by Chana Kalsmith
Every good restaurant knows the importance of garnishing a dish to make it more appetizing, but you will rarely find a dog owner adding a sprig of parsley to his dog's Puppy Chow to get his dog to eat. Nor will you see a goat stop on the mountainside and gaze out at the world, awed by its splendor. You never have to speak to your cat about losing some weight in order to meet the right match. Only human beings seem to appreciate aesthetics.
Like everything in the world, our Creator gave us this appreciation for a purpose. In order to understand this purpose, we will look into the Torah and explore the Jewish view of beauty.
"God caused every kind of tree to grow from the ground, attractive to the sight and good for food..." (Genesis 2:9)
The commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asks why this verse mentions "attractive to the sight" before "good for food." He explains that satisfying man's appreciation of beauty comes before gratifying his sense of taste and fulfilling his need for nourishment. This verse justifies and sanctifies our involvement with aesthetics. In fact, the human appreciation of beauty may indicate the higher place intended for man in the scheme of creation. The abundance of beautiful creations on earth and the fact that, as far as we know it, man is the only creature endowed with a sense for enjoying beauty, indicate that the Creator deemed a sense of aesthetics fundamental for man's spiritual and moral calling.
Indeed, the beautiful sights scattered throughout creation, along with man's capacity for deriving pleasure from them, are the principal means for protecting man from becoming completely debased. The pleasure man derives from the beauty in nature and from the beautiful forms with which God fashioned the world, in particular the plant world, is a bridge to deriving pleasure from moral beauty.
The sensitivity to harmony and order in the physical world is related to the sensitivity to harmony and order in the sphere of ethics. In an environment where no consideration is given to harmony and beauty, man can easily become wild. The Hebrew word for evil, "ra," is related to the word "raa," which literally means that which is broken. Evil appears to us as something broken, a disturbance in harmony in which the whole is no longer ruled by one uniform thought.
Rabbi Hirsch is telling us that beauty is order and that an appreciation of physical order will lead to an appreciation of moral order.
How does this work? By teaching us that order is pleasurable. After all, physical beauty is essentially a combination of symmetry, harmony, and order. When the grass is green and the sky is blue and the clouds are white, it's a beautiful day. There are people in the world that everyone would agree are beautiful to look at: they have symmetrical features, their complexion and hair coloring present a harmonious image. This physical beauty exists to help us appreciate order on a moral level.
This may be one of the reasons that humans, as opposed to animals, were created with an appreciation of beauty. As human beings, we are in charge of the morality of the world. We can help others and act justly or (God forbid) create holocausts. The human appreciation of beauty exists in order to help us fulfill our higher purpose. We must recognize that there is an order to the world -- and that order is pleasing on all levels, physical as well as moral.
Now that we understand why aesthetics exist, we must know why some things are more beautiful than others. Why did God create a world with such varied levels of beauty?
THE BEAUTY DECEPTION
Jewish tradition teaches us that the Garden of Eden was a world of truth where outward appearance naturally reflected inner being. Whatever looked beautiful was in fact good. A beautiful apple was healthy to eat, while a poisonous mushroom looked foreboding. Beauty indicated goodness. After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, beauty and goodness were separated. Everything beautiful was not necessarily good, and everything good was not necessarily beautiful. This deception exists until today.
I learned this lesson well when visiting Yad VaShem, the Israeli national Holocaust museum, in Jerusalem about 10 years ago. There was a painting in the exhibit that depicted a beautiful sunrise over a landscape of mountains. As I approached to have a better look, I saw that the mountains were in fact corpses piled on top of one another and that the sunrise was actually a fire from the crematorium. The image was horrible, violent, and tragic. The painter had captured the horror of affluent, cultured Germany with its evil core. Superficial glances are certainly deceiving.
Thousands of years after the Garden of Eden, we still have the God-given gift of appreciating aesthetics, and we naturally want things that look beautiful to be good. We expect a country that is cultured to be humane. Likewise, a person who is beautiful we hope will act beautifully. Yet today, what is beautiful physically and what is good morally can be quite different. We must look beyond surface beauty to ensure that what is shown to be beautiful is, in fact, good. We need to look into our heritage to relearn what is meant by true beauty. Let's explore this idea by focusing on beauty as it relates to people.
BEAUTY SHOULD REFLECT BEAUTY
What is true beauty? Most often, when the Torah mentions a beautiful person, it is referring to a person whose outer appearance reflects their inner soul. For example, we are taught about the beauty of our matriarch Sarah. According to our tradition, other women looked like monkeys compared to Sarah. The Talmud says that Sarah was as beautiful at the age of 20 as a seven-year-old child. Yet isn't 20 closer to the ideal age of beauty than seven? What is it about a child that is more beautiful than a young woman?
The explanation is simple. The beauty of children is the beauty of purity of spirit; they act the way they feel without being influenced by insincerity. There are no put-ons or pretending. As Rabbi Hirsch states, the secret of beauty does not lie in superficial cosmetics, but can be acquired only from within.... Only a beautiful, pure spirit, inspired by the spirit of God, can produce a physical image of angelic beauty. Sarah's beauty was one of complete synchronization between external and internal, between body and soul. This kind of beauty does not fade with age, pregnancy, or weight gain. It is a beauty that is cultivated inwardly and shines forth.
Judaism teaches that we all have precious souls and that externals should reflect this inner beauty. For example, both men and women are encouraged to maintain an attractive, dignified appearance. Jewish law forbids a Torah scholar to wear ripped or stained clothing. Our priests, the kohanim, could not perform the service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem without the appropriate attire. We are not to become gluttonous or mistreat our bodies by overindulgence or self-mutilation. In essence, our bodies should be treated and dressed with respect, since they house what is most precious and beautiful, our souls.
I was once asked a very disturbing question while teaching about this concept. A student said to me, "Why should I dress like I'm dignified if I feel worthless inside?" The answer is that God created every person in the Divine image. We all have the beauty of this Divine image -- the soul -- inside us. Our external appearance should reflect its internal presence even if we don't always feel it.
This is true in mitzvot as well. We are supposed to beautify the mitzvot. Most traditional homes have beautiful silver candlesticks for lighting Shabbat candles and a silver kiddush cup to hold the wine over which we make a blessing on Shabbat. The Torah scroll itself is encased in fine cloth and laden with gold, silver, and precious jewels. The idea is that the mitzvah itself is spiritually beautiful and should be reflected that way in the physical world as well, in the same way that the body should reflect the beauty it holds.
THE CHALLENGE OF PHYSICAL BEAUTY
Though it's true that we all have beautiful souls, some people were created objectively beautiful. Like intelligence, wealth, and strength, physical beauty is a gift. God creates different people with different gifts, and each person has the exact gift needed to reach his or her potential.
Every gift is also a challenge. For people with the gift of physical beauty, the challenge may be to avoid getting hung up on their beauty. Often they must overcome their beauty in order to develop their inner characters. Since they are given attention for their looks, there is less motivation to develop their character. For these people, the challenge is consistency. The physical beauty they were given on the outside should reflect the spiritual beauty they need to develop on the inside.
What about those people created without objective physical beauty? I first came to understand this situation while sitting in a class taught by Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller. She spoke about a fascinating story from the Talmud (Taanit 7a) that tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananiah and the daughter of the Roman Emperor.
Rabbi Yehoshua was known for his great wisdom. He was also known to be unattractive. One day the daughter of the emperor asked him why God would place so much beautiful wisdom in such an ugly vessel. He replied, "Your father keeps his fine wine in cheap earthenware vessels."
"What else should he put it in?" she answered.
He told her that fine wine should be placed in gold and silver vessels. She went back to the palace and had the wine transferred into golden vessels. Soon after, it all spoiled. When her father asked her to explain what happened, she told him about her conversation with Rabbi Yehoshua. The emperor called the great rabbi in and asked him, "Why did you tell her to do that?" Rabbi Yehoshua explained that he was answering her question. Just like wine is better preserved in ugly vessels, so too Torah is better preserved in me. The emperor said to the rabbi, "But there are beautiful people who are learned," and the rabbi replied, "If they were ugly, they would have learned more."
God is all-powerful and gives us exactly what we need. Every trait and physical attribute was given to us to help us reach our potential -- from the parents we have, to the way we look. Without objective physical beauty, people have extra encouragement to work on themselves internally and therefore may have a greater chance to reach their potential. The less-than-attractive body can therefore help preserve the soul better, as Rabbi Yehoshua taught. Furthermore, as we said above, true beauty is when a beautiful soul shines forth. Therefore, a physically unattractive person can become beautiful when their internal beauty shines forth through their physical features. (This explains how some people become more beautiful the more you get to know them.) And this kind of beauty doesn't fade with time.
BREAKING THE BEAUTY MYTH
Now that we understand the Jewish view of aesthetics, we need to consider how modern Western society views beauty. A casual drive through any major metropolitan city exposes one to seemingly limitless messages about beauty. The beauty referred to, however, is only skin deep. Women on billboards look more like prowlers than people, ready to seduce whoever comes their way. Advertisements tell us how to be beautiful. There are beauty products to stop the aging process, liposuction to get rid of excess fat, plastic surgery.... The list goes on.
Sadly, advertisements reflect the reality that most people don't realize what true beauty is: inner beauty reflected through the physical. They focus only on skin-deep beauty. Yet we all age, and our bodies sag and wrinkle. Focusing too much on external beauty in ourselves and others will not help us in the long term, since that beauty doesn't last. It is wiser to invest in what is inside, so that as we age, the beauty of our souls can shine forth from within. After all, our souls are eternally beautiful.
Reprinted with permission from InnerNet.org and from "JEWISH WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT JEWISH MATTERS." Published by: Targum Press, Inc.