Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Torah's Beauty

An oft-repeated cliché says, "Beauty is more than skin deep." To explain this popular cliché about beauty, another cliché can be employed: beauty is not one's outer appearance but is rather an inner beauty. King Solomon writes that beauty is vain[1]. The Torah refers to the beauty of certain characters. The simple understanding cannot be that the Holy Scriptures are referring to the crude physical attractiveness, which defines beauty in current popular culture. Physical beauty is used as a metaphor for true beauty, which can take on different forms. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (1720-1797) explains that when the Torah describes someone as beautiful, the Torah is referring to the entirety of the person. That person is wholly beautiful in terms of both inner beauty and physical "outer" beauty. Nonetheless, beauty is not limited to the appearance of women, even though such context is its most popular usage.

The difference between the two types of beauty can be characterized by the attitudes of two ancient brothers: Shem and Japheth, two sons of Noah. After properly covering the nakedness of their father, these two sons were blessed (in comparison to their evil brother Cham who was cursed): "HaShem has granted beauty to Yefes, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem.[2]" Yefes—whose name actually means "beauty" in Hebrew—was blessed with beauty. This beauty was deified by Yefes' descendants, the ancient Greeks. Obviously, this beauty refers to the external beauty of men who paraded unclothed in the name of fine arts (like the Ancient Greeks did and like many in Western civilizations still do). In contrast, the descendants of Shem, the Jews[3], recognize the inner beauty, not the external beauty. The inner beauty is the eternal truths of the Torah and those who properly follow what the Torah says. This can be used to explain several instances of the usage of "beauty" in the Torah even in places where it is seemingly inappropriate. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and famed American author, poet, and philosopher, wrote, "Beauty is its own excuse for being.[4]" The Torah exists in order to be learned for the sake of learning Torah, the Torah is its own reason for existence[5].

During the travels of Abraham and his wife Sarah, Abraham suddenly tells his wife on the road to Egypt, "Behold now I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.[6]" While this seemingly refers to the physical appearance of Sarah, it cannot be that her husband Abraham had never recognized her physical appearance prior to this engagement[7] because the Talmud rules[8] that a man is forbidden to marry a woman unless he sees her first, so Abraham must have seen Sarah before marrying. Why then is he suddenly noticing her beauty? The Midrash explains[9] that while traveling in Egypt, they passed by the Nile River and Abraham saw the reflection of his wife. Normally, when Abraham would see things, he would see beyond the physical perception in his optical cortex, and would actually see the underlying spiritual elements in that which he was seeing. Therefore, every time Abraham looked at his wife Sarah, he did not notice her outer beauty, but rather he only noticed her inner beauty and exceptionally modesty. It was only when he saw a vision of Sarah not attached to her spiritual self, a reflection in the water, that he saw Sarah in a purely physical sense. Rabbi Elimelech Weissblum/Lipman of Lezhinsk (1717-1786) explains[10] that Abraham never intended to mate with her to please his carnal instincts; he rather viewed each act as a divine commandment[11] and completely ignored the physical properties of his dear wife. It was only when their travels brought them to Egypt did Abraham experience the physical pleasure of his wife for the first time because of the influences of the licentious Egyptians who surrounded him and engaged in promiscuous activities on a regular basis. It was of these self-same Egyptians whom Abraham was scared of and so he put on a façade calling Sarah his sister, so that those sinister men would not abduct Sarah for their own sick purposes, killing Abraham, the would-have-been husband, before doing so[12].

In describing Sarah's age at death, the Torah says[13] that she was the years of her life were "hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years." The Midrash interprets[14] when she was one hundred years old; she was as innocent in terms of sin as she was when she was twenty years old. When she was twenty years old, she was as beautiful as she was when she was seven years old. Had the Midrash been referring to Sarah's physical beauty, then it would have used another physical property as a parallel instead of using purity from sin, which is a spiritual trait. The same could be said of Sarah's replacement, Rivkah, who mimicked Sarah in all ways[15]. This accounts for the Torah's seemingly crude assessment of Rebecca that she was "very good looking.[16]" Although the Torah describes[17] Abishag the Shunamite, a female companion of King David, as being beautiful, the Talmud asserts[18] that she was not even half as beautiful as Sarah was, for Sarah was exceedingly/very beautiful, while she was "only 'until very beautiful' but not including 'very beautiful'."

Elsewhere, the Torah seemingly again discusses the degree of beauty of the matriarchs. The Torah says[19] that of the two daughters of Laban, Leah's eyes were worn-out, while Rachel was beautiful in both appearance and countenance. The Talmud immediately understood[20] that the Torah was obviously not referring to the physical beauty of these two sisters because it would otherwise be demeaning the physical properties of Leah. The Talmud reasoned that if the Torah went out of the way in order to not demean animals[21], then surely the Torah would not demean one of the founding mothers of the Jewish nation. Rather the Talmud explains that Leah's worn-out eyes represent her dignified offspring who will become Kings, Levites, and Kohanim. Alternatively, her eyes were worn out because—in her great righteousness—she cried for fear that she might have to become the wife of the wicked Esau; in the end, her worries were unfounded and she became the first wife of the righteous Jacob. The Torah's description of Rachel's beauty is immediately juxtaposed to the account of Jacob's love for Rachel. Rabbi Chaim ben Moses Ibn Attar (1696-1743) deviates from the simple understanding of this verse and points[22] out that Jacob did not love Rachel because she was beautiful; he loved her because she was his soul mate. The fact that she was physically beautiful was just an added extra. Nonetheless, the beauty seems to have some bearing on his love for her because the Torah did juxtapose the two. It is clear then, that the Torah must have been referring not to a physical beauty, but to a spiritual type of beauty.

Joseph, the eldest son of Jacob and Rachel, was described as beautiful in form and appearance[23]. In all previous instances that the Scripture described someone as beautiful, the Bible did so when first introducing that character into the text; however, by Joseph in the middle of an already on-going account of Joseph's life, HaShem seemingly inserted a reference to his beauty, as if to teach a lesson. Nachmanides explains that his beauty is mentioned immediately before his would-be affair with the wife of Potiphar to teach that she sought after him because of his extraordinary good looks. In fact, the Midrash[24] relates that the women who were peeling vegetables who saw Joseph became so preoccupied with his beauty, that they would not realize that they were cutting themselves. Rashi cites a Midrash[25] that criticizes Joseph for his beauty: He was to busy fixing his hair, eating, and drinking while he attained a high position in the House of Potiphar, that he acted almost juvenile. It was inappropriate for Joseph to act in such a way in Egypt at the same time that his father in Canaan was mourning his loss. For this, Joseph was punished with his tribulations with the wife of Potiphar and by being incarcerated for over a decade.

Perhaps the dispute between these two understandings of the seemingly out-of-place description of Joseph's beauty can be sourced in a dispute between Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. Rabbi Avraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) writes that Joseph's beauty was inherited from his mother. This beauty, therefore, does not necessarily refer to a physical beauty, but rather to an inner beauty, which Rachel possessed. Therefore, there was nothing inherently critical of Joseph from the fact that the Torah mentioned his beauty, so Nachmanides would explain that his beauty is mentioned to explain the reasoning behind the actions behind the wife of Potiphar. Rashi[26], on the hand, understood that Joseph inherited his beauty from his father, Jacob. Jacob had physical strength (he lifted a boulder which stuffed a well)[27] and beauty, as in Kabbalah he represents the sphere of Gevurah. If the Torah was referring to physical beauty, then there is no reason other than criticism to describe Joseph as being physically beautiful. Therefore, Rashi understood that the Torah was pointing out a flaw in Joseph's character that he too engaged in trying to beautify himself instead of trying to beatify himself.

There is a passage in the Torah[28] that discusses the laws of the "Beautiful wife." This particular wife was a woman who was captured by Jewish forces in combat. In this instance, a Jewish soldier, who finds this woman overly beautiful, is overcome with such a fervent desire to marry her that the Torah allowed for such a marriage, under certain parameters. The most popular example of such a marriage was the marriage of King David to Maachah, the daughter of King Talmai, the king of Geshur[29]. Rabbi Dovid Kimchi (1160-1235) explains that she was a beautiful war captive whom David married on an expedition to Geshur[30]. King David fathered two children through this woman: Absalom and Tamar. Both are described in the book of Samuel as being exceedingly beautiful, like their mother was[31]. Furthermore, the Talmud relates that David had four hundred children who were all described as beautiful[32].

In Song of Songs, King Solomon uses allegory to express the love between HaShem and His nation. In one passage, the Creator tells the nation of Israel, "Behold you are beautiful, My friend. Behold you are beautiful; your eyes are like doves.[33]" To this, Israel responded, "[No], behold it is You my beloved who is beautiful.[34]" Obviously, HaShem and His nation are not merely arguing over who is more physically beautiful because such an argument is not possible, for neither HaShem nor the nation of Israel are visibly physical entities and such a dispute would have been too trivial to have been canonized in the most important set of books in history (the Bible). Furthermore, if the passage was discussing mere physical beauty, then when did G-d repeat twice that Israel is beautiful, one statement to that effect could have produced the same result? The Midrash homiletically interprets this passage of beauty to be referring to spiritual beauty. This Midrash says that the double are justified because G-d is saying that Israel is beautiful both in their performance of mitzvos for HaShem and kind deeds to others, or both in performing the positive commandments and observing the negative commandments, or beautiful in This World and beautiful in the World to Come. Nonetheless, the verse compares the beauty of Israels' eyes to that of doves, which implies a physical beauty? Furthermore, Rashi even understands from this verse than if a bride has beautiful eyes, he need not check the rest of her, for she can be assumed wholly beautiful. "Eyes", according to the Midrash, are the Torah leaders of a generation because just as eyes control the vision of the body, the leading Torah scholars of a generation set the direction for the entire nation. By referring to Israels' eyes as dove-like, G-d is actually complimenting the Torah scholars. When Israel responded that G-d is the One who is beautiful, Israel was saying that G-d is more beautiful because He so easily forgives sins through repentance. Again, beauty is not referring to a physical property, but rather to a state of mind where one (or One) easily forgives others[35]. In a similar vein, King Solomon wrote, "You are completely beautiful, and there is no blemish within you.[36]" The Midrash understood that this refers to the gathering of Israel at Mount Sinai, and the lack of blemishes refers to a lack of physical impediments at that time, because the power of the giving of the Torah healed all those who were sick or impaired.

The Talmud tells[37] that the fabled Queen Esther of the Persian-Median Empire, the celebrated heroine of the Book of Esther, had a greenish complexion. If this is true then why was she selected by King Ahasuerus to be his queen, if she lacked a certain physical attractiveness to men? Furthermore, why then does the Torah bear testimony to Esther's beauty[38]? The Talmud explains says that HaShem blessed Esther with a certain charm, which made others miraculously seek her out even though she was quite homely. Nonetheless, when one looked at her, she still appeared with her green complexion, yet she was still chosen to marry the Persian-Median monarch. Perhaps this is the source of the popular adage, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Although she was decidedly not beautiful, in the eye of Ahasuerus, the beholder, she was indeed beautiful and therefore merited to become the queen, which allowed her to save the Jewish nation from its demise.

The Talmud explains[39] that Rabbi Yochanan was forced to sleep on his back because of his enormous mass; Rabbi Yochanan was very much overweight. Under contemporary society's definitions of beauty, obesity is not a beautiful attribute. Furthermore, Rabbi Yochanan had huge bushy eyebrows, which had to be lifted by his assistants in order for him to see properly[40]. Nonetheless, the Talmud in multiple places describes Rabbi Yochanan as being physically attractive. Women who were trying to conceive would go gaze at Rabbi Yochanan so that when they conceive their children born would be as beautiful as Rabbi Yochanan was[41]. Furthermore, in one incident, Rabbi Yochanan rescued a drowning bandit who he convinced to repent and become a Torah scholar. This bandit, who was later to be known as Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, was taken aback by Rabbi Yochanan's beauty and was convinced to return to Torah after Rabbi Yochanan promised him his equally beautiful sister[42]. From these Talmudic descriptions, it is clear that Rabbi Yochanan was "beautiful" but lacked certain physical elements, which are now used to define beauty.

The famous novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910, author of War and Peace) once remarked, "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness." However, in the Talmudic vernacular, to do something beautifully, is to do that action properly[43] and correctly. Beauty is goodness. The Talmud in many instances refers to favorable omens as "beautiful signs." Rabban Gamliel son of Rebbi says[44] that Torah study is only beautiful if supplemented with Derech Eretz. The Mishnah rules[45] that one moment of repentance or good deeds in This World is more beautiful than life in the World to Come. Conversely, one moment of peace of mind in the World to Come is more beautiful than all of life in This World. Maimonides rules[46] that it is not "beautiful" for a woman to leave the corners of her house, because like a princess, her honor is supposed to be confined to the inside, not to be revealed to the world[47]. According to Maimonides, it is not considered acting properly for a Jewish housewife to leave her house because she is a princess who deserves to be inside her palace. Beauty is also a means of defining the price or worth of something. When the Talmud refers to evaluating damages, the Talmud writes that one should "examine how beautiful it was before, and how beautiful it was after [and pay the difference].[48]"

Even inanimate objects can sometimes be referred to as beauty. Wine can be described as beautiful[49]. The Talmud writes[50] that a beautiful cup is a cup over which a Bracha (benediction/blessing) is said. The fat cows from the dreams of Pharaoh, which Joseph interpreted using his expertise in oneiromancy, were described three times as being beautiful.[51] The Talmud writes[52] that in the creation of the world, ten Kav[53] of beauty was set aside for the entire world. Nine of those Kav was granted to the City of Jerusalem, while the rest of the world split the remaining one Kav. This means that the Holy City of Gold, Yerushalayim, is ten times as beautiful as the rest of the world's beauty combined. This is because Jerusalem is the seat of two special monarchs: HaShem, the King of Kings, and the Davidic Dynasty. Despite Jerusalem being the most beautiful city in the world, it now lays desolate and its street are crumbling. This is because the beauty refers not to the city's physical appearance, but rather to the spiritual state of the city. Jerusalem is the most beautiful city in the world because it is the world's capital of Torah study with its multitude of Yeshivas and Beis Midrashim. As the verse says[54], "For from Zion does the Torah come out, and the word of HaShem from Yerushalayim." May it be the will that HaShem to restore the physical beauty of Jerusalem with the rebuilding of His Holy Temple, may it come speedily and in our days: Amen.



[1] Proverbs 31:30
[2] Genesis 9:27
[3] To prove that that Jews are the inheritors of Shem's tradition, one need only look at the phrase defining the enemies of the Jews: Anti-Semites. No other religions of peoples who descend from Shem are called Semitic besides Judaism.
[4] "Rhodora" published in Poems in 1847
[5] See Nefesh HaChaim Gate 4
[6] Genesis 12:11
[7] As the Talmud seems to understand in Bava Basra 16a
[8] Kiddushin 41a
[9] Midrash Tanchuma 5
[10] Noam Elimelech to Genesis 4:1
[11] See Sichos Mussar, Shaarei Chaim §10 of Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902–1978) who considered Abraham angelic for such the ability to have such an attitude of self-control which is virtually unattainable
[12] Even these morally degenerated ancient Egyptians respected the terms of Holy Matrimony, and would not have acted upon a married woman; they would have just killed the husband so that she becomes single.
[13] Genesis 23:1
[14] Genesis Rabbah 58:1
[15] See Rashi to Genesis 24:67
[16] Genesis 24:16
[17] Kings 1 1:3
[18] Sanhedrin 39b
[19] Genesis 29:17
[20] Bava Basra 123a
[21] See Genesis 7:3 were impure animals are called "animals which are not pure" instead of simply "impure animals"
[22] Ohr HaChaim to Genesis 29:18
[23] Genesis 39:6
[24] To Genesis 49:22
[25] Midrash Tanchuma to Vayeshev 8
[26] To Daniel 8:16
[27] Genesis 29:2-3
[28] Deuteronomy 21:10-14
[29] Samuel 2 3:3
[30] See Samuel 1 27:8
[31] Samuel 2 14:25 and Samuel 2 14:27 respectively
[32] Sanhedrin 21a, Sanhedrin 49a, Kiddushin 76b
[33] Song of Songs 1:15
[34] Song of Songs 1:16
[35] This also explains the charges of "beauty" in Song of Songs 4:1 and 7:7
[36] Song of Songs 4:7
[37] Megillah 13a
[38] See Esther 2:7
[39] Brachos 12b
[40] Ta'anis 9a, Bava Kamma 117a
[41] Brachos 20a
[42] Bava Metzia 84a
[43] See Maimonides Laws of Divorce 11:7 and Laws of Marriage 4:9, which refer to "beautifully" examining someone's intentions. In Halacha, when one properly salts meat, he is called "beautifully" salting the meat.
[44] Avos 2:2
[45] Avos 4:22
[46] Maimonides, Laws of Marriage 13:14
[47] See Psalms 45:14
[48] There are many instances of this usage in the Talmud in Bava Kamma, Kesubos, Zevachim, and virtually almost every other tractate.
[49] See Bava Basra 95a
[50] Shabbos 76b
[51] Genesis 41:2, 41:4, 41:18
[52] Kiddushin 49b
[53] A dry measurement used during the Tannaic and Amoraic periods
[54] Isaiah 2:3

3 comments:

Ronald Coleman said...

Reb Chaim, just reading this post is going to take from Shabbos to Shabbos! Your scholarship is very impressive but even more impressive is your ambition in tackling such an esoteric topic. Everyone should read this. (And then tell me the pshat. ;-) )

Have a good Shabbos!

Ben Ibn Avraham said...

Dear Chaim, this is ridiculous! This is obviously not pshat in any of the cases listed!!

C'mon, you can't claim an objective study of the subject when you start out assuming that beauty qua beauty is an anti-Torah value. You bring no sources to this strange assumption, instead choosing to intepret all other sources through your pre-decided, very narrow lens.

My favorite clear error is the discussion of R Yochanan. In ancient economies where food was often scarce, like that of R Yochanan, obesity was often a sign of beauty!! Adaraba my dear friend.

House of Israel said...

hows your beautiful new move to Israel?
You are beautiful! a song i wrote for you! and all of Israel
http://music.download.com/houseofisrael Catherine beautiful writings!!

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