Inner Beauty, Outward Beauty, and Health

Judaism recognizes the primacy of an inner beauty, but we are nonetheless called upon to care for our bodies and not discouraged from tending to our appearance.

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Reprinted from A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (Schocken Books).

Judaism’s concern with care of our bodies is also reflected in issues of physical appearance and wellbeing. Societal standards determine what constitutes modest attire, and many of the specific statements in our tradition no longer seem applicable. In broad terms, however, the tradition attempts to maintain an appreciation for the beauty of the body and its sensuality while consistently reminding us that we are more than just bodies. 

Each of us is created in the Divine image. It is natural for us to want to be attractive to others and to be noticed by those around us. Unlike secular society, Judaism does not have an idealized model of beauty. We are all created in God’s image. In all our diversity, fat and thin, tall and short, we are all equally God’s creations.

As the vessel that holds our soul, Judaism seeks most of all to have our outside selves be a reflection of our inner beings. Our inner beauty is what counts and it is always reflected on the outside. The important thing is to focus on who we are and how we live rather than how we look. Indirectly, Judaism addresses those who may be dissatisfied with their outward body by pointing out that all individuals differ:

lipstick“Therefore people were created unique, in order to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One. For if a person strikes many coins from one mold, they are all exactly alike. But though the King of kings, the Holy One, has fashioned every person in the stamp of the first human, not a single one of them is exactly like another.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a)

This is not to deny that our body image is important or that it may often be a conflicted part of our self-image. Nor does it mean that clothes don’t make a difference in how we feel about ourselves or how others feel about us.

“When you dress or otherwise do something to improve your appearance, putting on nice clothes or ornaments, your intention should be holy and for the sake of heaven–to beautify and adorn the Divine Image….” [Noam Elimelekh, by the 17th century Polish Hasidic teacher Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk]

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Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

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