Sermon: Hairy business at the Royal Wedding – Kedoshim 2011

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 26 May 2011

Hair has never been a big deal in my life.  Yesterday as my family and many cousins gathered around the television getting all excited as the first glimpse of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton’s hairdo was possible in the car, I was impressed that Prince William had, like me at my wedding had to do nothing at all to his hair to look just fine, though his brother Prince Harry must have worked hard at that slightly dishevelled look.

I never had the opportunity to do anything interesting with my hair and rather envied my younger brother who managed a pony tail at university during the brief period in which they were fashionable for men. Far too much of my hair had long since disappeared for me to manage that.

It means that my hair has never been a symbol of rebellion as it seems to be for young men in every generation.    Its not about long or short though as Anthony Synott wrote {[1]} the only constant is that each generation of radical young men does not want the hair length or colour uniformity or diversity of the previous generation.  Nor have I ever fallen foul of the regulations that authorities make to suppress such rebellion.

It seems to be a common instinct of the authoritarian to create male hair uniformity – and to discourage or punish offenders.  In our Torah portion today we are told not to round off the corners of our haircuts nor to cut the corners of our beards – that basis for the uniform hairstyle of the ultra orthodox for whom uniformity and obedience to authority whether formally or informally enforced is most important.

In today’s Iran hair styles for young men were once one of the few ways of self expression – with quiffs very popular among the more radical until in July of the past year the authorities issued  a list of approved haircuts on the national “Veil and Chastity Day”.  Enver Hoxha, former President of Albania outlawed all beards in his country, whilst goatees are nowadays banned in Turkmenistan.  In 2005 Kim Jong Il in North Korea ordered constant repetition of an advert “let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle”.  Meanwhile in the days when Hamas and Fatah wanted to create clear blue water between them one of Hamas’s first actions when they took over the government of Gaza in 2006 was to permit policemen to grow beards – beards had been banned for officers of the law under Fatah.

Meanwhile the reason why at yesterday’s Royal wedding the heavily bearded Greek Orthodox priest sitting near to lightly bearded Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and his clean shaven friend our own Rabbi Tony Bayfield, was quite so hirsute is that in Greek Orthodoxy not cutting hair is seen as a way of demonstrating that you treat your whole body as holy.

What is the purpose of the rules on hair within our Torah portion today?  What is the significance of cutting your hair in a particular way?  The reason is probably not to do with authoritarian control over male hairstyles but is rather to do with the position of the ban within the portion.  It is preceded by a ban on eating blood, witchcraft and superstitious astrology and followed by a ban on ritual cutting of the skin which became for many Jews a ban on incising tattoos into our bodies.  Where we are is in a passage about not imitating the cult practices of other peoples – whose rounded  hairstyles as seen in Egyptian pyramid paintings – were important in their hierarchical priesthoods.

It is very noteworthy that the holiness code which we heard this morning begins with an instruction to the whole people of Israel just like the ten Commandments.  It is not a code for Moses or the priests alone.   This portion is about holiness for the whole people of Israel – every one of us – not for an elite of holy men – Judaism does not do that elite thing – except for a section of ultra Orthodoxy which reverences their Rebbes in such a way that Jews of all sorts have wondered whether they have gone too far in putting their trust in princes rather than in God.

The holiness code tells all of us not to take on the practices of the people around us without thought as to their ethical consequences.  Whether that be adjusting our bodies, or our beliefs to fit in with other peoples.  To be a Jew remains to apply a special standard of ethical, communal and personal behaviour to oneself –based on the guidance of God, our tradition and the community within which we learn – everyday, in all of our actions.

On Wednesday evening here at Alyth we are going to do a fantastic practical exercise in just this.   We are going to ask three business people within our Alyth community who have been very successful in different areas of the business world to put the principles of Kedoshim into practice.  Sir Trevor Chinn has been a leader in the motor industry for decades,  Jackie Cooper the runs the largest PR consultancy in the UK, she was the woman responsible for the Dove soap campaign ditching the super skinny models and including women who looked more like regular people you might meet.  Alex Chesterman founded the largest film rental service on the web which he sold to Amazon and now runs the second biggest property website.   So they have done great in business.  But how will they match up to the ethical challenges that Kedoshim presents them as they grapple with three real world business problems in the light of being a decent person in.  If you do come to join us then you will get the chance to grapple yourself and give your solutions to the challenges as well– this is a whole Jewish people participation opportunity!

Just as the hair issues are juxtaposed in Kedoshim with issues around cult practices, so the issues around business in our Torah portion are placed in contexts which seem counterintuitive until you give them a closer look.  The classic text on being decent in business was Sam’s final verse this morning – do not keep inaccurate weights and measures.  Note this does not say don’t use them but don’t even have access to them lest you be tempted to cheat others in business.  It comes immediately after a verse which says that you must love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Is this just bad editing or are the two concepts linked?

They certainly are.  It is very easy to apply different rules in business to those we know well, to our friends and relations than to people who we do not know so well – the stranger – who after all is the person we most frequently come into contact with in business – the person who walks through the door of our shop or organisation, the person we have cold called to get a business relationship going.  The Torah tells us to treat that person, the stranger as we would those who are closest to us – don’t take advantage of them even though they may never know that you have.  That is why, according to Rabba in the Talmud {[2]}, the portion ends with the words “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.”  You may think that there are no consequences if you do well out of a stranger dishonestly – but someone up there was watching and will remember!

Kedoshim tells us that doing business and succeeding is important and greatly valued – after all we would not be trading with weights and measures if we were not trying honestly to gain prosperity.  We would not be paying wages on time, as we are commanded earlier in the portion if we did not employ people in the first place.  We would not have a corner of our field or vineyard to leave for the poor and stranger to glean what is left over if we did not work hard to create productive agriculture or businesses.

What Kedoshim tells us is to strive to be successful – but always to remember those who have not had the good fortune you have.  It is a message that is wonderfully real within today’s’ Jewish community – there are more than 2000 registered charities within the Jewish community  {FN: Turbulent Times, Kahn Harris and Ben Gilbey, (2010) P4} from the £50 million per annum benevolent behemoth of Jewish care to tiny family trusts giving to good causes.  Their annual income from Jewish philanthropy is around £500m – which is 3% of the UK charity sector – a wonderful achievement for a people who are only ½% of the British population.  The message that Kedoshim gives us, that prosperity brings with it a responsibility to be a philanthropist at whatever scale you can manage – lives on.   May we succeed, ethically and in holiness and continue to care for each other and the stranger who we do not know