Is it my imagination, or are people far vainer and more obsessed with their bodies than they have ever been? In addition to wrinkle prevention creams, exercise-crazed programs, and extensive menus of elective surgeries, we now have "Extreme Makeover" television shows that depict graphic Cinderella tales for all of us to voyeuristically view. True, I could change the channel, but it still occurs to me to ask: What is Judaism's approach to this emphasis on physical beauty? Is it time for me to throw away the mirrors or schedule my own makeover?
You raise an important and intriguing issue. Though Judaism is of course a deeply spiritual pursuit, as we glance around we do indeed notice that its adherents are a pretty good-looking bunch. Even many of its staunchest devotees can be concerned about their outward appearance. I too wonder whether we Jews have values of austerity that are found so often among other religious belief systems, or are we given over to the pursuit of the gorgeous? Is beauty a beast or a beloved? If we esteem the spiritual, where are these ideals manifested, and do they negate the physical?
We Jews are rarely accused of being an ascetic bunch. Judaism is often described as a belief system that seeks to locate a balance between the physical and the spiritual. The question then is, are things out of balance with us as they seem to be with our surrounding culture? Are we too guilty of paying a skewed amount of attention to the corporeal?
There may not be a simple answer here. Our traditional sources tell a story of the struggle between beauty and vanity, with plenty of texts reflecting a deference for the exquisite and yet a disdain for the vain.
Take the Book of Proverbs, where authorship is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. Here we find multiple cautions concerning the falseness of physical attractiveness. The most celebrated passage of all, denouncing beauty, is often sung on Friday nights at the Shabbat table. The verse is found in the passage that is often referred to as the song of the Woman of Valor, Eshet Chayil. Here the Jewish superwoman is extolled for her many talents and abilities.
She is a single-handed economic powerhouse, a virtual merchant ship. She wakes early in the morning, she dresses her family, and she feeds them and the poor. She speaks the voice of kindness and is never lazy, she exudes strength and dignity. Finally, in the penultimate verse of the entire book, we find a strong declaration condemning the physical. Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
Aha! Is this it? Do we Jews condemn the pursuit of attractiveness? Is this the Jewish approach to beauty; the mantra of all maidens? Shall we cast aside all mirrors, make-up and magnificence? Not so fast. Other verses authored by King Solomon also come to mind.
Let's open the Biblical Song of Songs, one of the five megillot. Here we seem to find a very different story. Take, for example, this short section from Chapter Four.
"Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from Mount Gilead.
"Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which are come up from the washing; whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them.
"Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil.
"Thy neck is like the tower of David built with turrets, whereon there hang a thousand shields, all the armor of the mighty men. Thy two breasts are like two fawns that are twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies."
Quite the celebration of splendor! Though many urge us to consider the entire book as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jewish people, our tradition teaches that a text cannot ever "escape" from its literal meaning. Physical beauty is depicted here and therefore one must acknowledge the worth of the physical. Flocks of goats notwithstanding, there seems to be nothing quite like loveliness.
Ironically, Song of Songs is also sung on Friday evenings. By the time we get to the challah we are a confused group of folks. So which is it: are we a people who scorn the physical or who adore the exquisite?
The following passage from the Talmud in no way tells the complete story on Talmudic beauty, but it is an interesting peek at male beauty.
Rabbi Yochanan said: "I am the only one remaining of Jerusalem's men of outstanding beauty. Let the one who wishes to perceive Rabbi Yochanan's beauty take a silver goblet as it emerges from the silversmith, fill it with the seeds of red pomegranates, encircle its brim with a garland of red roses, and set it between the sun and the shade. Its lustrous glow will be an approximation of Rabbi Yochanan's beauty."
Quite the sensual picture, and about a rabbi! Indeed it was Rabbi Yochanan's practice to place himself near the exit of the mikvah, the ritual bath, so that women would glance upon his splendor and subsequently give birth to beautiful children. There must be something to this beauty, but what is it? We know that it cannot be an end to itself, and we should agree that one of our greatest sages cannot be on a narcissistic ego trip. Rather, the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan and of Song of Songs is the ethereal beauty that transcends the mundane. It is a beauty that reflects the inner through the outer.
This is the beauty of the soul shining through, as the great mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato teaches; the body has a capacity for holiness in as much as it is a vessel for the soul. As the body performs mitzvot and performs acts of righteousness, it is lifted up and becomes holy. True beauty is the beauty that reflects a person's soul, each person created in the image of God.
So are we casting aside society's intensely predominate value of the exterior? Not quite, though perhaps we should. Instead we are reframing it. Beauty reveals the capacity for the body to reflect the pure radiant Godliness that we each hold inside. The key to a true beauty makeover may be less the product of the cosmetic counter and more the product of the soul.