Purity and Beauty

By and large it is not only the preference for beauty that has spilled into Western culture, but also the equation between beauty and goodness.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Although the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.) eliminated the conditions that required priests to preserve certain laws of purity, the influence of such laws nevertheless continues. According to Emor, a priest (kohein) has to guard against possible defilement at all times. A movie produced by several religiously observant students at the Ma’ale School of Television, Film, and the Arts in Jerusalem illustrates some consequences of these laws for their contemporary circles.

Torah Women's CommentaryEntitled “Cohen’s Wife,” this film concerns Rivki Cohen, a young ultra-orthodox woman who opens the door slightly for a strange man who has come asking for tzedakah (charity). The stranger then forces his way in and rapes her. This crime renders Rivki ritually impure to her husband. The film deals with how the husband approaches the rabbinical court as to whether he-a kohein-must divorce his wife because she is now defiled.

This deeply moving film depicts a loving couple that desperately wants to remain married, while at the same time wanting to observe Jewish law. The wife turns out to have the key to saving the marriage-by not saying the words “I was raped,” and certainly not to her husband. Thus, since there was no witness, the husband could seek a sympathetic set of rabbis who simply would pretend that the rape had not taken place, thus allowing the couple to remain intact. 

The problem, of course, is the guilt and confusion that both the wife and husband feel after the rabbinic decision; have they themselves resolved the problem or not? Will they be able to live their lives in peace with their guilty secret? This movie, like most made at Ma’ale, exposes viewers to the human conflicts, tragedies, and even comic situations that arise when people wish to live both according to Jewish law and to their honest feelings.

While we can expect the laws of Leviticus to have a strong impact primarily in certain religious circles, other ideas in Emor continue to have subtle ramifications for general society. One example is the stress found in Emor on the ideal of physical “perfection.” Leviticus 21:17-20 disqualifies a descendant of Aaron from carrying out the rituals of the priesthood if he is subject to certain physical deficiencies or disfigurations. Physical imperfection, it seems, impairs holiness. While the priest’s bodily perfection may no longer be a Jewish necessity, the idea and expectation of bodily perfection have become a cultural goal of the wider American Jewish population, with terrible consequences-particularly for women, regardless of age. 

Woman cryingBy now most people are aware that many American Jewish girls starve themselves or over-exercise to become thin, or they have surgery on their noses and elsewhere to be more beautiful. So too, older Jewish women undergo a wide range of plastic surgery to remain attractive. On this drive among young girls be pretty at all costs–and to be intolerant of those in who are not–see The JGirl’s Guide: The Young Jewish Woman’s Handbook for Coming of Age (co-authored by me, Penina Adeiman, and Ali Feldman, 2005). 

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Shulamit Reinharz is a professor of sociology at Brandeis University. She is the founding director, Women's Studies Research Center and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

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