True beauty not in the eye of the beholder

  • Tatz3
If Judaism disapproves of physical beauty, how can the Torah praise the beauty of countless women throughout Jewish history? How can we reconcile an appreciation of natural beauty with a culture that emphasises modesty and shuns externality?
by JORDAN MOSHE | Dec 12, 2019

Rabbi Akiva Tatz endeavoured to resolve this in a talk delivered at the Johannesburg Torah Institute in Oaklands last Tuesday. His talk, held in anticipation of Chanukah, engaged with Greek and Jewish philosophies on the subject of beauty. Ultimately, he suggested that we remain locked in an ideological conflict with Western values antithetical to Judaism.

“A facet of the Chanukah story is centred on the battle between Jewish and Greek culture, specifically on their interpretations of beauty,” said Tatz. “Our ideology clashed with that of Greece, its philosophy influential and still the dominant culture of today.”

Tatz explained that our thought framework today is Western, and that Western thought is ultimately Greek in origin. Language, politics, philosophy, architecture, drama, science, and more are rooted in Greek culture, as is our contemporary understanding of aesthetics and appearance.

“One of Greek philosophy’s prime issues was the presentation of aesthetics,” said Tatz. “Greek ideology believed in a beautiful mind and body, which is why the Greek sporting games were played naked. There was a championing of the external and the visible, placing it before intangible spirituality. Judaism has the opposite approach, and champions spirituality, putting us at odds with Greek culture then and now.”

However, Judaism’s approach to beauty is anything but straightforward. When the Torah deals with beauty, in particular womanly beauty, it presents an extreme conflict, said Tatz. “On the one hand, it praises beauty in extreme terms,” he said. “The matriarchs of the Jewish people were praised for their beauty. The Egyptians were willing to kill for Sarah, so great was her beauty.”

Several others, including Joshua’s wife Rachav, and Avigayil, the second wife of David, are described in similar terms. “The Talmud says that when Avigayil’s skirt lifted slightly, the beauty of her leg lit David’s journey for ten miles,” said Tatz.

“Why does the Torah mention such beauty? It’s a spiritual book of holy teaching. Why is it important to know that these women looked good externally? Surely it’s completely contrary to our value system?”

Tatz went on to illustrate that the same Torah tells us this beauty is problematic. “We learn that charm is a lie, and beauty is vanity,” he said, quoting Eshet Chayil, a collection of verses composed by Solomon in praise of women. “We sing this to our wives on Friday night. Even the Talmud teaches us that externality deceives, and the internal is what counts.”

Tatz cited the Gemara, which recounts an incident in which a daughter of the ruling Roman governor of the Middle East questions the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, whose ugliness was extremely pronounced.

“She challenged him, asking how intellectual beauty could be contained in such an ugly human vessel,” said Tatz. “She pushed the Greek understanding that physical appearance had to come first and had to be as beautiful as the wisdom it contained.”

Ultimately, Ben Chananya teaches her that external beauty is problematic because it adversely affects the quality of what it contains, saying that physically attractive scholars have to work harder to perfect their intellectual qualities. “When the vessel makes its own statement, it damages the content,” Tatz summarised. “When it serves only to contain, the contents remain pure. This teaches that external beauty is problematic, that it has an adverse impact on its content.”

Having illustrated the contradiction, Tatz resolved it using an insight gleaned from his teacher, the late Rabbi Moshe Shapiro.

“The story of human history is that of the battle between body and soul,” he said. “At creation, it was made clear that the vessel housing the soul was as important as the soul itself. The body was and remains an important component.”

According to Tatz, the original condition of the human being was a perfect balance between body and soul. As history progressed, however, this changed as the body asserted itself more, and the soul receded further into the background.

“At creation, the body served no purpose other than to house the soul,” he said. “You could see through the body and directly to the soul within. This was why Adam and Eve didn’t need clothes. After they sinned, the reverse came into effect – the body pushed for priority, and you had to look very hard to see the soul. This remains so today, as the soul is always hijacked by the body.”

In spite of this, Judaism continues to champion the body, believing it has a place alongside the soul if it can be raised to the same level. “Judaism is about reaching down into the body to lift it back up into holiness,” said Tatz. “The function of a Jew is to reconnect and elevate the body.

“In other religions, if you’re serious about spirituality, you have to leave the body behind. Christianity is fraught with guilt about the body, Muslims don’t touch alcohol, and Mormons say you can’t drink coffee. They realise that the body is dangerous, and choose to remove the physical. Judaism believes in engaging the body instead, reuniting it with the soul.”

It’s for this reason that beauty – originally on par with spirituality – was the ultimate spiritual value and was praised extensively. “The beauty of the great women in Torah was a mirror of their spirituality, that’s why the Torah praises it,” said Tatz. “As we move through history, it becomes more difficult. We have to be very careful about the body, and need to be sensitive if we want to show spiritual beauty.”

Chanukah, he concludes, is a time to consider our historic battle with Greek culture over what beauty means, a conflict which lasts until today. “It’s all around us,” Tatz said. “You see nakedness today as shameful or vulgar – there’s a clear tension.

“Greek ideology is vested in the material. Judaism goes way beyond that, starting in the spiritual realm, and moving towards the physical. Our ultimate goal is to reunite body and soul in such a way that the lowest aspects of the material show the highest aspects of the spiritual, and true beauty is reasserted.”


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