It has been pointed out to me that the last three posts on this blog were overly didactic, as if I were giving classroom lectures. Contrary to my earlier statement that I disclaim any pretension to being a Renaissance man, I may give the impression of pretending just that by holding forth consecutively on Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism (though these posts provoked some interesting comments). In any case, the time has come for some lighter fare. I promise that the following contains no profound insights and leads to no practical implications. It is an essay (if I were a Renaissance man, I would say in the tradition of Montaigne) about some astonishing curiosities in human affairs—some religious, some not.
I want to write about beards.
I have not previously given any thought to beards, having never been tempted to grow one nor being driven to thinking about the beards of others. In the last few days my attention was drawn to beards by two rather curious news items reported in the media.
The first is a story about a trial in federal court in Cleveland. Sixteen men and women from an idiosyncratic Amish community in Bergholz, Ohio, are charged with violent actions that belie the pacifist ethos of their faith. They are alleged to have launched five attacks against dissident members of their little community as punishment for challenging the authority of their bishop (a title used by Amish for leaders of local congregations), one Sam Mullet. In the course of these attacks the assailants cut off beards from men and hair from women, and then filmed the events on disposable cell phones (thus also belying Amish hostility to modern technology).
I suppose that any victims of this exercise, whatever their faith, would be hurt and humiliated. This was especially the case here, because (as I only learned now) male beards and female long hair are cherished markers of Amish identity. Bishop Mullet, who is on trial with the others, is also alleged to have a somewhat peculiar conception of his pastoral duties, including “sexual counseling” of female members of his flock and physical punishment for members of both genders. One would think that such attacks, objectionable as they are, would land the offenders in state court. In this case, some judicial sages decided that the attackers could be charged under federal law with “hate crimes”; if convicted, Mullet and his co-defendants could face very long sentences—up to life in prison.
I may comment that this has not changed my skepticism about the good sense of prosecutors (federal or state), nor my view that the concept of “hate crime” is dangerously elastic. In this instance, the defense maintains that the actions of Mullet’s posse were a matter of internal religious practices (thus presumably protected under the first amendment), and were moreover motivated by love for the targeted individuals (this would certainly be a case of tough love).
The second news story concerns the impending court martial in Fort Hood, Texas, of Major Nidal Hasan on thirteen counts of premeditated murder and thirty-four of attempted premeditated murder. It will be recalled that Hasan undertook this massacre as a religious act of jihad. As far as I know, the first amendment will not be invoked as a defense (the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not allow for a defense of “God made me do it”). But the constitutional protection was injected because of a different matter: While in prison, Hasan had grown a beard as an expression of his Muslim faith. The trial judge has stated that he will order Hasan to shave his beard before he appears in court, because the beard violates “Army grooming regulations”. I have not read these regulations (and don’t intend to do so now), but I do recall that many years ago, when I was drafted into the US Army, we were given a lecture in basic training on “proper military appearance”, illustrated with pictures. I don’t think the issue of beards came up, but there was a picture of an unkempt man with stubble all over his face (a sort of pictorial prediction of Yasir Arafat), with a caption “Would you buy a used car from this man?”. In the Hasan case, not surprisingly, the issue of religious freedom was brought up and delayed the start of the trial pending its resolution by a higher judicial authority.
So what is it with the beards?
What is a beard, anyway? Wikipedia (that apex of democratic epistemology, dubious but convenient) defines the beard as “the collection of hair that grows on the chin, upper lip, cheeks and neck of human beings”. The only part of this perfectly plausible definition that surprised me is the subsuming of the mustache under the category of the beard. Be this as it may, in terms of the beard’s role in human society there is the basic fact that only male humans are capable of it. It is indeed a “secondary sexual characteristic” limited to one gender. (This limitation is only underlined by the rare exception of a “bearded lady” being exhibited at more retrograde county fairs.) The beard as an emblem of masculinity affixed to the head is only rivaled by baldness—the ultimately masculine individual will present himself as both bearded and bald. The social role of the beard is predicated on the fact that the “primary sexual characteristics” of male humans are usually hidden from public view (including the penis, with its vast repertoire of symbolic possibilities). While the primary indicators of masculinity are tucked away out of sight, it is only natural that facial hair has come to carry a heavy symbolic burden. The exact nature of the symbolism obviously varied throughout history.
So did beard styles. Wikipedia listed twenty. I particularly like the one called “friendly mutton chops”, described as “sideburns connected to a mustache, but with a shaved chin”. But my concern here is with symbolic rather than physical variety. With that in mind, I would distinguish profane from sacramental symbolism: By the former I mean the simple, physiologically grounded symbol of masculinity; the latter means that the beard is a symbol of some sort of ideology beyond its raw masculinity. The beard as profane symbol of male identity does not mean that it is unimportant. On the contrary, it is the one beard symbol that is truly “natural”—as it were, based on “natural law” (if there is such a thing). It would not surprise me if some school of psychoanalysis has added “beard envy” to “penis envy” as a source of female distress—or if some group of feminists (perhaps in Sweden?) has insisted that men shave off their beards in addition to their sitting down to urinate in order to renounce any semblance of male chauvinism. Shaving is a ritual of masculinity.
Young children are fascinated by watching their fathers doing the ritual. Mine still did it in an old-fashioned way: Preparing the shaving cream in a dish, applying it to the face with a paint-brush, then using a safety razor for the actual shaving (only barbers then still used open razors), wiping the face with a warm towel, and finally putting on a fragrant aftershave. Quite a spectacle! Then much later, in puberty, boys go through the rite of passage of their own first shave, today made easier by the availability of electric shavers—the usually concurrent emergence of pubic hair does not provide a comparable ritual opportunity. The power of the beard as a profane symbol of adult masculinity should not be underestimated. This natural “beardism” has its priesthood—the profession of the barber (Italian barbiere, from barba/beard). This was a stock figure in the opera buffa of popular Italian theater, immortalized by the character of Figaro in Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville”. One should recall in this connection that barbers also performed some forms of surgery, which must have made them terrifying as well as entertaining. Above all, they were purveyors of gossip and agents of conspiracies. Their locale, of course, was the old-fashioned barber shop, still today providing exclusively male sociability in many places. The barber shop may well have been an important civilizing institution as America expanded westward. There may be a line between the historic barber shop quartets and the symphony orchestras that later sprung up all across the continent.
The beard as a sacramental symbol is (to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer) a visible sign of an invisible ideology. This need not be religious. At different times in European history beards symbolized bourgeois respectability or, on the contrary, anti-bourgeois bohemianism. In recent American history allegiance to the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s was symbolized by beards, in sharp difference from the clean-shaved “organization men” or “suits”. During those years my old friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann, who had sported a beard from early adulthood on, frequently pointed out that he had always been bearded. As the counter-culture was absorbed (or, if you prefer, co-opted) into the broader culture, this particular ideological symbolism pretty much disappeared. Perhaps it remains in the (typically grayish) ponytail, worn by aging baby boomers as they waddle toward Medicare. Conversely, there are bearded stockbrokers at Republican campaign rallies.
Needless to say, religion is a particularly rich field for the beard as sacramental symbol. There are significant differences between Latin and Greek Christianity. Bearded priests have become the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches; in the Roman Catholic Church, while there are some monastic orders whose monks wear beards, secular priests are normally clean-shaven. I don’t know whether there are “grooming regulations” in either case, nor do I know of any in Protestant churches. Mormons stand out: Young men going out on their two-year missionary stints must be clean-shaven, as must students at Brigham Young University. Beards have become the trademark of Orthodox Judaism, though the Torah does not command them directly (Leviticus only has rules for shaping the beard). I would imagine that there are different deductions from these rules in the Talmud. Jews in mourning, while “sitting shive”, don’t shave and let the stubbles sit during this period. Sikhs are very intent on their luxurious beards. Many Hindu ascetics have beards, but that is not so much a symbol as the result of their having no possessions, not even a razor (they do beg—is there no pious barber who can donate a free shave?). I have no knowledge of Buddhist attitudes to facial hair. But of course we are most aware of the role of beards in contemporary Islam. Beards are the male equivalents of female headgear. If young men in Turkey come out of the closet as Islamists and consequently drive their Kemalist parents crazy, their young sisters achieve the same result by covering their hair with the scarves that signify Islamic modesty. As far as I know, there is no commandment to wear beards in the Koran, though there is an authoritative tradition (hadith) according to which the Prophet Muhammad did issue such a commandment.
I promised that there would be no theoretical or practical conclusions. Let me just say this: There are very few “natural” symbols. (Though the lion may be a “natural symbol” of might, as against the mouse.) Beyond such clear cases, anything can symbolize anything. Symbols change over time. As to beards, often they symbolize nothing beyond themselves—as Freud did not say, but might have said: Sometimes a beard is just a beard. Beards have carried all sorts of symbolic freight. In the area of religion, it would be nice if beards symbolized moderation and tolerance.
[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]