Beauty is in the “I” of the Beheld
I know that this is going to sound strange, but it is a question that I feel I have to ask. I get the impression that according to Judaism, spiritual beauty and physical beauty go together. I mean that an attractive physical appearance seems to reflect a certain degree of spiritual perfection. Now, I know that I am not physically attractive. Does that mean I am somehow lacking or inferior in an internal, spiritual sense?
First, let me commend you on your candidness and courage to ask this question. Of course you are probably being overly self-critical, and it goes without saying that physical beauty is subjective. In addition to your having the internal beauty innate in every person, I’m sure you’re physically more attractive than you think. Still, I’ll try to take your question at face value.
On a certain level, physical and spiritual beauty go together. There are many examples of this. The subliminal beauty of the natural world of creation certainly reflects the beauty and harmony of the Creator. Similarly, G-d instructed the Jews to construct a beautiful Tabernacle made of the most precious materials befitting His Divine Presence. The same applies for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, regarding which our Sages declared that one who never saw the Temple never saw a beautiful building (Succah 51b). Indeed, we are commanded to beatify all mitzvot in honor of their spiritual significance. This is not only on the macroscopic scale of Creation, or the relatively microscopic scale of man-made objects, but even on the physical plane of man such that a strong physical constitution is enumerated among the prerequisites for prophecy (Shabbat 92a).
However, external physical beauty doesn’t necessarily express a predisposition for spiritual beauty. Solomon, the wisest of men, compared a person with an attractive exterior but an ugly interior to a swine wearing a golden nose ring (Proverbs 11:22). No degree of external beauty can mask a repulsive personality. Conversely, an unattractive appearance does not preclude a beautiful and spiritual interior. In fact, insofar as humility is a prerequisite for spiritual sensitivity and the acquisition of Torah, an attractive person is more likely to be arrogant and thereby distracted from this higher calling, whereas a less attractive person is more likely to heed the call.
Thus our Sages remarked that Torah is compared to water, wine and milk in order to teach us that just as these liquids are preserved only in vessels made of simple materials like pottery and wood and not in vessels of silver and gold, so too the Torah is preserved only in people who are simple and don’t make much of themselves (Ta’anit 6a). The Talmud then records an event that illustrates this point:
The daughter of the Caesar once said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiyah: “Alas, such beautiful wisdom in such an ugly vessel!”. He replied: “My daughter, in what type of vessels does your father keep his wine?” She answered: “In earthen vessels.” He rejoined: “Then what is the difference between your father and the common people?” She asked: “In what, then, shall it be kept?” And he said: “People who are as important as you should keep their wine in golden and silver vessels!” She then had her father’s wine transferred to vessels of gold and silver. The wine turned sour. When the Caesar was informed of this, he asked his daughter: “Who told you to do this?” He sent for the rabbi and asked for the reason of his advice. Rabbi Yehoshua replied, “I simply offered her the advice that she offered me.” The Talmud then questions, “But are there not men who are handsome and also scholarly?” To which the Talmud concludes, “If they would be less handsome, their wisdom would be greater still.”