Does Beautiful Equal Good?

The Bible and much of Western culture have equated beauty with goodness—not much different than today.

by Shulamit Reinharz

The following excerpt from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary has been shortened considerably for 614.

The weekly Torah portion, Emor, is concerned with the characteristics and obligations of the cohanim or priests, men who are descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. Although, by definition, all of Aaron’s male descendants have the potential to be priests, not all actually qualify. Emor explains the ways cohanim are disqualified from the start or become disqualified through life circumstances, many of which concern physical defects…
One of the main tasks of a cohen is to maintain his purity. To do this, he must separate from particular people and activities that could be described as blemished. Because I find it intriguing that a cohen must be perfect both in behavior and in his physical body, I decided to explore the implications and echoes of this idea to this day.

The goal of bodily perfection

Emor (21: 17-20) tells us that a descendant of Aaron may not be a priest if he is “blind, lame, or has a limb too short or too long, has a broken leg or broken arm, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has a growth in the eye, or has a boil-scar, or scurvy or crushed testes.” While the bodily perfection may no longer be a necessity for a cohen, the idea and expectation of bodily perfection have become a cultural goal of the wider, American Jewish population with terrible consequences particularly for women of all ages.

Most people are aware that many American Jewish girls starve themselves or over-exercise to become thin, or have surgery on their noses to be more beautiful, and that Jewish women undergo plastic surgery of all types to remain attractive. There is no doubt about the drive among young girls to be pretty at all costs and to be intolerant of those who are not. The goal of beauty is passed on from mother to daughter and has become a lucrative industry in the United States and elsewhere.

The motivation to be beautiful by any means should not be dismissed off-hand as misguided, however. After all, the Bible and much of Western culture have frequently equated beauty with goodness, even among animals. In the Torah portion, Hukkat, for example, God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites to bring a red cow “without blemish, in which there is no defect.” Only such a cow, a perfect cow, is appropriate for ritual slaughter.
Sometimes the Bible does not make the equation, as, for example, in the case of Ruth, who is the paradigm of goodness. And Eshet Hayil (Proverbs 31:10-31) repudiates the connection between beauty and goodness: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Abram, the husband of Sarai, tells her how beautiful she is and asks him to save his life by pretending to be his sister so that the Egyptians will not kill him in order to marry her. And Rebekah is described as “very beautiful” (Genesis 24:16) in a verse that is quickly followed by a description of her kind behavior. Surely, everyone knows that Esther is touted for her beauty before we learn about her courage. Based on these cases and many others, I would argue that the Torah’s preference for beauty is a subtle theme that appears in many places. Thus, it is not surprising that until today, both women and men have appropriated the compulsion for perfection in appearance, which they achieve through clothing, hair-styles, skin texture and bodily proportions, among others.

Although there are some examples to the contrary, the link between holiness and bodily perfection clearly has passed down through the ages beginning with the Bible, creating an enduring, perhaps unconscious equation between beauty and goodness. Children’s fairy tales feature the beautiful princess who is good, the handsome prince who is good, and the ugly witch who is evil.

Assumptions about the beautiful

Psychologists teach us that people who are attractive are trusted more than those who are not; they are likely to rise in the ranks of their organizations and be elected to office. Physically attractive individuals, research shows, are perceived as more intelligent, sociable, talented and moral. U.S. films have consistently portrayed and thus perpetuated this link. Being born unattractive is a major burden because of all the associated characteristics one acquires, both in the days of Leviticus and today. There is even a term for this prejudice—beautyism—the idea that what is beautiful is good and what is not beautiful is bad.

The correlations between these two variables are strong in psychological studies, but life itself presents a more complicated picture. If only beautiful people were attractive to others, then natural selection would lead to fewer and fewer unattractive people being born, because unattractive people could not become parents. In the Biblical passages, imperfect women are not completely bad. They simply are not good enough to marry cohanim and become the heroines of our people.

About the Author

Shulamit Reinharz
Shulamit Reinharz is the director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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