Matisyahu is a friend of mine so I was not going to comment on his choice to shave off his beard. It was his personal decision. Live and let live. But I changed my mind when my children told me that they were reading all over the Internet that young, impressionable, orthodox Jewish youth were also choosing to shave off their beards following Matisyahu's lead (I'm assuming these were young men, rather than women, who made the choice). It was then that I decided to weigh in.
After my first appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show a few years back, one of her producers called me up to her office. "You did well. We liked you. Oprah liked you. You know, you could even, maybe, become a regular on this show. There's an issue, and it's just me saying it. Your beard. It's... it's... out of control. It sort of all over the place. Ever think of trimming it?"
"I can't," I said, "for religious reasons."
"Oh no, oh no you don't," she said. "We've had other orthodox Rabbis on the show. And they're clean shaven. They go on with their Yarmulkes and no facial hair."
"OK," I said. "You got me. True, there are many orthodox Jews who shave their beard and who have a different understanding of the Bible's laws about shaving. But I'll tell you why I still can't shave my beard."
"I'm listening," she said.
"Well, if I did it, I'd be doing it for you, for TV. And that's just not a good enough reason. Because the moment I let TV determine who I am, then I've lost my identity. I'm in this business to impact on the culture, not to have the culture impact on me."
She and I remained friends and I did the show again and was even chosen to host a daily radio show on the "Oprah and Friends" radio network, beard and all.
I am a fan of Matisyahu, and not just of his beard. I am a fan of his beautiful music and even more his beautiful lyrics. But most of all, I am a fan of what distinguished him and set him apart. In short, his Jewish pride. Whereas so many others made compromises in order to fit into the mainstream culture -- just think of all the Jews in movies and on TV who changed their names so it sounded more mainstream -- Matisyahu made zero compromises. He got up on Jimmy Kimmel, scraggly beard and Hassidic hat, and electrified America with his proud identity. That identity was central to everything he was. Not because of the Jewish gospel of facial hair, but because of what it all said. In essence, he was saying this: "I am so good at what I do that I don't have to trim my identity to suit you. Just try and keep me down. You won't succeed. I'm that good." There was chutzpah and moxie in what he did. It was in your face, bold and unapologetic. And it turned everyone, from every culture, on, and made more proud to be whom they were.
I remember when I was Rabbi at Oxford that I befriended Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who had won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1976 for identifying Hepatitis B. Although raised orthodox, by the time I met him he was no longer so. But he was proudly Jewish, and he went by his Hebrew name professionally. Why? Because when you're that good you don't have to change anything about yourself to fit in.
Matisyahu said on his Facebook post that his decision to remove his beard had something to do with the fact that he had once believed that "in order to become a good person I needed rules -- lots of them -- or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission."
Fair enough. It's his life. G-d bless him. He will always be my friend. But firstly, the idea that rules only stifle is incorrect. Relationships without rules almost always fall apart. Rules can often serve as channels for expression and revelation. Somalia has no rules. America has many. You can't really get a speeding ticket in Somalia. But then you can't really build a society there either. They need more rules. Gay Talese's book Thy Neighbor's Wife, which studies '60s experimentation with open marriage, shows what happens to marriages when the rules are removed.
But more importantly, why is shaving off one's beard any less of a rule than having one? On the contrary, beards are natural. Shaving them off is not. And sure, we cut our hair and our fingernails. We do a lot to have our appearance conform to societal expectation, which just magnifies the need to have at least one aspect of our personality not conform and remain organic, which is why so many hippies had beards. They wanted to show that they refused to conform.
There is more.
Ask anyone to name America's most respected president and both scholar and Joe Public alike would say Abraham Lincoln. He was honest. He was committed to freedom. He was loyal to his wife (though she was quite mad). He had ironclad convictions that could never be swayed. And he was hairy.
No joke. There is historical evidence that points to the fact that Lincoln became the man we immortalize with five-dollar bills and majestic memorials only after growing a beard. In the fall of 1860, Lincoln was the Republican nominee for president, and the election was approaching rapidly. His popularity among the people was spotty at best, and he'd suffered numerous defeats in the past. And then, Lincoln received a letter. Eleven-year-old Grace Bedell of Upstate New York wrote to the long-faced, bare-chinned presidential candidate, "All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you". Nowadays advice like that would merit the title of political consultant, and Grace would have herself a lucrative career. But at the time, she was rewarded with a response penned by Mr. Lincoln himself, and with the very fruition of her advice: Lincoln won the election, and he did so with a beautiful beard.
Coincidence? I think not. Let us not shy away from the obvious conclusion. Men with beards are empowered with the capacity to lead. And don't go shaking your head in dismissal. This is a fact that can be easily demonstrated through a number of primary factors.
First, simple logic. We as a society, whether justly or unjustly, still link leadership with a degree of masculinity. A full beard is a sign of the robust mountain man. Who can argue with that? Take Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Can you imagine an unshaven man like Richard Simmons in the role? Or take Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. Would "If I Were a Rich Man" have worked with clean shaven punim?
Second, a bearded man is an honest man by choice and not by circumstance. A man with a whisker-less chin has nowhere to hide if he is telling an untruth. His facial expressions are bare and exposed to the world. Thus, we can only deduce, that a man who is hairless whom is telling the truth is doing so not because he would choose to be honest, but rather because he is forced to. A man with a beard, however, has a permanent disguise. Matisyahu himself acknowledged this when he accompanied pictures of his hairless new face with his lyrics, "At the break of day I look for you at sunrise. When the tide comes in I lose my disguise."
The bearded man knows he can avoid liability for any untruths. He can hide behind his muttonchops, and no one would be the wiser. But he chooses to have his words mimic his heart. His beard lends him conviction
Third, a beard is also the sign of patience and commitment in a man. We are in the age of the short attention span, experiencing the world in text messages, sound bites, and video clips. Thus, to wait out the cultivation of a beard would seem to many of today's youth to be an unthinkable test of endurance. Growing a beard is not a choice with an immediate pay-off. One must last through a series of stages of peach-fuzz ugliness before reaching the final goal of manly beauty. You must deal with the wife who won't kiss you because your face is rougher than a gravel road. You must endure the straggly, dangly stuff, looking every morning in the mirror and encouraging yourself, "I may be hideous now, but patience and perseverance will bring out my inner Lincoln. Good things come to those who wait." Intellectuals have long pointed out that the definition of maturity is delayed gratification. If that is so, then the bearded man is maturity incarnate.
Fourth, a beard represents confidence and individuality. A man who grows a beard is a man who is sure of himself. A man who grows a beard is not afraid to stand alone. He does not let himself be swayed by the opinions of his wife ("Oh, no honey, not a beard!") or of American pop culture. A bearded man knows what he wants and sets out to get it. Just as Lincoln faced unpopularity across the entire nation: anger from the North that he was losing so many of their sons, brothers, and husbands in a war that was all about a cause, and from the South who called him "Satan incarnate", he held his head high and did what he was called to do. There can be no denying that the fortitude he received from growing his beard was singularly responsible for his determination. He led our nation to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and to an age of freedom that most had deemed impossible.
OK, I'm being flippant. But come on, let's have some fun. The story itself is preposterous. Matisyahu's beard became a Google alert?
So, in a moment of half-seriousness, let me say that it seems that so many trail-blazing individuals throughout history have born beards. From literary giants like Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, and Walt Whitman, to business visionaries like Andrew Carnegie to the entirety of the Impressionistic Art movement. One can only imagine how it happened to be in 1874 at the Exhibition of the Revolts in Paris. Perhaps it was Degas, perhaps Renoir, maybe Monet -- surely one of them showed up sporting facial hair, and one by one the masters followed suit. Of course only bearded men can be artists. They have to fashion that facial hair every morning into something presentable, a challenge and a pleasure that the devilish clean-shaven man will never know. The same thing seems to have happened in the small community of truly great film directors: Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Cameron, Kubrick -- bearded, one and all.
And my final point: a bearded man has the perfect paradoxical relationship between raw instinct and careful cultivation. Much like our own United States of America -- a land which includes the most refined and developed urban centers in the world, and at the same time claims home to wonders of nature which remain untamable: the canyons of Colorado, the Redwoods of California, the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee -- this is a land that remains much the same as it was before man ever got his hands on it. Our country is pure, and raw and passionate, and all the same structured, and ordered and cultivated. So too, should all real individuals be. And only a man with a beard can combine the bohemian and the bourgeoisie in a manner that we can read upon his face. Literally. You may be thinking, "But if you want a truly ardent and artistic soul then why don't we seek out a brilliant, bohemian artsy-type? Maybe what our country needs is someone with long hair to tap into our passion and soul!" Uh-uh. Read carefully: that would mean finding a hippie, and they already had their decade. No my friends, the new era belongs to those brave bearded few. May their flowing facial fullness continue to lead and inspire us into a time when no man will be dependent on a razor ever again.
This essay is written in memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away earlier this year.
Shmuley Boteach, wild beard and all, was labeled by Newsweek as the most famous Rabbi in America. The best-selling author of 26 books, he has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley), and on Feb. 1 will publish Kosher Jesus (Gefen). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley or on his website at www.shmuley.com.
Follow Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiShmuley