Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Sons and Supplicants

“You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead.”

Even today there exists a fair bit of confusion around the Mosaic prohibition against Israelite men — priests especially — shaving their foreheads, beards or temples. There are a variety of rabbinic views on the issue.

A Traditional Approach

The more extreme school in traditional Judaism pulls these hair-related commands right out of their historical and scriptural settings and applies them to all Israelite men at all times. The Shulchan Arukh therefore teaches, “Whether a man merely shaves his temples or shaves his entire head including his temples, he has violated the law.”

Naturally, as with many modern Jewish interpolations of the Torah, there are a zillion ways to avoid complying if you don’t want to. Depilating creams, waxing or tweezing are perfectly fine. Even scissors and most forms of electric shavers are okay. This approach to the text does not stop to ask why God would ever forbid such a thing in the first place. Moreover, it sees no problem with a Jew looking like he has shaved, only so long as he has not actually used a razor on his face or head. The outcome of appearing shaven is not forbidden, only a very specific means of arriving at it.

It is a sort of limited, formal, technical obedience without concern for any logic that may underlie the commandment. It is straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel. Thus, even today, huge numbers of Jewish men wander around with weirdly trimmed (or untrimmed) hair and beards, attempting to comply with contextually-insensitive readings of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If it looks silly, it’s because it is. Yes, for at least some Jews it is also evidence of a devout spirit, which is surely commendable. But it’s still silly.

A Command with a Point

Thankfully, not all rabbis are inclined to ignore context. There are other ways of looking at the prohibition. In his Continental Commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom writes:
“The purpose of the cut hair for the dead is most likely the same as that of the well-attested donation of hair to the sanctuary. Since hair continues to grow throughout life (and appears to do so for a time after death), the ancients considered it to be the seat of a person’s vitality and life force, and in ritual it often served as the substitute for a person … What I am suggesting is that shaving the head or cutting the beard for mourning the dead is simply an aspect of the cult of the dead. Let us keep in mind that these rites are not the impulsive anguished acts of grief (contrast Ezra 9:3). Shaving and pulling hair is performed carefully, deliberately. And, I submit, there is good chance that this hair — the symbol and essence of life — was offered a sacrifice to the god(s) of the dead.”
And again:
“The hair symbolized the life force of the individual, and locks of hair were laid in tombs or funeral pyres in pre-Islamic Arabia and ancient Syria as well as brought to the sanctuary as dedicatory offerings.”
Milgrom rightly sees the shaving prohibitions as inseparable from repeated references in the same immediate contexts to “the dead”, and from appeals to the gods on behalf of the dead.

Blood, Death and Disfigurement

Thus if you walked around in one of these ancient cities with your head or beard trimmed in a particular way, the message you were sending to everyone who saw you was that you were supplicating the gods on behalf of dead relatives. You were trying to persuade heaven to hear you, and the price of getting a god’s attention was hair, blood and disfigurement.

That makes a pretty sad statement about the sort of God being supplicated, doesn’t it? Yet the Gentile nations commonly disfigured themselves when a relative died. The takeaway? They worshiped sad, ineffectual gods. Israelites were not to mimic their behavior.

Thus, in Milgrom’s view, there was nothing immoral about an Israelite trimming his hair or beard to keep one or both from hanging in his soup. The prohibition was against cutting them in such a way as to appear to be engaged in Gentile-style mourning and god-appeasement.

Your Father Knows What You Need

Though he is a Jew and would not acknowledge Jesus Christ as God, Milgrom’s view is nonetheless consistent with the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. The God of Israel has never been the sort of deity to require his people to cut or disfigure themselves so that he would pay attention to their requests. He had no interest in being supplicated by the groveling masses like a conquering king; rather, he wanted to be approached as children would approach a loving father.

The “Father” described by Jesus characteristically desires to meet his children’s needs. He does not require garish displays of self-abuse to look up from his daily business and acknowledge one of his own family members. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” Jesus said. “Do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do.”

The Gentile relationship to heaven was all wrong. Failing to understand that God is one, and that “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God”, they often whipped themselves into a “worship frenzy” in hope of getting their gods’ attention.

Oh Baal, Hear Us!

Never is this more humorously evident than in the story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Four hundred and fifty men cried, limped around and cut themselves with swords and lances until “the blood gushed out upon them”, all to no effect whatever. Elijah offered a quiet, personal, two-sentence prayer after which confirming fire fell from heaven.

The worshipers of Baal approached their god as a distant, angry monarch. Elijah approached his God as a respectful child approaching a familiar, loving parent. It would be hard to conceive of a more dramatic contrast, both in the style of approach and in the sort of deity being approached.

The Law forbade cutting, shaving and deliberate self-disfigurement because it sent a false message about Israel’s God. But you don’t need to go to Jesus in the gospels to find that out. It’s right there in Deuteronomy: “You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead.”

The reason for the command is plainly stated: “You are sons,” not mere supplicants. That’s not a bad thing for Christians to keep in mind.

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