Thoughts on growing a beard: Judaism.
Growing a beard puts me back in line with a commandment that God gave to the Jews – namely, that you shall not shave the corners of your beard.
(Hilariously, no one is sure where “the corners of your beard” are actually located. Some people believe that this is the side-locks that you see on Orthodox Jewish men, some people just grow out their whole beards on the theory that if you don’t shave anything, you can’t shave the corners. Most people don’t care.)
Anyone who has seen me cook pork knows that I’m not exactly an observant Jew. But I do keep track of which commandments I’m following and which ones I’m not, not because I’m keeping score (which isn’t even how it works), but because I think it’s good to be conscious of it. I’m going to try to explain why.
I have a memory of a friend of mine – who in any just world would be a rabbi – explaining to me that the commandment for Jews not to shave the corners of their beard comes from a passage about not worshipping the Bael, and that it almost certainly is referring to a specific religious practice in Canaanite Polytheism.
The point of the commandment isn’t that there’s something inherently wrong with shaving whatever part of your beard “the corners” is. The point is that you should not even come close to Bael worship. It’s not enough just not to do it. You should not do anything that approaches doing it.
It’s easy to dismiss this as just excessive purity focus – and a lot of Jewish commandments are just that – but there is something else to it as well. I think about Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about (of all things) his diet. He said that it’s all very well to say “I can have ice cream in my freezer and just choose not to eat it.” But, if there is ice cream in his freezer, he will eat it. Self control, he says, is in the grocery aisle. Similarly, in the commandment to not shave the corners of your beard, self-control isn’t deciding not to go into the temple of Bael. Self control lives at the razor-blade.
Because so much of our religious culture is Jewish-derived, it can be hard to understand the place of Judaism in the ancient world. At the time that these commandments were written, it wasn’t existing in the context of other monotheism. Rather, it was a radical monotheist religious practice existing side-by-side with an ongoing polytheist tradition from which it had probably sprung. So, the choice about remaining Jewish or going to worship the Bael wasn’t some absurd thing – it was a regular choice that everyone could be expected to cope with in their daily lives. So the practices of Bael worship – even if they aren’t done in the context of actually worshipping actual gods – are forbidden. Like shaving the corners of your beard.
And like child sacrifice.
As I remember it (and I don’t care if I’m right or wrong about this), right next to the commandment not to shave the corners of your beard is the commandment “you shall not offer your children unto Bael.” Which, to be clear, isn’t any kind of symbolic baptism or something. It’s straight-up child sacrifice – killing your child in sacrifice to the gods so that they might bless you. This was a fairly common practice in Canaanite polytheism, and it lasted until at least Carthage. It’s a common practice, and also one that (very specifically), Jews don’t do. Or, at least, we’re not supposed to.
There’s little risk in me – or any other modern Jew – practicing Canaanite paganism. That particular religion is dead and buried, and good riddance to it. So, in that sense, there is little sense to the prohibition on shaving the corners of my beard. It’s not like, in my daily life, I’m going to be walking by a Canaanite temple and say “oh, sure, what the hell?” and pop in to say a quick prayer to the Bael and light some incense.
But child sacrifice is something we still do in our society. Every day, in so many ways, we sacrifice our children. Sure, we’re not cutting hearts out or burning kids alive in ritual ceremonies. But, in so many other ways, we sacrifice our children to any number of false gods – for ourselves, for our communities, to keep the peace, to keep the silence that we claim is peace, or just because we enjoy it. Every time someone tells a child “that never happened” or “we don’t talk about that” or “it’s your fault,” that is, in its own way, child sacrifice.
If the commandment to not shave the corners of my beard has any meaning to my life, then, it’s this: a reminder we do not sacrifice our children. Jews today are still bound by the commandment of God to Abraham – we do not sacrifice our children. We do not sacrifice them to false gods. We don’t sacrifice them to the true God. We do not sacrifice them to peace, or to silence, or “the community,” or to “a good man who just made a mistake.” This commandment is our primary commandment. It comes before anything else – it even comes before “I am adonai your god” and “you shall have no other gods before me.” It is who we are as a people.
(Of course, it isn’t. Of course, every day, in so many ways, Jews – secular and liberal and Orthodox and every other kind – sacrifice our children. That transgression, at least, has never gone away.)
Every day, when I shave, or when I choose not to shave, I think of this commandment. We do not shave the corners of our beards. We do not offer our children unto Bael.