Should Jewish Women Look Frumpy or Hot?

frumpyorhot

Go back to the Bible and you’ll see that Jewish beauty was powerful, enticing, and downright dangerous.

by Rebecca Honig Friedman

There is much talk about the Jewish American Princess stereotype but not so much about another stereotype of Jewish women that is completely opposed to the looks-obsessed, non-religious J.A.P.: the frum [religious, observant] and frumpy woman, who is either too busy rearing eight children and caring for her husband, or too concerned with spiritual matters to care about her looks.

As with the J.A.P., this is merely a stereotype; however, its truth was never challenged more for me, when, as a college student, I visited my campus Chabad house for a Shabbat meal and met the Chabad rabbi’s brothers and sisters-in-law. While the rabbi’s wife was young and attractive, she dressed simply and modestly, no frills attached. Her sisters-in-law, however, were beautiful, and they dressed to show it, wearing nearly identical outfits of black, knee-high leather boots and pencil skirts that covered their knees but not their curves.

This was not how I expected ultra-Orthodox women to look (and it should be noted, their husbands were not particularly attractive or well dressed), but it made me question my assumption that looking “hot” was somehow less religious than looking plain. According to Jewish thought, is there value in being beautiful? Is pride in one’s appearance Godly or is being frumpy more frum?

Not as beautiful, not as loved

Any discussion of values for Jewish women should start with the archetypes of Jewish womanhood, the four Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Lo and behold, each of the matriarchs, with the exception of Leah, is specifically mentioned as being attractive. Sarah is “a woman of beautiful appearance” (Genesis 12:11); Rebecca is “very fair to look upon” (Genesis 24:16); and Rachel is “beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance” (Genesis 29:17). However, in the same sentence that makes so much of Rachel’s beauty, it is said of Leah that her “eyes were tender.” Biblical commentators interpret this puzzling phrase in different ways, but since it appears in direct juxtaposition to Rachel being beautiful in every way, the implication is that Leah was not as attractive, at least not to Jacob. In fact, the next passage says that Jacob loved Rachel, implying what is later made explicit, that he did not love Leah.

Though many commentators try to gloss over this biblical emphasis on physical beauty by insisting it must actually be a metaphor for inner beauty, it’s undeniable that the language is focused on outward appearance. However, there is no mention of these women possessing vanity, and they are certainly revered, not for their looks, but for their goodness. Therefore, it is fair to say that the Bible implies a connection between their inner and outer beauty, as if the goodness of their souls somehow radiates outward. Yet, Leah, who is an equally revered, righteous matriarch, was not as beautiful, and not as loved. One might consider that a pretty clear message.

Beauty can be dangerous or it can save the day

On the other hand, the Bible also depicts physical beauty as a liability. Abraham and Isaac, while traveling through foreign lands, both fear that their beautiful wives, Sarah and Rebecca, will be coveted by strange men, and that those covetous men might attempt to take what they want and kill the women’s husbands. Beauty can even be a liability for a man. Joseph, the son of the beautiful Rachel is described, like his mother, as “beautiful in form and beautiful in appearance” (Genesis 39:6). Not coincidentally, the phrase comes just before the wife of an Egyptian aristocrat attempts to seduce Joseph, and though he refuses her advances, the incident ultimately lands him in jail.

This unintentional seductive quality is perhaps the source for the laws of modesty that traditionally govern Jewish women’s dress. Long skirts and sleeves and high-cut collars hide the most provocative of body parts and can be seen as protecting women from unwanted advances from strange men.

But being sexually attractive is more than just dangerous—it’s powerful, and telling women to dress modestly can be seen as a way of suppressing that power. Several biblical women use sex as a way of gaining power over men. The notorious Delilah seduced the invincible Samson in order to bring about his downfall. Tamar, Ruth, and perhaps even Batsheba use sex to lure men into marriage, and their actions are sanctioned by the Torah since those men are religiously obligated to the marriages in question. Then, of course, there is Esther, who, by being beautiful, was able to win the love of the Persian king Ahashverosh and thus save the Jewish people from near-certain slaughter. Woe unto the Jewish people if Esther had been ugly!

Rabbinic laws of modesty don’t seek to suppress women’s sexuality entirely, however. Rather, they contextualize it—within marriage. While laws of modesty are even stricter for married women, who are supposed to cover their hair, than they are for single women, those laws only apply in public. At home—and in the bedroom—married women can quite literally let their hair down, show their full beauty, and express their sexuality.

Looking “hot” for community

Interestingly, while I have discussed Jewish attitudes regarding women’s attractiveness to men, this is not necessarily what drives women to look good. It is a widely acknowledged phenomenon that, in many circumstances, women dress up for each other more than they do for men. It’s perhaps less about looking “good” than looking “right.” Fashion is often more about fitting in than standing out, about conforming to a socially sanctioned norm rather than expressing oneself. Indeed, such conformity often governs dress and appearance for women and men in ultra-Orthodox communities. Even my “hot” Lubavitcher friends dress similarly to each other. Yet, this notion of conformity in appearance seems contrary to the biblical notions of beauty that emphasize, depending on the context, the inner goodness, power, or vulnerability of the individual.

These current notions of modesty seek to suppress that sense of individuality that is so present in the Torah. That’s what we should take back. We should acknowledge, as the Bible does, that beauty is powerful, but that that power can be used for good or bad, for or against the beautiful.

Dress accordingly.

About the Author

Rebecca Honig Friedman
Rebecca Honig Friedman is the senior writer of “Jewess,” a blog about Jewish women’s issues, which can be found at www.jewess.canonist.com. She also freelances in documentary film and television production.

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