The following three-part class examines the Jewish view of beauty and, more specifically, the relationship between the physical body, the world it inhabits, and the soul from which true beauty emanates.
The hidden, rather abstract Jewish soul seems to recede further into obscurity, when examined against today’s culture of bodywork and outward appearance. Within this context, one wonders whether body and soul co- exist these days as friends or enemies. How can inner beauty compete with the allure of Vogue and designer labels? And how can we reconcile the spiritual work that inspires inner beauty with the fact that women are inherently attracted to beauty as it exists in the outside world. Is there a productive way to enjoy feminine fashion, makeup, perfume and the like while cultivating what lies deeper than skin deep?
The Torah does in fact provide a way.
The Torah offers a way to use the real world (all of it, from beauty counter to shabbat table) as a tool for spiritual growth, thus forging a working relationship between body and soul. A Jewish woman’s participation in the material world offers unique opportunities for self- improvement and personal satisfaction. Her trip to the beauty counter, the gym and the hair salon, or her efforts to care for the physical needs of her children and to complete the myriad tasks required to run a home provide worthwhile challenges. The Torah encourages us to strike a healthy balance when it comes to issues of self-image, personal vanity and the enticement of contemporary fashion. By confronting these everyday challenges, we integrate ourselves productively into our unavoidably physical world. Our success in overcoming each difficult experience brightens and tones our soul.
In terms of the nature of the communication between body and soul, the Torah compares them to a horse (the body) and rider (the soul). Ideally, the rider directs the horse, steering away from hazards, and towards opportunities for positive growth. The horse, in turn, gets the rider to its destination, by obeying orders. Thus, the body gets the soul through life towards specific goals. Hopefully, the body listens to directives given by the soul, which may be considered a “moral” mission control. While the body is subject to flights of fancy, the soul’s will is enduring and focused on a timeless reality. According to Judaism, our material world is a realm of potential that can be used a good or evil way. Our own actions – the intentions behind our actions, what we do with our bodies, how we present them and what we put into them – impact upon our spiritual well-being.
Thus, the body is a vehicle for good deeds, whose merit accrues to the soul. This idea is already expressed in the very beginning of man’s history, when God gives first man the name, “Adam” (“earth”). Through his name, God conveys how mortal man shares with all other creatures a physical, earthly essence.
Unlike other creatures, however, man has both a responsibility and an ability to cultivate his physical being by infusing it with spirituality. This goal may be accomplished by allowing the soul to direct the body, rather than the opposite. To further clarify this point with a metaphor, consider how, depending upon what is invested, the earth can produce weeds, stones and the like – or, by contrast, it can be the source of the most exquisite flowers and food. In the same way, man has an opportunity to improve himself or destroy himself, depending upon how he uses his time on earth.
To summarize: the body and soul are inextricably bound through the medium of action. The Torah sets forth 613 commandments (mitzvot) corresponding to, and to be practiced by, the body’s own 613 limbs and sinews. In other words, every part of the body has an opportunity to participate in an individuals spiritual happiness, through Torah and mitzvot.
At the time of the very giving of the Torah, the connection between body and soul is already evident. Our sages relate that when Moses ascends Mount Sinai, the angels protest the fact that God is about to give mere mortals his prized possession. Moses responds that the Torah is perfectly geared for man’s use, because all of its commandments must be performed in the physical world man inhabits. Moses includes in his examples the commandments to honor parents, to make blessings before and after eating, and the prohibitions against murder, theft and adultery. None of these bears any relevance to life in the supernal realm.
The human being is uniquely confronted by the challenges of physicality, and the Jewish woman has her own specific issues in this arena. Current standards of beauty and body can distort one’s self-image and lead to unnecessary personal dissatisfaction. Our next class will discuss the Jewish perspective on how balance may be maintained.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Torah.org.