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On Jewish Hair

“Jewish hair”. What images does this phrase conjure up for you – Jewish hair? It’s clearly gendered. For women, perhaps Jewish hair is synonymous with dark curls that resist any attempt at straightening. For men, there are a range of possibilities from long beard and sidecurls to the Jew-fro, whose very name expresses its frizzy comic potential. For kids “Jewish hair” also has its connotations, from the untouched curls until the first haircut – the Upsherin ceremony, which we will celebrate with a pair of 3 year olds next weekend, to the budding follicles of the bar mitzvah, which describes the onset of puberty already from the Mishnah, the tractates of Jewish law written almost two thousand years ago.

And then there is the Nazirite, whose flowing locks never heard the snip of the scissors, let alone felt their brutal embrace on their mane. You can picture a Nazirite as being very proud of their beautiful hair. Having vowed never to touch it, surely the hirsute mops of a Nazirite must have grown to epic proportions, even as they forwent the pleasures of a haircut.

I have a friend who told me once how he used to stand on the street and gaze into his local hairdressers’ store. With a beautiful blonde shock of hair himself, he used to enjoy watching people having their hair cut. To see them relax – he told me that’s when people truly relax and let their hair down – gave him a lot of pleasure to see. And of course, the religious wig, the sheitl, in the shtetl, or even the niqab today have been designed to restrict that pleasure and confine it to the conjugal quarters.

The rabbis of the midrash, in their explanations of the Bible were alive to these possibilities and there was a certain suspicion towards the Nazirites, men and women who were not bound by hereditary restrictions like the Levites and the Priests but took upon themselves specific devotions, which, as TJ has told us already this morning, which included not touching grapes, corpses and the hair on their head. And there is one such midrash which considers this tendency to fetishistic scopophilia, this voyeurism, pleasured love of looking, and the potential narcissism inherent in that mirrored gaze, when one considered one’s own image.

Let me share this midrash, about an encounter between a High Priest of the Second Temple period and a Nazirite:

Simon the Just (Shimon haTzadik) said: I have never eaten a guilt offering of a defiled Nazirite except for one. Once a Nazirite from the south came, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking and his locks neatly curled.

I said to him: My son, why did you see fit to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?

He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father; I went to fill water from the spring and I looked at my reflection, and my evil inclination/desire (Yetzer) made me rash and sought to drive me from the world. I said to it: you wicked one, why do you take pride in a world that is not yours. I swear that I will shave you for the sake of heaven.

Immediately (said Simon the Just) I stood and kissed him (the Nazirite) on his head. I said to him, “May there be many Nazirites such as you in Israel. Of you, scripture says, “When either a man or a woman shall perform the wonder of vowing a Nazirite vow of separating themselves unto God (Numbers 6.2).

This story requires no little unpacking. But in short, it’s a rabbinic take on the classic Greek story of Narcissus and Echo, which must have been a common fable in the Roman Jewish world. In the classical tale, one day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, a mountain nymph, saw him and fell in love with him. Narcissus sensed that someone was watching him, and shouted “Who’s there?” To which Echo repeated, “There, there” or maybe “hair, hair”– trust me, it puns better in Latin! Eventually Echo tries to embrace Narcissus, who resists her charms and tells her to leave him alone. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge decides to punish him. She lures him to a pool of water where he catches a glimpse of his own reflection and falls in love with it. Whilst gazing at his image Narcissus understands that his love can never be reciprocated, and thus he ends his life.

Comparing the two stories, Narcissus and Nazirite – even the two names have a certain similarity – help us to see the rabbinic twist in the tale. The Nazirite looks at his own image, grapples with his yetzer, his inclination to do evil, and ends up tearing his hair out. His self-awareness, his recognition of that inclination, is what rescues him from hairier endings, and saves him from a watery grave. And Simon, in his embrace of this shaven Nazirite, embodies an important Jewish value: that we should not swear to much, and make promises that we cannot keep, but that if we do, for the preservation of life, our own life, it is highly preferable to break those said vows, to cut them and to release ourselves, even if those promises are to God. We know this from the Kol Nidre prayer that begins Yom Kippur, which explicitly apologises to God for vows in the year to come. In this prayer we get in first with an admission to God that we say things and we promise things to God that we cannot keep, and that we ask for these rash and hasty vows to be annulled and cancelled already at the outset of the year. While others may stay fixed to their principles, the Jewish way is to preference staying alive. We value the trickster over the martyr. Historically, if someone tells us to convert or die then in almost every case we are instructed to convert, to stay alive and to find a way to manage things going forward, bad hair days included.

TJ, I think you have learnt a lot during your bar mitzvah process. You have worked hard, you’ve been challenged and you have prevailed. You have been a joy to teach, and I will miss your quiet, insightful wisdom that you have expressed in our classes. If at first you were apprehensive about doing your bar mitzvah today, about standing before your community, your friends and family, then you have overcome this with panache and aplomb. You have a beautiful voice but I don’t think you’re gonna fall in love with. You have an amazing memory – especially for rap music – which you have transferred to the Torah and the prayers as you have led us this morning. You also have nice hair, you don’t drink alcohol and I don’t think you touch corpses. Still, even if you are indeed an everyday superhero like Samson, take your time and be wary before you declare yourself a Nazirite like him as well. And always know that wherever you will be in the world, you will have a community here at the UHC who are rooting for you and thinking of you, who believe in you and your talents and look forward to seeing them continue to grow and flourish.

Shabbat Shalom

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