Hair and “Hair”: A musical’s lessons for living a Jewish life

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Naso (Numbers 4.21-7.29)

For whatever reason, what caught my interest, in rereading the portion Naso this year was the emphasis on Hair!

And one of my first associations with this portion was the 1960s’ rock musical “Hair.”

Among other topics the portion deals with the Nazir. The Nazir was a member of an informal biblical kind of “holy order.” The matching portion, the Haftarah, deals with a famous Nazir, Samson.

A Nazir was pledged to this role by parents as was the case with Samson, or took on himself what the Torah called an “unusual” or “remarkable” role through a self-imposed vow. The Nazir was not supposed to have any contact with a dead person except for his parents. But his vow was basically one of abstention; an abstention from eating grapes in any form or especially from drinking fermented grapes like wine or brandy. This role was later extended to any fermented brew of any kind (Chametz) such as beer. There was also a significant symbolism and messaging in the personal appearance of the Nazir; he was identified by his long hair: “. . . . a razor shall not pass over his head, his hair shall be allowed to grow unabated for the crown of G-d (Nehzer) is upon his head. All the days of his [being] a Nazir, he is holy to G-d (Numbers 6.1-8).”

And further, at the conclusion of the time of his vow the Nazir he is supposed to bring a sacrificial offering to the Tent of Meeting including some of the hair of his head, also offered and consumed with fire.

In the matching prophetic reading, Samson is dedicated from the womb as a Nazir: “a razor shall not come upon his head for the lad shall be a Nazir unto G-d from the womb and he will begin to redeem Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13.5).

Now hair can be symbolic in various ways. Disorderly hair can communicate a neglectful lack of self-discipline; in appearance what we call “unkempt” which literally means “uncombed.” On the other hand we call elevated art and classical music “long-hair.” And to this day very Orthodox Jews as a sign of their serious religious commitment let the ear locks (pe-ot) grow long. We remember that Samson’s strength lay in his long hair and when it was cut off he could no longer save Israel from the Philistines or defend himself. He lost his strength entirely.

Now to the question of how we can compare the abstentious identification of the long hair Nazir with the long hair of the “let it all hang out,” and often sensual neo-Bohemians of the rock musical “Hair.”

As we have noted Samson was dedicated from the womb as a Nazir to save Israel from the Philistines (Judge 13.5). Now the musical “Hair,” in parallel, can be said to have been a critique of the cultural Philistinism of the 1960s. Many people called “Philistines” those who preferred junk TV-shows devoid of any message or substance, with its “shallow happy” ending. The “Philistine” from the point of view of many had no real appreciation of really good art. The “Philistine” was the “man in the gray flannel suit”, whose go-along, get-along conformism indicated the dominant goal of material gain in behalf of which he conformed to a kind of phony, flag-waiving patriotism that put him in line with the majority of the public which supported the immoral and disastrous Vietnam War in which so many thousands of young Americans died. This Philistine attitude blinded many Americans also to the civil rights issues and made for opposition to Martin Luther King Jr. as a “troublemaker” at best, and “un-American” at worst.

Claude, the young hero of the musical “Hair” represented the higher hopes of the “Age of Aquarius.” Claude is beaten down by conformism of his conservative parents who urge him to strengthen out, cut his hair short and to appear patriotically at the Draft board. Saying “they got me” he appears as a neat, short-haired draftee who is doomed to die in the Vietnam war. In contrast, his girlfriend cut off a lock of his earlier long hair as a cherished memento of love and liberation from the inhumane hypocrisies of the time.

In contrast, too, the songs of the musical “Hair” during the same time-period are hymns of hope for a better world. At the conclusion of the musical the audience was often invited to join with the actors on the stage singing the theme song of the musical: “Let the Sunshine In.”

The long hair of the Nazir in the Torah and the “Hair” of the musical both signify the hope for a better world through a commitment to a better way of life.

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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