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Reprinted with permission from JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Recently, I was poring over some of the stories of famous women in the Bible–the matriarchs, Queen Esther, and others–and a detail, one that I had not previously noticed, caught my attention. All of these women are described as physically beautiful. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is so beautiful that Abraham has to lie and declare he is her brother, rather than her husband, for fear that the Egyptians will kill him in order to claim her – a fear that is proven to be well founded when she is kidnapped and taken to Pharaoh.
Rebekah is described as “very fair to look upon” and “a virgin” when Abraham’s servant first meets her on his quest for a wife for Isaac. Rachel, too, was beautiful; in her introduction, the text lauds her as “of beautiful form and fair to look upon.” Queen Esther is also a paradigm of beauty–in fact, her physical appearance is a central facet as a character in the Purim story: it is this outward beauty that causes King Ahasuerus to choose her, over all the other women, as his new wife.
Lauded For Their Beauty
Intrigued, I began to look for other instances of beauty in the Bible…and realized that it is not only the women whose attractiveness is noted. Male characters are lauded for their physical appearances as well–Joseph, King David, and David’s son, Absalom, are a few examples. Altogether, the number of times in which the biblical text goes out of its way to inform readers that characters are attractive–from figures as famous as the matriarchs to those as obscure as Job’s daughters–is astonishing.
What was puzzling, to me, was the intent of the text. All of this emphasis on physical appearance would, naturally, seem to imply that beauty is an inherent value in Judaism (at least, from the biblical perspective).
Yet this conflicts with all of the Jewish values I have ever been taught including aphorisms and fables that stress the importance of inner beauty, character, and integrity, rather than what is on the outside. And, in fact, this dismissal of outer in favor of inner beauty stems from the Bible itself; every Friday night, we quote Proverbs as we proclaim, “sheker hahen v’hevel hayofi –isha yirat hashem hi tithallal–Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” How, then, can one reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ideals?
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