Rabbis with Beards, Rabbis without Beards, and Comments on some new Books

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A friend sent me a copy of an article which appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal, dealing with the turmoil in the kashruth industry sparked by the illegal practices of Agriprocessors. The article quotes another article that appeared in the Forward newspaper. A claim is made that there are now two camps that offer competing views on how to deal with the issue of kashruth standards and ethical standards. The first is composed of "bearded, Orthodox rabbis" who are concerned with the technicalities of kashruth laws. They apparently feel that ethical and legal matters should be left to government inspectors, not kashruth agencies. The second group includes "progressive, socially engaged, and mostly clean-shaven rabbis" who advocate a more expansive view of kashruth supervision which takes into account legal and ethical matters.

While in some general sense the above description may be accurate, it is also dangerously misleading. It creates stereotypes: the bearded Orthodox rabbis are the "bad guys" who only care about halakhic technicalities; the unbearded rabbis are the "good guys" who believe in ethics. The bearded Orthodox rabbis are narrow Talmudists, and the unbearded rabbis are broadminded, worldly and socially concerned. The fact is that there are bearded rabbis who are quite compassionate and broadminded, and unbearded rabbis who are narrowminded and mean.

There are many rabbis, like me, who have beards, but whose beards are trimmed and neat. Where do we fit in according to the stereotype? Are we "bearded Orthodox rabbis" of the bad sort? Or are we to be counted among the "progressive, socially engaged" clean-shaven rabbis?

I think it is not productive or proper to create artificial stereotypes of rabbis based on their beards, or lack of beards. It is fair to present differing views, and let the readers decide for themselves which view they think is more correct. It is unfair to prejudice readers by creating stereotypical caricatures. My late father-in-law, Rabbi Paul Schuchalter of blessed memory, used to quip that it's better to have a rabbi without a beard than a beard without a rabbi. It would be even better if rabbis were not judged by their beards (or lack thereof) but by their Torah learning, compassion, love of their people, love of humanity. Judge rabbis by their words and deeds, not by their beards.

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This brings me to some comments on books that have recently been sent for review to the Institute office. Although we generally do not do book reviews, I thought readers would be interested to know about these books. Two of them were written by unbearded rabbis! The other two are works of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who had a trimmed beard! The books, of course, need to be evaluated on their merits, not on the beard or lack of beard of the authors.

Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, who has had several articles on our Institute website, has written a fascinating volume, "Maimonides, The Exceptional Mind", published by Gefen Publishing House. As readers of Rabbi Drazin's articles and books know, he is devoted to "rational religion". Maimonides is the classic rabbinic rationalist, and Rabbi Drazin's study opens many avenues of creative thought. In the course of this book, Rabbi Drazin introduces readers to the thought of other Jewish philosophers and Bible commentators.

A very different book was authored by Rabbi Ian Pear, "The Accidental Zionist", published by New Song Publishers. Rabbi Pear's book is a first person account of his engagement with Judaism and Zionism. Through stories, anecdotes, and a good dose of humor, he invites readers to explore the teachings of Judaism and the centrality of Israel in the Jewish experience. This is a good book to give to college students or other adults who are struggling to find their footing in the Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the pre-eminent Modern Orthodox thinker of the 20th century. Whenever his works are published, it is certainly worthwhile to read them. Ktav Publishing House has just issued an English translation of Rabbi Soloveitchik's famous Hebrew essay, "Uvikashtem Misham". Entitled, "And From There You Shall Seek", the translator is Naomi Goldblum. Drawing on imagery from the Song of Songs, Rabbi Soloveitchik explores the eternal covenant binding God and the people of Israel. Ktav has also issued "The Seder NIght: Exalted Evening", which is the Haggadah with commentaries drawn from the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik. This volume was edited by Rabbi Menachem Genack. This is a good volume to study in advance of Passover, and it will enrich the discussions at the seder table.