The beard as a sacramental symbol is (to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer) a visible sign of an invisible ideology. This need not be religious. At different times in European history beards symbolized bourgeois respectability or, on the contrary, anti-bourgeois bohemianism. In recent American history allegiance to the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s was symbolized by beards, in sharp difference from the clean-shaved “organization men” or “suits”. During those years my old friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann, who had sported a beard from early adulthood on, frequently pointed out that he had always been bearded. As the counter-culture was absorbed (or, if you prefer, co-opted) into the broader culture, this particular ideological symbolism pretty much disappeared. Perhaps it remains in the (typically grayish) ponytail, worn by aging baby boomers as they waddle toward Medicare. Conversely, there are bearded stockbrokers at Republican campaign rallies.
Needless to say, religion is a particularly rich field for the beard
as sacramental symbol. There are significant differences between Latin and Greek Christianity. Bearded priests have become the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches; in the Roman Catholic Church, while there are some monastic orders whose monks wear beards, secular priests are normally clean-shaven. I don’t know whether there are “grooming regulations” in either case, nor do I know of any in Protestant churches. Mormons stand out: Young men going out on their two-year missionary stints must be clean-shaven, as must students at Brigham Young University. Beards have become the trademark of Orthodox Judaism, though the Torah does not command them directly (Leviticus only has rules for shaping the beard). I would imagine that there are different deductions from these rules in the Talmud. Jews in mourning, while “sitting shive”, don’t shave and let the stubbles sit during this period. Sikhs are very intent on their luxurious beards. Many Hindu ascetics have beards, but that is not so much a symbol as the result of their having no possessions, not even a razor (they do beg—is there no pious barber who can donate a free shave?). I have no knowledge of Buddhist attitudes to facial hair. But of course we are most aware of the role of beards in contemporary Islam. Beards are the male equivalents of female headgear. If young men in Turkey come out of the closet as Islamists and consequently drive their Kemalist parents crazy, their young sisters achieve the same result by covering their hair with the scarves that signify Islamic modesty. As far as I know, there is no commandment to wear beards in the Koran, though there is an authoritative tradition (hadith) according to which the Prophet Muhammad did issue such a commandment.
Berger actually doesn’t have anything interesting to say about beards. I just wanted to post something about the awesomeness of beards, which are awesome.
UPDATE: Yair Rosenberg sends along Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s theological musings on beardage. Unlike Prof. Berger, who’s just having fun, Rabbi Soloveichik really does have something to say about God and beards. Excerpt:
Wherever we look, writes Kass, “we see in Egypt the rejection of [bodily] change and the denial of death.” Shaving was a key element in this rejection. “No shaggy outlines or blemishes mar the perfectly smooth look. What appears to be an unveiling [of the human face] is actually also a veiling of age and disorder.” With this in mind, it begins to seem no accident at all that the Hebrew Bible, which steadily sets itself against pagan practices of every kind, should have positively enjoined the opposite practice—that is, the wearing of beards—thus visibly and deliberately repudiating the false blessing of eternal youthfulness and underscoring the fact of our eventual and inevitable mortality. In biblical Hebrew, the very word for beard, zakan, shares a root with zaken, an elderly person.
Moving forward in time from the ancient world, a different but no less instructive contrast with Jewish law and custom is offered by the tradition of shaving that developed in the Catholic priesthood—the same tradition that would cost Johannes Bessarion the papacy. Here the key element was the ideal not of youthfulness but of celibacy. Indeed, as Zucker notes, it was one and the same pope, Gregory VII (1073-1085), who by decree “enforced not only celibacy among the clergy but shaving as well.”
To be sure, a desire to differentiate Christians from both bearded Jews and bearded Muslims must have played a part in the development of this practice. But at least as great a part seems to have been played by the association of beards with ordinary human carnality. Explaining the religious virtue of shaving, the medieval scholar Guglielmus Durandus argued that
cutting the hair of the beard . . . denotes that we ought to cut away the vices and sins which are a superfluous growth in us. Hence we shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility, and that we may be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of youth.
If, by contrast, the Jewish faith has always found religious value in facial hair, it is because Jews are not expected to embody angelic innocence.