External and Internal Beauty.
Thoughts on Parashat Chayyei Sarah.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Within the first seven seconds of meeting someone new, a person will judge another solely on their appearance. That means that in seven seconds your brain will determine whether you decide to continue your interaction with a stranger or not based purely on what you visibly see about them. There is a story of a woman who has undergone a plethora of treatments at the hospital in order to desperately look like everyone else. She recalls her earliest childhood memories of people looking away, horrified by her appearance. The woman was hoping her current treatment would be her last as they began to remove the bandages. If the treatment was unsuccessful, the doctor informed her that she would be sent away to be with others who also suffer from her ailment. This story may sound familiar to you. It is from the original “The Twilight Zone,” from the episode titled Eye of the Beholder. What does an episode of “The Twilight Zone” have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah? The idea of beauty and its relevance to Rebekah, as Eliezer is on his mission to find a wife for his master Abraham’s son, Isaac.
In Bereshit 24:16, the narrator describes Rebekah coming out to the spring as, “The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin who no man had known”. Why is it important that Rebekah was beautiful? What role does her physical beauty play in the moral value of this text? Was it because of Rebekah’s beauty that Eliezer asked her for a sip from her water jar? If she was “physically ugly” would he still have asked her for some water? She was probably not the only woman at the well; in those days and in this region of the world, a well was a place around which social life was going on: people made acquaintances there. A well was something like a bar or a pub is today.
Why almost all the women in the Torah are described as beautiful? Except for Leah, she had weak eyes and we all know that her younger sister Rachel got all the looks in the family. But did it really matter what they looked like?
One medieval commentator, Sforno, states that, “she had a beautiful skin coloring”. Other commentators did not have much to say on Rebekah’s beauty, they were more focused on her being, “a virgin whom no man had known” (Gen. 24:16.)
So, is beauty a Jewish value? There is a view that the Bible mentions the physical characteristics of certain persons to highlight their internal traits. For instance, Rebecca’s beauty seems to be connected to her moral character. This is made even more clear in the following verses, Bereshit 24:18-20, when Rebekah shows her chesed, loving kindness, by giving water not only to the stranger, Eliezer, but also to his ten camels; along with opening her family home to him (Gen. 24:25.) Rebekah’s actions of chesed provide evidence to Eliezer with regards to the ethical test for which he asked God to find out which maiden is worthy of Abraham’s son (Bereshit 24:12-14.) Therefore, Rebekah being referred to as a beauty is not based solely on her physical looks, but rather on her being a moral compassionate person as we see from the narrative. Whereas, the opposite applies to our society today.
Beauty seems to be based on what the media and the fashion industry tell us is beautiful. They told us back in the 1950’s that Marilyn Monroe was the most beautiful woman; as she was a model, actress, singer, and starlet. Marilyn was a size 14; she had an hourglass shaped figure with everything else fake; from her dyed blonde hair, her walk, talk, and behavior in public was all an act. Originally named Norma Jean, a brunette and from a broken home, she could not get a job. Turning into the iconic Marilyn Monroe allowed her to become a star. This was all based on her exterior, of course. Her true self was of a good and kind person, but she was also broken, dealing with her own demons and self-medicating. Marilyn would not be able to fit into the moral fiber of beauty the same way Rebekah does.
To conclude, external, physical beauty is basically in the eye of the beholder. It is, to a large extent, a matter of subjective taste and cultural conventions that influence the taste of individuals. In this matter we cannot actually be right or wrong. It is the subjective categories that govern here: either you like something or you don’t. Is there room for any objectivity here? We cannot deny it a priori, it is a material for extensive studies in aesthetics, since there were some very vital criteria of beauty that have been created in the course of history and they are widely recognized today. Inner beauty is, however, something from a bit different realm. It is a matter of knowing a given person. At the beginning, when we barely know him or her, we cannot judge whether he or she is internally beautiful or not. We may be attracted by some sparks of his or her inner beauty and then, after some time, we may discover also some traces of ugliness. But in this case, after some time, sometimes a very long time, we can clearly see the proportions of the internal beauty to the internal ugliness. And at that point we can be definitely right or wrong. But then we are able to accept both, the inner beauty and the inner ugliness, which is not the case at the beginning, when we don’t know the person deeply and don’t know where the inner beauty or ugliness come from.
Is beauty a Jewish value? Inner beauty, understood as an expression of spiritual perfection, definitely is. It can be perfected over time. And outer beauty? It is a manifestation of physical, and so, temporary perfection. The possibilities of its improvement are quite limited.