Physical beauty, both in man and in women, has always been admired and valued throughout the ages. In the culture of ancient Greece, it was the highest ideal. But today, perhaps more than ever before, in a mass media age, society values physical beauty in everyday life as never before. Successful models have turned into superstars, emulated by millions. The cosmetics industry is a multi-billion dollar business, as people actively try to look and remain physically attractive, at all ages and in all walks of life. It has been proved that an attractive person will almost always get a job over a less attractive person with identical skills and qualifications. How does Judaism feel about physical beauty? Are spiritual ideals all that matter or is physical attractiveness a desirable trait in Judaism? Or, is physical beauty possibly a trait to be avoided completely in Judaism?
BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, CITIES AND ANIMALS
In many different areas of life, Judaism recognizes and seems to admire physical beauty. The Talmud describes four famous women as exceedingly beautiful. Among them were Sara, Abraham’s wife and Queen Esther, showing that Judaism recognizes physical beauty as an admirable trait, something to be desired.
Judaism recognizes physical beauty not only in people but also in places. Of the ten portions of physical beauty given to the world, Jerusalem received nine of those portions. Therefore, we can see that Judaism describes Jerusalem not only as a holy city, but also as a beautiful city, another aspect of the city to be admired. The Torah also commanded specific laws to insure the physical beauty of any city. It was forbidden to plant or graze in the area immediately around the city limits. Rashi comments that the purpose of this law was to insure the physical beauty of each city. Therefore, this concept of preserving the physical beauty of a city is not merely a positive feature to be admired, but a Biblical commandment, a necessary component in each city’s development.
Even the physical beauty of non-Jewish people is admired in Judaism. When Rabban Gamliel saw a beautiful woman who was an idol worshipper, his reaction was to comment how beautiful she was and how beautiful is G-d’s creation. Another sage commented that one should make a blessing when seeing such beauty. Thus, all kinds of beauty, not only those that related to Jewish people or Jewish cities are to be admired.
From Rabban Gamliel’s comment, we can begin to see the reasoning behind Judaism’s admiration for physical beauty. The admiration is not necessary for the person himself or herself. Rather, that person’s physical beauty is a reflection upon the Creator of that beauty, G-d Almighty. Just as a beautiful painting reflects positively upon the artist and a compliment about the painting also compliments the artist, so, too, admiring a physically beautiful person honors G-d, the Creator of that person.
In the same sense, even a physically beautiful animal is admired in Judaism. In a similar fashion to a beautiful person, the Talmud says that one should make a blessing upon seeing a physically beautiful animal because the animal, as well, is G-d’s creation and its beauty reflects positively upon G-d. Two of the three examples of beautiful animals given by the Talmudic passage may be difficult for people from western culture to relate to at first. Normally, we do not think of exceedingly beautiful donkeys or camels. Perhaps that is because we are not from the Middle Eastern culture where we can readily tell the difference between a beautiful or ugly camel. But we can relate to the third example, the beautiful horse, more easily. Most western people have seen and admired an exceedingly beautiful horse.
Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, shows us that not only is physical beauty in people to be admired if it happens to be noticed, but it is a goal to aspire to. It is one of the qualities that a sage should try to possess. In fact, it is the very first quality of a sage that is mentioned.
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and three grandchildren.