Thursday, April 3, 2014

Growing, Cutting, and Donating my Hair: A Reflection

 Pride, Pressure and Principle:
A Reflection on My Eighteen Months of Growing, Then Cutting, Then Donating My Hair


            My unintended personal journey began almost four years ago, when I was then the Associate Rabbi of Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, NY.  I had a realization, one which, perhaps, should have been self-evident to a pulpit rabbi but one which nonetheless forced me to reconsider one of my basic assumptions about Jews and Judaism. 

            As all pulpit rabbis do in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, I was considering the topics and content of my sermons.  I thought to challenge my community by encouraging each member of my synagogue to accept upon himself or herself one new mitzvah or Jewish ritual for that upcoming year.  How hard could that really be, I wondered to myself.  After all, in Judaism, there are many rituals that are simple, accessible, and meaningful.  It should not be any problem simply to select one and try it for one year!

            Around the same time, a new kosher meat product was on the market – kosher meat from Grow and Behold.  It represented everything that I was looking for in kosher meat:  locally grown, organic (by the spirit and not just by the letter of the law), free-range (also by the spirit and not just by the letter of the law).  It was delivered fresh, and it tasted delicious.  I remember cooking the chicken the one and only time that I purchased meat from them.  I did not marinate or dress the chicken; I was curious to taste fresh organic meat for the first time, and its taste did not disappoint.

            Yet the experience did.  I had anticipated that I would feel better about eating meat.  After all, the animals were given a good life, not mistreated, and the environmental impact was kept to a minimum.  Instead, I had to face a personal truth:  I believed that, for me, eating meat was wrong.  And I had known it for years, yet I had made no change to my diet.  Why?  Simply because making that change, I permitted myself to believe, was too hard.

            For most Jews, this is how they perceive Jewish ritual.  They often want to participate and try something new, but change is difficult.  Nonetheless, here I was, about to stand in front of almost two thousand members of my community at Rosh Hashanah and ask and expect them to do something – that is, make a change in their personal and religious practice – that I had put off doing for nearly a decade.  Thus, I committed to becoming a vegetarian for one year.

            It is now coming up on four years since that Rosh Hashanah sermon.  Truthfully, I have eaten meat about a half-a-dozen times, but I still hold to my vegetarian practice and lifestyle.




            My last haircut was on Monday, November 12th, 2012, almost eighteen months ago.  I was at the home of Michelle, a friend and a parent of a student at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, where I have worked as the Director of Jewish Life & Learning and School Rabbi for almost two years.  I was at her house for two reasons:  my friend’s daughter and my son were in the same Junior Kindergarten class at MJDS, and Michelle was going to give me a haircut.

            In college, I wore a half-inch buzz cut for years.  I admit that I have always harbored a not-so-secret desire to grow my hair long – not the socially acceptable down-to-the-ears length at which I had typically kept my hair for the past decade – but long.  Societal pressure held me back.  I was going to be a rabbi, I reminded myself.  I am a rabbi, my congregation reminded me.  It was a rare case for me of conceding to societal norms.  But, I wisely and with great dismay did not grow out my hair.  Undoubtedly, this was not a case of personal conviction but rather preference, and, having accepted a public position with the expectation of an accepted norm of appearance, I did not press the issue. 

And so, with my usual personal reluctance, I sat down one-and-a-half years ago for a haircut in Michelle’s house.  She gave me a wonderful haircut – as far as haircuts go, I loved it!  But, I looked in the mirror, and the reflection began to mock my principles.




I do not have a working television in my house, and it has been nearly two years since I last plugged in my television.  I have a twenty-nine inch tube TV that I received as a gift in 1997 for my twenty-first birthday (it still works, but I do not have the digital adapter for it), and I have an antenna which I can plug into my laptop to watch basic channels with intermittent reception.  Still, giving up a working TV in my house was a much more dramatic change for me than becoming a vegetarian.

I love television, I love TV series, I love movies, and, most importantly, I love sports.  When I was a synagogue rabbi, most nights, I would come home from work and would be the only person awake at my house – my family was already asleep.  I would turn on ESPN, watch whatever was on, and eat dinner, do e-mail, or complete some housework with sports on in the background until I went to sleep. 

Of course, living in New York and maintaining my Packers, Brewers, Bucks, and Badgers loyalties was often a challenge.  Inevitably, I purchased the Sunday Ticket and MLB pass to watch Packers and Brewers games, respectively, and I only subscribed to a cable package that would offer me the Big Ten network.  As the rabbi of a synagogue, I rarely had the opportunity to watch my favorite sports teams live, so I would commit the shameful sports-fan sin of taping a game and watching it later.  It wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked.  And I got to watch my sports on television.

Until I moved back home to Milwaukee nearly two years ago and did not plug in my TV.




I decided that it was time to cut my hair right now for one simple reason:  I found a place that would accept hair that was six inches long.  Most organizations require donated hair to be at least eight-inches in length, and I would not return to a half-inch buzz in order to donate my hair.  I then stumbled upon, which works in partnership with the Canada Cancer Society. makes wigs and hair extensions, and it personalizes – for free – wigs for children with cancer.  That alone is enough to encourage me to donate my hair to them; the fact that I do not need to wait to meet the six-inch length minimum requirement locked it in as my choice.  I was set to cut my hair in front of the entire school on Friday, April 4th, 2014.




I knew that I could use my time more productively in the evenings than by watching sports on TV or by having movies on in the background.  There were other uses of my time that I knew would be better for my own personal growth, development, and fulfillment.  And, with two young children at home, I did not want them to fall into the same habit that I had:  coming home, mindlessly turning on the television, and living my life with the TV’s omnipresent glow in my home. 

Now, I will occasionally invite myself over to a friend’s house to watch a Packers game, this weekend’s Badgers Final Four appearance, or other sporting events.  But, my evenings are much more fulfilled.  I taught myself guitar (in just enough time for my live Purim performance at MJDS in 2013!); I read as voraciously as I had before; I returned to my passion for making puzzles; I took an Improv class at ComedySportz; and I had time for personal reflection and introspection.  I did watch the occasional series on the internet or on Netflix, but my personal journey – which began with becoming a vegetarian and continued with unplugging my television at home – was crystallizing in purpose.  I was making conscious decisions to make daily choices which upheld my principles and my convictions.

And it made me feel good.




I made my intent to grow my hair, cut it, and donate it public.  I wrote an article and distributed it to the entire school community in our school’s weekly newsletter, Yom HaShishi.  The initial purpose was relatively simple yet personally meaningful.  I believe in conserving and re-using as much as possible.  I am renowned for bringing what others would consider scraps of paper for taking notes.  I shut off lights habitually and militantly in my house.  I will use the same washable glass all day rather than taking a new one at each meal.

Of course, none of these practices is particularly impressive or impactful on the larger world.  But, I am trying to adapt my lifestyle to reflect a core personal tenet:  protecting our world demands personal accountability.  For me, that means re-using what I can.

At first, it struck me that hair is no different.  If I have the opportunity to re-use my hair rather than discard it, then that is fundamental to my convictions.  How could I not grow it and donate it?  Upon reflection, however, I realized that it is categorically different:  by donating my hair, I am not only acting in a microcosmic way as a guardian of the earth, but I am also performing another mitzvah.  I am, in one small way, giving dignity to someone suffering from cancer.  A two-for-one mitzvah opportunity! 

            Throughout the eighteen months, I was surprised at how meaningful this decision became for me.  Every time that I saw my hair, every time that it dripped into the bubbler as I took a drink, every time that, when rolling on the floor with my children, one of them stepped on it pulling it painfully, I felt a sense of pride.  I knew that I was adhering to my convictions – not the one of personal preference but the one of bettering myself and improving the world in my own small way.  I was living out the life and ideals that drove me internally.  Moreover, I was sending a message to the students with whom I worked every day:  convictions can and should drive you despite what other might say or think.

            Throughout those same eighteen months, though, I was also surprised at the unintended impact that my choice had made.  To be sure, most people who came up to me were both curious and supportive.  How much longer do you have to grow out your hair?  Where are you donating it?  Have you grown to like it?  Indeed, more than a handful of people would even whisper, I like your hair longer or I have always wanted to do that, too.  Of course, the fact that they would make those comments to me confidentially confirmed a growing suspicion:  a rabbi with long hair – even if being grown for a good cause and with public knowledge – pushed societal conventions more than anticipated.

            Some of the pushback that I received was open.  A few people would suggest, kindly though forcefully, that my choice was inappropriate as a rabbi and as a representative of MJDS.  I appreciated their directness, and I welcomed the opportunity to share my passion and conviction.  While some remained opposed to my choice, I believe that these conversations led to a greater understanding of my motivation and a better appreciation for my principle.  I came to realize, however, that many there were many more who were confused about my choice and talking – not with me, however, but with each other. 

            Lashon harah (harmful speech) is arguably the greatest toxin in any community.  Upon reflection, I now wonder aloud if I helped cause and create an environment that fostered lashon harah.  Instead of using my conviction as a way to unite a community behind a cause, instead of my personal choice challenging students and adults to live out their principles, I might have fed the culture of gossip.  Was it really worth it, I asked myself often and was often asked.  What started out with tremendous personal pride became a personal and professional battle not to give in to societal pressure.  Indeed, I have never felt more connected with my middle school students, who struggle every day to stand up for what they believe is right in the face of social pressure, as I did during these past few months as my hair continued to grow far beyond traditionally-accepted lengths.

            Despite the challenges that my choice to grow, cut, and donate my hair brought, I feel fulfilled.  I am much more heartened than dismayed, thanks to the tremendous support and encouragement that I received from many in my community.  It was a loud voice, and the aforementioned interest and chorus of encouragement inspired me to see my commitment through to its conclusion and continue to fill me with overwhelming gratitude.

            In the end, if I had to do it over again, I would.  Indeed, I would love to grow it again and donate it repeatedly, though I do not anticipate doing it any time soon (of course, I already imagine the personal lament that I will feel every time I get a future haircut and see the hair discarded…).  But, I feel good.  I feel good that I actualized my core beliefs.  I feel good that I created awareness and conversation – many productive ones in particular with students, with parents, and with strangers.  I feel good that my children, now five-and-a-half and almost three, can both articulate the mitzvot that I am performing.  And I feel good that I modeled for the students at MJDS the value in acting in accordance with one’s principles.  And I thank you, my community, for your tremendous support and encouragement along the way.

 [You can watch the video my hair being cut here.]

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Particularistic and the Universalistic: Religion in 21st Century North America

(sermon delivered on June 9th, 2012)
            Shabbat shalom.
            I would like to talk about two things this morning that have been on my mind.
            The first is particularistic and the second universalistic. 
            First, the particularistic:  Judaism.  In talking about Judaism, I do not want to talk about numbers.  We give much more weight to numbers than is deserved.  Rather, I want to talk about purpose and impact.  Because in those regards, Judaism is passionate, thriving, engaging and indispensable.
            But, first, some personal history.  When I applied to rabbinical school in 2000, I wrote one of my admissions essays on the constant dynamic tension that I felt wearing a kippah (yarmulke; head covering) all the time.  I was most concerned about wearing my kippah at a non-hekhshered restaurant, a bar or a night-club or dance-club.  While my essay focused on the personal, professional and religious implications of such a choice, my conclusion ultimately reflected a core ideological tenet of the Judaism.
            I realized that, for me, it was ultimately less important what I determined to do than that I recognized that I would be constantly engaged in that process of determination.  The answer was less important than the question.  The resolution was less important than the ongoing struggle.  Indeed, it is that very ongoing struggle that ultimately brought and continues to bring me the most comfort.  My kippah is uniquely meaningful to me because I think about it every time that I wear it.  I think about what it means to be a public religious figure and what it means to be a Jew.  I think about God.  Had I decided with certainty one way or the other about when to wear and not wear a kippah, I would think of those other things much less regularly.  Absolutism would be disengaging; certainty would be stifling:  my personal and religious life would be much emptier as a result.  Thus, the constant dynamic tension of when to wear a kippah epitomizes the strength and passion of my religious conviction.      
Of course, this tension translates to all facets of Judaism.  Are we absolutely sure that praying the traditional words of the siddur (prayer book) is what the Torah and God commanded us to do to replace sacrifices?  Are we absolutely sure that the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk demands eating meat from kosher slaughterhouses rather than demanding that the violation of the ethical treatment of animals in those slaughterhouse prohibits us from eating their meat?  And, if we’re going to be honest, we also need to ask:  are we absolutely sure of what God is, of what God wants, or even of God’s existence?  Are we absolutely sure?
For some of us, we might be able to answer a definitive “yes” to one of more of these questions.  For others of us, we might even be able to answer “yes” to all three.  But, I suspect that, for most of us – including myself – “yes” is a difficult if not disingenuous answer to give.  “Yes” might be easy, and “yes” might be convenient.  But, it is not likely genuine, and it is not definitely Jewish.
In Judaism, the response to these questions is no different than my response to my struggle about when to wear a kippah.  Judaism does not deal in absolutes.  Indeed, prayer is more engaging because of its constant dynamic tension:  we want to talk with God, we really do; is how we do it the best and most appropriate way?  Speaking personally, my becoming a vegetarian is more meaningful because of the constant dynamic tension:  kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) is not simply about a seal on food but also about the ethical considerations that the Torah mandates.  And our relationship with God is intimate because of its constant dynamic tension:  the absence of absolute empirical evidence is what demands, creates and sustains our faith.  Certainty is boring.  Certainty is unfulfilling.  And, certainty can be dangerous.  Absolute certainty leads to dogmatism, to theological, ideological and even military warfare.  Ambiguity, however – just the slighting intrusion of doubt – leads to faith, exploration, meaning, understanding, passion, and compassion. 
This is what I want in religion.  I want to be part of a religion that does not shun these questions, that does not seek to impose dogmatic behavior as a substitute for meaningful ideological and theological inquiry and engagement; I want to be part of a religion, of a Jewish movement that does not deny our religious obligations in the name of ethical practice.  I want that tension, that constant dynamic tension.  We need that constant dynamic tension.  People are hard-wired to live in a world of ambiguity and to accept the challenges therein.  We do not deny the complexities of living a traditional religious life in our contemporary society.  We do not resort to dogmatic ideology or practice nor do we deny the value and centrality of religious proscription.  We embrace that tension, we navigate that tension.  We are a movement of integrity and a movement of authenticity.  We are am yisrael, a people who – literally:  that is what the word yisrael means! – struggles with God and with our choices.  We are Judaism.

            That was the particularistic; now the universalistic.  Please allow me to take a couple of minutes to read a piece written by Rob Kirby (; you can also find the post on my Facebook page:  feel free to Friend me and/or to like my public profile page, Rabbi Moishe Steigmann!). 

Author and legendary conservationist Lawrence Anthony died March 2. His family tells of a solemn procession of Elephants that defies human explanation.
For 12 hours, two herds of wild South African elephants slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of late author Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who saved their lives.  The formerly violent, rogue elephants, destined to be shot a few years ago as pests, were rescued and rehabilitated by Anthony, who had grown up in the bush and was known as the “Elephant Whisperer.”
For two days the herds loitered at Anthony’s rural compound on the vast Thula Thula game reserve in the South African KwaZulu – to say good-bye to the man they loved. But how did they know he had died?...
There are two elephant herds at Thula Thula. According to his son Dylan, both arrived at the Anthony family compound shortly after Anthony’s death. “They had not visited the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey,” Dylan is quoted in various local news accounts. “The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They all hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush.” Elephants have long been known to mourn their dead. In India, baby elephants often are raised with a boy who will be their lifelong “mahout.” The pair develop legendary bonds – and it is not uncommon for one to waste away without a will to live after the death of the other.
But these are wild elephants in the 21st century, not some Rudyard Kipling novel… So, how after Anthony’s death, did the reserve’s elephants — grazing miles away in distant parts of the park — know?
“A good man died suddenly,” says Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D., “and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the bereaved family at the deceased man’s home.”
“If there ever were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.”

            What were these elephants doing?  Really, what were they doing?  They were paying a shiva call (the period of mourning of the death of a loved one when family and friends come to offer condolences)!  The connection between these elephants and this man was not just physical and emotional.  It was spiritual.  They had no way to know that he had died!  It’s almost unbelievable – but for the fact that it happened.        
            So, why do I choose to conclude my sermon on religion with this story?  Because we are all seeking.  We all yearn for a spiritual connection with others, with God.  And, as we discussed earlier, we all doubt.  But, the relentless companion of doubt is hope, is inspiration.  This story reflects that hope, that inspiration.  There are things in this world that resonate, that are inexplicable, that are binding.  They embody spirituality, and religion is our key, our access card, our password to that very same connection.
            I know what people say the dangers of religion and spirituality are.  But, they are wrong.  Religion and spirituality are not dangerous.  People who misuse and distort religious and spiritual teachings are dangerous.  Similarly, religion and spirituality are not inherently good.  But, those who use religion and spirituality to bring people together, to bring God into this world, to somehow make sense of the two elephant herds’ shiva call:  they – we – are good.  That is what religion and spirituality can bring into this world and into our lives. 
            And, that is why it is such a privilege to be a rabbi, to be a conduit of this kind of religious teaching, to help bring this sense of spirituality into your lives and into our world.    
And so it is my hope and prayer that we all be blessed with many connections, and may our faith and tradition continue to guide us and bring us together.
            Shabbat shalom.