of the Sefer he wrote. But many years ago, when R’ Moshe Feinstein was still alive someone wrote a Sefer forbidding the trimming of beards. He asked R’ Moshe for an approbation.

R’ Moshe would often freely give approbations to Seforim written by Bnei Torah – saying either that he read the material and it was a worthy addition to Torah scholarship, or at least praising the author  if he did not have a chance to fully read the Sefer.

R’ Moshe refused to give this ‘anti shaving’ Sefer his approbation. The Torah does not prohibit shaving and he was not going to give his approbation to any Sefer which forbade it. Even though R’ Moshe himself had a beard which he did not trim.

He clearly Paskined that it is permitted to trim one’s beard and even shave it as long as it was not done with a straight edge razor. Any scissor like implement could be used as the Torah prohibition forbidding “rounding the corners of one’s beard” was only against Ta’ar - cutting the facial hair so close to the skin that only a single blade directly against the skin could accomplish it. Scissors of any type are therefore permitted. Which is why R’ Moshe permitted electric shavers. They are basically tiny electric scissors.

I am not going to go into more detail about the various aspects of this Halacha. Suffice it to say - the bottom line is that shaving one’s beard is permitted according to R’ Moshe Feinstein – whom many considered the Posek HaDor of his era.

In the non Chasidic Yeshiva world of pre-Holocaust Europe, there were hardly any bearded students at all. In fact, in many of those famed Yeshivos if a student tried to grow a beard so as to emulate the Chasidic students who attended those Yeshivos, the Rosh HaYeshiva made him shave it off. Even though virtually all the Roshei Yeshiva themselves had beards.

There are however Poskim that disagree. Mostly among Chasidim. I know that Lubavitch in particular interprets the Torah prohibition as forbidding any cutting of facial hair at all. But I don’t believe that this is true for most other Chasidic movements. I believe for them the reasons are mostly spiritual or Hashkafic.

Which brings me to the rather interesting story told by Judy Brown in her Forward column this week. She tells the story about the angst one particular Chasid had about  - not shaving his bear but merely trimming it. I can certainly understand why he felt such angst. His community sees trimming a beard as a serious violation of a communal standard. The reaction of his father in law tells the story: 
He called it a forbidden kind of permitted, a sinless sin, a deception of God and the soul. And you cannot fool God or the soul.
 “You are a bum,” Eilenberg’s father-in-law declared. “A disappointment. Do you know that Ha’Ari Hakodosh did not touch his beard for fear that a hair would fall out? Did you know that Jews in the Holocaust died because of their beards, which made them look like Jews? You are a fool! An idiot! A Hasid does not play with prohibitions.”
 He then ordered his son-in-law to get back to life. He ordered him to stop the mourning, the misery, the ghost-walking through the streets; to be husband to his wife, and to grow that beard. 
Although couched in Halachic terms one can plainly see that the arguments and pressures used to ‘enforce’ this standard are not Halachic at all. And yet from the reaction of this man’s father in law, one would think that trimming a beard is tantamount to Chilul Shabbos.

Now I understand why they might feel this way. If a community accepts upon itself to behave in a certain way, those who don’t are seen as rebelling against it. That makes them suspect of a lot more violations. An argument which has some merit to it.

But it ought not to be looked at that way with respect to trimming or even shaving beards. It should be obvious even to the most insular of Chasidim that trimming a beard is not the same as violating Shabbos. Back in pre-Holocaust Europe there were many devout Chasidim that shaved. Even Satmar and Ger Chasidim! Two of the largest groups of Chasidim in the world.  Even as late as the 1960s America some of the most Devout Ger Chasidim I knew were clean shaven. (And I knew quite a few.) Today, a Ger Chasid would not be caught dead without a beard.

Now I have no problem with someone who wants to grow a beard for religious reasons. People have a right to live their lives in any way they choose. Many of my own Rebbeim had beards - including Rav Ahron Soloveichik. What bothers me is that the focus today among Chasidim in particular and Charedim in general is on appearance. To paraphrase an old Billy Crystal comedy routine, “It is better to look Frum than be Frum”. And beards are the epitome of looking Frum. Especially full beards among Chasidim. It is perhaps the most integral part of the “Frum” uniform.

The idea of wearing a uniform has become a paramount expression of Judaism in far too many Orthodox circles today. I include the non Chasidic world of right wing Yeshivos too.  Beards are far more common today and the uniform “Black Hat” look is certainly a must. 

Without having the right ‘look’, one will not be fully accepted as a member in good standing of the Charedi world – much less in the Chasidic world. If one dares to look a bit more modern (for lack of a better word) he will not fit in. He will be seen as rebellious and probably ostracized if he continues wearing that look.

This is not to say that Chasidim and Charedim aren’t meticulous in many of their observances. Of course they are. But it seems that appearance among Chasidim and to a lesser extent non Chasidic Charedim is more important than anything else. Violating the unwritten uniform code is what this community seems to get most upset about. 

I wonder for example if that same father in law would get as upset at a son in law evading his income taxes as he does about trimming his beard.