(With apologies to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler at Buena Regional High School in New Jersey, was told that he could not compete at a December 19 meet in Atlantic County with his dreadlocks. Johnson was wearing his usual headgear and covering, but the referee said it was not in compliance with state rules. Johnson was given 90 seconds to decide whether he would allow his hair to be cut or to forfeit the match.
Johnson went out to compete and a trainer was sent to cut his hair until the referee said that he was satisfied. Johnson’s mother later tweeted that the incident was “brutal emotionally and physically.” The family’s attorney says that the time for the referee to raise objections was at the pre-match weigh-in, which the referee missed because he was late.
This is a terrible story on many levels. One might argue that Johnson agreed to the haircut but consider the context. He’s a high school student. He’s been training for this match for weeks, at least. He has a very short ticking clock (90 seconds? Really?) and all of his teammates are standing around with bated breath waiting for his answer. This is not a situation conducive to making a checklist of pros and cons or consulting with one’s parents. Rather, it’s the case of an adult putting a lot of pressure on a teen to make a snap decision.
Some are calling this a case of racial bias. (Johnson is black. The referee is white and has a history of conflicts that supports this hypothesis.) I am not in a position to discuss the cultural significance of hair in the black community but there are plenty of articles online for those who wish to learn more about that. I am in the position to discuss the religious significance of hair, in a variety of traditions.
I don’t know Johnson’s religious affiliation but dreadlocks are of particular significance in Rastafari. Rastafarians do not cut or brush their hair, considering this a strict adherence to Leviticus 21:5, which prohibits making bald spots on the head. The dreadlocks, which are formed without the assistance of brushes or scissors, represent the mane of the “Lion of Judah.” (One can imagine that growing them is somewhat labor intensive!)
Followers of Sikhism also never cut their hair; this is called Kesh. Sikhs consider hair to be a gift from God and it would be a rejection of God’s goodness to cut it. Sikhs comb their hair twice daily with a special comb called a kanga; this is done to symbolize that life should be kept orderly. They roll their long hair into a knot on the top of the head and cover it with a turban.
Amish men wear a beard with no mustache. When an Amish man gets married, he stops shaving his beard as a sign of humility and husbandhood. The Amish associate mustaches with the military. Since they are pacifists, Amish men shave off their mustaches in order to distance themselves from anything suggestive of warfare. They cite various Bible verses in support of their practices, such as Leviticus 19:27, which prohibits rounding the corners of the head and marring the corners of the beard. Amish women grow their hair long, pin it up and cover it with a bonnet.
Converse to the practice of Sikh and Amish men, Mormon men wear their hair short and generally do not wear beards. Long hair is not overtly prohibited in LDS (the Mormon church) but it is strongly discouraged as being associated with a number of undesirable things, such as rebellion against authority and an identification with drug culture. At the very least, an unkempt appearance (by their standard) is considered a sign of indifference.
Many Hindu women grow their hair long, only to make a pilgrimage to have it cut off in a temple ceremony. (This comes as no surprise to those who remember the Indian-hair shaitel flap a number of years back.) This shaving is considered an act of purification and renunciation of ego, as well as a means to repay their debt to their gods. This act is especially significant for poorer women, whose hair may be their only sign of vanity. The temple called Tirumala Venkateswara has 18 shaving halls and 650 barbers but women and girls can still wait up to five hours to donate their hair.
In Islam, many women cover their hair with the headscarf called a hijab based on the way they interpret a number of verses from the Quran. (Muslim sects can understand these verses differently so practices do vary among different populations.) While there are no Quranic verses addressing Muslim men wearing beards, many men do so in accordance with the Hadith. (In Islam, the Hadith is comparable to the Talmud or Midrash in Judaism.)
There are too many Christian denominations to discuss this issue in any great detail. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason you see so many church-going women wearing hats, a practice that is based on verses in their Bible. Head coverings for women in church were mandatory in Catholicism until the 1960s. Speaking of Catholicism, while no longer universally practiced, nuns traditionally wear a head covering called a wimple.
Which, of course, brings us to Judaism. Men are not permitted to shave their sidelocks, called payes or payot. While not all observant Jewish men wear beards, removing the facial hair may not be performed with a razor. All males are expected to cover their heads as a sign of reverence to God. Married women traditionally cover their hair as an added degree of modesty. The religious significance of hair is no clearer than in the case of the nazir, who grew his hair as a part of his devotion to God, only to be shaved as part of his ultimate purification (Numbers 6:1-21). Long hair features prominently in the stories of Shimshon and Avshalom. Even God is metaphorically described by His “hair,” in Anim Zemiros!
So let’s get back to young wrestler Johnson. Was this a case of an adult (ab)using his authority to pressure a teen into making an important decision? Most definitely. Was it a case of racial bias? Quite possibly. Was it “just” a haircut? Very likely not. Hair carries a great degree of significance in many religious cultures. Whether it’s worn long or short, covered or uncovered, shaved off or never cut, the way in which one wears his hair may not be only a matter of self-expression, it may well be an expression of one’s faith.
Orthodox Jews may be more sensitive to this particular issue because we’ve spent decades fighting for such rights as wearing a yarmulke in court, a beard on the police force or a shaitel in a driver’s license photo. But religious issues aside, who would be happy if their kid came home with an amateur haircut delivered by a gym teacher?
So what are our takeaways? (1) If you want a say, be on time; (2) Don’t pressure others, especially kids, into making snap decisions; and (3) Even if it’s “just a haircut” to you, be aware that such things are important to huge swaths of mankind. Sensitivity much?
What might happen if we don’t follow these guidelines? Suffice it to say that, as the ref discovered, things might end up getting “hairy.”
UPDATE: Wrestling officials maintain that the referee’s ruling was appropriate because Johnson did not have appropriate hair covering; witnesses are divided on whether the incident may have had racial overtones. See more here.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.