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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, Name Calling, Mismatched Lovers, Sex and Mirrors, The Challenge of Real Loving,Getting Undressed, The Strangers Among Us, Wet, Moist Matzah, The Anatomy of an Anchor,Blood and Birth, Menstruation and Circumcision, and Incest, and Adultery, and Homosexuality, Oh My!
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (née Hamilton)
“No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“It’s what’s inside that counts” – Everyone
We live in an interesting world and an interesting time when it comes to our perception of physical beauty. We are still inundated with daily pictures of gorgeous anorexic airbrushed female models, and photographs of chiseled muscular men with perfectly symmetrical facial features. However, our social philosophy rejects those stereotypes as the definition of beauty. No doubt due in large part to the internet and social media, we are far more embracing today of alternative forms of beauty than we might once have been. We have expanded our beauty definitions to include other skin colors, other shapes and sizes. Plus-size models and actresses are finally being recognized for the glorious women that they are, and the universe of eye-candy now spans virtually every race and culture.
Yet, for all of our acceptance and nobility, we still live in a world in which “ugly people” do not get cast as a lead actor or actress in a Hollywood film. Celebrities still use heavy makeup, and their photographs are still airbrushed for whatever flaws makeup could not conceal. We are still unlikely to see an obese hunchback with an absolutely wonderful nightingale voice grace our concert halls and auditoriums.
So, while we no longer celebrate physical perfection in the manner of the ancient Greeks, and while we endeavor to be embracing and appreciative of all people and forms of beauty – even those who might not meet the traditional standards of beauty – we definitely still have an appreciation for a more objective kind of beauty. Indeed, Charles Feng of Stanford University provides a thoughtful and well-researched analysis of psychology and biology of beauty here.
What does Torah say about the value of physical beauty?
There are a few people that Torah highlights as being beautiful.
The first time we hear the Torah recognizing physical beauty was with our matriarch Sarah, when Abraham tells her, “now I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.” Genesis, 12:11.
The next time the Torah focuses on beauty is with respect to our second matriarch, Rebecca. When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was searching for a bride for Isaac, he spotted Rebecca, “and the maiden was exceedingly beautiful.” Genesis, 24:16.
Next comes Rachel, regarding whom the Torah attests “Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion,” in contrast to her sister Leah, our fourth Matriarch, who’s eyes were weak.” Genesis, 29:17.
The fourth person whose physical beauty Torah highlights is Joseph, who, like his mother Rachel, “had handsome features and a beautiful complexion.” Genesis, 39:6.
That’s it. Just those four. Adam, Eve, Noah, Shem, Cham, Yaphet, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, Dina, Moses, Aaron, Yocheved, Miriam, Tzippora – the Torah gives no indication as to whether they were handsome, attractive, mediocre, passable, or downright ugly. I mean, it would seem safe to assume that Adam and Eve were created beautiful as the perfect first humans; that Dina’s beauty proved irresistible to Shechem, who offered to write a blank check for her dowry; that Judah was handsome enough for his daughter-in-law Tamar to pose as a prostitute in order to get him in bed; that Tamar herself was gorgeous enough that her first husband Er refused to make her pregnant lest her pregnancy mar her beauty; and there is much in the Midrash suggesting that Moses was an extremely handsome Prince of Egypt (as depicted by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments), and the Midrash also confirms Tzipporah’s unquestionable beauty.
Presumably, good looks were in the Israelite genes – yet Torah only openly acknowledges the beauty of a select few. It might be fair to conclude, therefore, that Torah does not find physical attractiveness to be particularly important, unless a person’s beauty is relevant to the context of the particular biblical narrative (e.g. Abraham’s concern about Sarah’s appeal to the Egyptians, Joseph’s appeal to Potiphar’s wife). Otherwise, Torah focuses on their deeds and their character. It’s what’s inside that counts.
On the other hand, in this week’s Torah portion, G-d issues a surprising commandment to the Kohanim, to the priesthood. He said:
Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God’s food. For any man who has a defect should not approach: a blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye; dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles. Any man among Aaron the kohen‘s offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up the Lord’s fire offerings. There is a defect in him; he shall not draw near to offer up his God’s food. Leviticus, 21:17-21.
That sounds awfully harsh and superficial, doesn’t it? The commandment disqualifies the service of any priest a blemish or defect, whether a congenital defect, an acquired defect, or even temporary condition. Indeed, some say that the Hebrew words translated as “long eyebrows” and “cataract” are actually references to a hunchback and a midget, that “dry lesions” is actually eczema, and that “crushed testicles” is actually a hernia. Beyond these, major biblical commentators interpret the final clause “any man…who has a defect shall not draw near” as a catchall for 140 different physical defects. Many of these are quite common! For women, imagine being told that having one breast larger than the other is a disqualifying defect. And many of these are defects that people are born with – and presumably by Divine decree!
We struggle with our vanity, but we do our best to inculcate the noble quality of looking past a person’s external appearance to the beauty within. Wouldn’t we expect that G-d the father, mother and creator of us all, would support that perspective by emphasizing the moral qualities that He requires from His priests, and to deemphasize the importance of their physical characteristics? What message does it send us that G-d requires his priests to be physically flawless – especially when He Himself creates them that way?
This principle is aptly illustrated in the well-known Talmudic story of R’ Elazar the son of R’ Shimon, who was riding his donkey along the riverbanks. He was extremely happy and self-assured, having learned much Torah. Suddenly, he met an exceptionally ugly man. The ugly man greet R’ Elazar respectfully, yet R’ Elazar responded, “How ugly you are! Are all the people in your town as ugly as you?” To this, the ugly man responded: “I don’t know, but perhaps you should tell the Craftsmen who made me how ugly His work is!” Recognizing his faux pas and the truth of the man’s words, R’ Elazar apologized, and the man ultimately forgave him. See Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 20a. Yet would this ugly man be precluded from serving in the Temple?
There are some commentaries that attempt to trace physical flaws to spiritual flaws, and to explain that the physical defects listed were manifestations of unacceptable spiritual failings. However, while that might possibly explain flaws that manifest themselves during a priest’s life, how could that explain physical deformities that a priest is born with? How could that be explained to a child born with congenital defect, knowing that, despite his priestly lineage, he will never be permitted to serve in the Temple? And would R. Elazar have apologized to the ugly man if his outer ugliness was a manifestation of an ugly inner character?
Maimonides actually turns the onus back upon us, the people. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he explains as follows:
The Sanctuary was constantly guarded and surrounded as a mark of respect and honor… In order to raise the estimation of the Temple, those who ministered therein received great honor: and the priests and Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest. It was commanded that the priests should be clothed properly with beautiful and good garments,”holy garments for glory and for beauty” (Exodus, 28:2). A priest that had a blemish was not allowed to officiate; and not only those that had a blemish were excluded from the service, but also – according to the Talmudic interpretation of this precept – those that had an abnormal appearance; for the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments, and the temple was to be held in great reverence by all.
See Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 45.
In other words, Maimonides says that G-d was acknowledging a frailty in our own estimation of beauty. It is as if He was saying: So long as your models and lead actresses and actors are people of physical perfection, with you placing priority on their outer beauty rather than on their inner qualities, then that is how I will populate My own house, so that you will respect it in the way that you know how.
What do you think? Are we making progress? Are we getting closer to estimating other people by their true form? Or is the fact that G-d enshrined our flawed perspective in an eternal commandment an indication that our preference for physical beauty is a human trait that is here to stay?