JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Sept. 28, 1999 / 18 Tishrei, 5760

Gwyneth Paltrow may be
descended from a
rabbinical family,
but is she as
beautiful as an esrog? (Read on.)

By Rabbi Berel Wein -- ONE NEEDS TRAINING to appreciate true beauty, rather than what passes for it in Western culture.

There is a wonderful story about a yeshiva head who proposed a match to one of his students - the daughter of a friend of his. The student dutifully agreed to meet the young woman.

On the day after this meeting, the yeshiva head called the student to his office and asked how it had gone.

The young man hemmed and hawed but eventually blurted out: "My beloved teacher and master, she is not very pretty!"

The head of the yeshiva responded somewhat incredulously: "Not pretty! What is she supposed to be, an esrog?"

In this droll little vignette lies the nugget of Jewish truth and tradition regarding beauty and its place in human life.

The holiday of Succos, which we are now celebrating, is the holiday of beauty. The beauty of the bountiful harvest of our fields and vineyards that the L-rd has blessed us with. The beauty of the decorations that so enliven our succa. The beauty of family and friends and leisure and a welcome break in our work schedule. The beauty of having passed through and been refreshed and renewed by Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The beauty of the esrog, lulav, myrtle and willow.

The beauty of being part of a chain of a festival that dates back to the huts that our ancestors dwelt in during their desert sojourn after leaving Egypt. The beauty of being able to celebrate the holiday in our land, with millions of other Jews who have somehow arrived here from the four corners of the earth.

What all these factors of beauty have in common is that meet the criteria of beauty currently in vogue in Western society.

The understanding of beauty in today's Western culture, which dominates Israeli society as well, is not just skin deep. It is just skin. The more shocking, the more deviant and aberrant the behavior that is depicted, then the more beautiful the film, the more "meaningful" the play.

Violence, orgies, substance abuse and other antisocial behavior are apparently the only topics that "sell." The greater the atonal quality, the more deafening the sound, the more shabby and demeaning the dress of the performers, the better the concert.

Because the concept of beauty has been drained of meaning, everything in our world, from soccer goals to political performances, are characterized as being "beautiful." Beauty is today purely an external matter. And under such a criterion, even the most heinous acts can somehow be characterized as beautiful.

I AM convinced that true beauty almost automatically touches the soul of the beholder.

I do not know of any person who did not find viewing the Grand Canyon or the Canadian Rockies or the Alps a spiritual experience. Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso and Kandinsky speak to our inner eye, to our holier nature, and not merely to our physical senses.

Therefore, like in all other spiritual ventures, training, discipline and consistency are necessary. It is not for naught that courses in art and music were once called art appreciation and music appreciation.

Today's sense of beauty requires no sense of appreciation because it is purely sensory. It is instinctive and therefore, in a certain sense, it is animalistic. Human behavior and beauty require preparation and training to make them truly humane. With such training and attitude, even elderly people are beautiful, silence can be satisfying, and the wonders of nature become the ingredients of our inner dimension of beauty.

A world-famous physicist once told me the most beautiful thing he had ever seen was the activity and relationship of the electron, neutron and proton in an atom. When I naively pointed out to him that no human eye has ever seen this phenomenon of nature, he looked at me wonderingly: "Since when does beauty have to be seen with the naked eye in order for it to be appreciated?" he asked.

How correct he is. The beauty of family and generations united, of the remembered smile and the loving touch, of the hope for tomorrow and the sense of optimism for the future and for generations yet unborn should be strengthened within our community.

Our children should not be left naked and defenseless before the commercially motivated onslaught of the entertainment industry. They should be taught that nudity is not beauty, that antisocial behavior is not commendable, that filthy streets and untended children are not acceptable in a state that claims to be democratic, modern and Jewish.

A lack of standards in almost all matters of public and private life perverts our sense of beauty as well. It affects all of us and creates an atmosphere that is far from beautiful and very dangerous to the spiritual and intellectual development of our society.

Israel, the people and the country, should strive to be truly beautiful.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He resides in Jerusalem. You may contact Rabbi Wein by by clicking here or calling 800-499-WEIN (9346).


09/17/99: Blessing the children
09/10/99: A good year

©1999, Rabbi Berel Wein