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On the Other Hand

Chaim Bermant

'Beards' (8 June 1979)

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).

I suspect that the place of the beard in Jewish lore and, indeed, law, has something to do with the belief that man was made in God’s image and, in the popular imagination, the Jewish God (as distinct from the Greek ones) has always been bearded, as were all the Prophets and, with the exception of Jacob, the Patriarchs.

I have never been able to understand why the Yiddish expression for a Gentile priest is galech, the shaven one, for all the priests that I encountered, the patushkas of the Russian Orthodox Church were as hirsute as the Rabbis, only more so, for their beards came in huge black slabs, with every hair fixed in place as if it was tarred, whereas the rabbinical beards, truth to tell, were bedraggled and fuzzy with ends uneven and hair sticking out in all directions. If the Russian Orthodox beards were privet, the Jewish Orthodox beards were bramble. The Jews treat their beards as a dairymaid treats an udder: they tug at them, they worry them, they milk them for inspiration, they use them as study-aids. Open any well-used volume of the Talmud and you will find it as full of loose hairs as a cat basket.

The only Jew of note to treat a beard with the respect it deserved was Herzl and when he appeared at the first Zionist Congress he was greeted with cries of ‘He is the King of Yeshurun’. I doubt if he would have provoked such ecstasy if he had beenbeardless.

The same was perhaps true of the late Dayan Abramsky whose fine features seemed trapped in a wilderness of hair. I once saw him in Woburn Square in conversation with Ewen Montagu. Mr Montagu (he should live to be 120) is about seven foot tall; Dayan Abramsky was nearer five, and together they represented the epitome of the Yiddish expression Shabbas hagodol mit Kurtz Freitig (the great Sabbath with a short Friday), with Mr Montagu in the unlikely role of Shabbas hogodol, but one could never think if the Dayan as a short man because his beard gave him a presence out of all proportion to his size.

In the nineteenth century when Britain was a God-fearing nation there were beards everywhere and of every shape and size, on cheek and chin, goatees and mutton-chops, side-boards and side-burns, to say nothing of dundearies, wispy little tufts like Diesraeli’s (it seems to me that he worried the life out of his beard), and rich effusions like Salibury’s, but with the rise of the razor the country declined, and like Samson, it lost it’s might when it lost it’s mane.

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.

8 June 1979

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