Religion & Beliefs

Pretty Little Longhaired Boys

A year and a half ago, I gave birth to a baby boy.  And while I was, of course, delighted… I was also a little nervous.  Because suddenly my lack of Jewish knowledge affected someone other than myself.  I had … Read More

By / May 7, 2007

A year and a half ago, I gave birth to a baby boy.  And while I was, of course, delighted… I was also a little nervous.  Because suddenly my lack of Jewish knowledge affected someone other than myself. 

I had to have a bris. I had to pick a Hebrew name.  I had to figure out whether I needed to have a Pidyon Ha Ben.  I knew very little about such things.

At the time, I also remember thinking about whether I wanted to wait to cut my son's hair.  I didn't know the word Upsherin at the time, but I knew there was a Jewish tradition of not cutting a baby boy's hair until he was three, and I thought it was a nice idea.  I liked the look. I liked the idea of resurrecting old traditions…

And it's a nice one:

 The custom is based on biblical verses (Deut.20:19 and Lev. 19:23, 27) that compare man to a tree. Just as a tree matures from a tiny seed to fruit-bearing tree, likewise a child grows more knowledgeable and bears fruit via good deeds.

Just as the Torah requires newly planted fruit trees be allowed to grow unharvested for three years, a child's hair can be left uncut for three years.

The tradition dates as far back as the 16th century and has connections to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Rabbi Chaim Vital, in Sha'ar HaKavonot, wrote that his teacher, "Isaac Luria, cut his son's hair on Lag B'Omer, according to the well known custom."

So why did I decide against it?  Why did I cut my son's hair when he was about a year old?

Well, first of all, because he had a really runny nose, and he kept getting snot in his bangs.

And second, because the tradition is supposed to mark the child's entrance into Jewish life and learning.  Which was not something I was certain I could commit to at the time.  Torah classes?  I was nervous to set up this hurdle, and then NOT enroll him in Hebrew school, making the ceremony a hollow tribute to hairstyles.  And while I could, I suppose, have made the ceremony about his more general development as a person, that idea didn't ring true for me.  In the same way that a bar/bat mitzvah seems phony when the kid isn't really reading Torah.

Of course, third, it seemed yet another cultural tradition that happens for boys, but not girls.

But mostly…  I just didn't want to be a poser.

Now, before you laugh at me, I want you to think about this… because I'm not sure it's totally stupid.

What does it "mean" to borrow cultural trimmings without fulling participating in the strict observance or community behind them?  I would never intentionally appropriate something like that from another religion, would you?  I would never hold a baptism because it's a "nice tradition".  I wouldn't wear a bindi.  It would feel disrespectful to me. 

But because I'm a Jew drawn to cultural trimmings and trappings in general, I often feel drawn to adopt traditional habits now and then… even though I grew up with none of them.

Though at the same time, I wonder how an orthodox person would feel about it.  What would an observant mother think if she saw my little longhaired boy eating a cheeseburger?

Does it matter?  Or do we get to truly pick and choose what we want from our faith, as it suits us? 

 I'm on the fence… 

Now, I'm not saying I think we should all do "all or nothing".  Because we've all grown up in different communities, with different cultures and traditions (some involving cheeseburgers).  But isn't there something a little odd about arbitrarily selecting the cultural trappings you think are neat?  Because they look old-school, or hard-core?  Or even because you want something "more" but you're too tired and busy to commit to learning what the more might be?