Long hair is more than style issue

BY RABBI RANDY FLEISHER

Almost cut my hair

It happened just the other day

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It was getting kind of long

I could have said it was in my way

But I didn’t and I wonder why

I feel like letting my ‘freak flag’ fly

And I feel like I owe it to someone

I can relate to those David Crosby lyrics. Though I do get haircuts, it is an infrequent occasion and I usually go reluctantly. I just feel most like myself when my hair is long. Is it because I “owe it” to someone? Well, when I see another male with long hair, there seems to be an instant connection; we share an unspoken bond because of our outsider status. Activist Jerry Rubin once said that wearing his hair long was like being a “walking picket sign;” he was existentially protesting materialism, narrow-mindedness and superficiality.

The Pirke Avot teaches: “Ben (son of) Bag Bag said, turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it.” Therefore, it should come as no surprise that this week’s portion references long hair. In Naso we learn that a person may choose to temporarily “set himself apart for God” by taking a nazirite’s vow. The terms of the vow include a ban on haircuts: “The locks of the hair on his head shall grow untrimmed.” Long hair was apparently a public sign of holiness; letting hair grow naturally free and wild indicated that one was not easily beholden to human conventions. And, as any religious school student knows, for that most famous nazir known as Samson, long hair represented not only spiritual but physical strength as well.

The ancient Hebrews who conceived of the nazir concept were one of many such indigenous peoples for whom long and untamed hair represented authenticity, freedom and holiness. To this day, many Native American men and boys prefer to keep their hair as long as possible in order to maintain identity, stand with their ancestors, and respect the will of the Creator. Remember the Kevin Costner character in Dances With Wolves? As he grew more and more connected to the Lakota tribe near his army base (and became more open, harmonious and pure in his relationships with humans, animals and nature) his hair crept past his neck toward his shoulders. Part of the philosophy of the ’60s counterculture was that young people should reject much of the contemporary culture as “plastic” and instead choose, nazirite style, to set themselves apart as a spiritual practice and live in communitarian tribes, adopting the more natural, long-haired look and values of aboriginal peoples.

The biblical nazir could end his vow at any time and blend back into the mainstream. When will I finally decide to really cut my hair? I can’t predict, but for now, I am happy to fly the “flag” of indigenous Judaism, hoping to balance my inner Jacob with an outer Esau.

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation provided this week’s Torah portion.