The se­duc­tion of beauty

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - NECHAMA GOLD­MAN BARASH The writer teaches Tal­mud, classes in women and Ju­daism and con­tem­po­rary Halacha at Matan, Pardes and the Bnei Akiva gap year pro­gram To­rah V’Avo­dah, works as a yoet­zet Halacha and is an active mem­ber of Beit Hil­lel.

Part of the tra­di­tional Fri­day night ser­vice is to sing the verses of Eshet Hayil (A Woman of Valor) from the book of Proverbs. To­ward the end, we sing the line “Grace is de­cep­tive and beauty is il­lu­sory; it is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised.” Al­though it is in­her­ently true – beauty is in­deed il­lu­sory and tem­po­rary – we still put a tre­men­dous pre­mium on beauty and beau­ti­ful peo­ple. Yet, as we will see, the To­rah un­der­stands the se­duc­tion of beauty but also the dan­ger that lies within both for the beau­ti­ful per­son and for those around him or her. There are not many peo­ple de­scribed as beau­ti­ful in the Tanach. A cur­sory sum­mary re­veals that in each story where some­one is de­scribed as beau­ti­ful, it is an el­e­ment that plays a cen­tral role in the plot line.

This week’s To­rah por­tion, Toldot, presents one of the many sto­ries in Ge­n­e­sis deal­ing with the beauty of a woman and the re­sult­ing dan­ger. Re­bekah, as with Sarah twice be­fore her, finds her­self in dan­ger of be­ing taken by the reign­ing monarch be­cause of her beauty. In the Sarah sto­ries, Sarah is ac­tu­ally taken, once by Pharaoh and the sec­ond time by Abim­elech. In both sto­ries, God in­ter­venes and Sarah is re­leased. Isaac, who seems fated to re­peat cer­tain as­pects of his fa­ther’s life, ends up in Gerar and in that pe­riod, his beau­ti­ful wife is in dan­ger, too. How­ever, Re­bekah fares slightly bet­ter. Upon look­ing out of his win­dow, Abim­elech sees Isaac be­ing in­ti­mate with Re­bekah. Re­al­iz­ing that Re­bekah is not Isaac’s sis­ter, Abim­elech then or­ders the men of the town to leave Re­bekah and Isaac alone.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing Re­bekah scenes in last week’s por­tion, Hayei Sarah, is when the young beau­ti­ful vir­ginal Re­bekah veils her­self be­fore meet­ing her be­trothed. Why would she hide her beauty? While there are sev­eral pos­si­ble read­ings, it seems to me that she does not want her beauty to be the medium through which she meets Isaac. She is used to be­ing ad­mired and as­sessed for her beauty. All beau­ti­ful women are.

In this re­la­tion­ship, she wants to be rec­og­nized for who she is in­ter­nally and thus cov­ers the ex­ter­nal, which will only dis­tract. The To­rah sug­gests that beauty is com­plex – bring­ing with it chal­lenges and dan­gers to both the bear­ers of beauty and those around them. The To­rah tells us that Isaac brings her into his mother’s tent, loves her and is com­forted by her in that or­der. There is no men­tion of her beauty, which sug­gests that, in­deed, the re­la­tion­ship be­gan on a deeper, more per­sonal level.

Next week’s por­tion re­lates the story of the even more beau­ti­ful Rachel, who is not veiled when she un­ex­pect­edly meets Ja­cob. His re­sponse to his exquisitel­y beau­ti­ful cousin is to kiss her and burst into tears. The ef­fect her beauty has on Ja­cob causes an un­seemly dis­play of af­fec­tion, and we are told of his love for Rachel three times. This will af­fect the fam­ily dy­namic for­ever af­ter in com­plex and ul­ti­mately toxic ways. God closes Rachel’s womb and opens the womb of the less at­trac­tive and unloved Leah. Beau­ti­ful peo­ple do not al­ways get what they want, the To­rah sug­gests, and Rachel’s out­burst to Ja­cob, “Give me chil­dren or I will die,” sug­gests that she is a woman not used to be­ing de­nied her de­sires.

The beauty bias is not lim­ited only to women: Joseph, the old­est son of Rachel, is an usu­ally beau­ti­ful young man, like his mother, who is, not sur­pris­ingly, his fa­ther’s fa­vorite, per­haps be­cause of the re­sem­blance. Yet Joseph’s beauty puts him in dan­ger – from his brothers’ jeal­ousy, from Potiphar’s wife, and from his own sense of en­ti­tle­ment. It seems to me that only when Joseph be­gins to use his other tal­ents and ul­ti­mately chan­nel his beauty to­ward a greater good does the plot change. At that point he is he able to en­ter Pharaoh’s court, save Egypt and his fam­ily, and for­give his brothers.

A sim­i­lar plot line plays out even more ob­vi­ously in the Book of Es­ther, where glittering harems and beau­ti­ful women are a nec­es­sary part of the back­drop. Vashti stands out as a beau­ti­ful woman who re­fuses to be ob­jec­ti­fied. Es­ther has to learn to use her beauty, as did Joseph, for some­thing more than her per­sonal gain. She, too, finds fa­vor with all who see her, but is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a pas­sive ob­ject, em­balmed in the harem. She ul­ti­mately finds her own voice and emerges as a hero­ine for all time.

Some peo­ple are blessed with phys­i­cal beauty, and oth­ers aren’t. It is a char­ac­ter­is­tic that has the po­ten­tial to wield in­flu­ence on oth­ers for good, but there is also the po­ten­tial for abuse of that power by the per­son them­selves and by oth­ers in­ter­act­ing with them. The To­rah’s multi-lay­ered, nu­anced and com­plex look at how beauty se­duces, in­flu­ences and af­fects us, but bears with it a bur­den of its own is cer­tainly rel­e­vant in to­day’s world. Women (and men) of valor must take care that the fear of God guides them in their in­ter­ac­tions with one an­other, in or­der to pre­vent the abuse of beauty or power. ■

The To­rah sug­gests that beauty is com­plex – bring­ing with it chal­lenges and dan­gers both to the bear­ers of beauty and those around them

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

ISAAC’S SER­VANT ty­ing a bracelet on Re­bekah’s arm in this 1775 work by An­glo-Amer­i­can his­tory painter Ben­jamin West.

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