Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 1 March 2003 / 27 Adar I 5763


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From: E. in Rochester, NY

Dear Rabbi,

I am having a difference of opinion with a friend, and I hope you can help to clarify the matter.

I say that the Jewish tradition disdains valuing physical beauty (In men or women, but particularly women). I say that the Jewish tradition holds it as a deception and as superficiality. He disagrees, and cites Song of Solomon's obsession with physical beauty, and this: Tractate Ta'aniyoth of the Talmud (Babhli) (Comments following Mishna 4:8)....on the 15th of the month of Ab and on Yom Kippur(!), the maidens of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards and state to the young men: "look and see what you choose for yourself, for a woman is for naught save beauty"?

My response to that is (a) Jews don't take Song of Solomon literally, rather they interpret it as an allegory of love between Israel and G-d, and (b) one Talmudic citation doesn't outweigh all the others. Except I don't know all the others.

Thank you for your help in this matter.

Dear E.,

Hi and thanks for your inquiry. Judaism doesn't see physical beauty as a value in and of itself. As you said, it is disdained as a value in and of itself. King Solomon, besides the Song of Songs, also wrote Proverbs, in which he states: "False is charm and vain is beauty, a woman who fears G-d, she shall be praised."

However, when beauty is used in the service of G-d, then it, like any gift, becomes elevated. It's similar to health or wealth. These are good things when used the right way.

Although Song of Songs is an analogy, I don't think the analogue, physical beauty and attraction, can be denied. Note that the Torah points out that the Matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel were beautiful. The Vilna Gaon says that as the 248 main "limbs" and 365 major "sinews" of the human body correspond to the 248 positive commandments and the 365 negative commandments of the Torah, so too the women who were to be the mothers of the Jewish people were to have a physical perfection reflecting the perfection of the Torah.

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