Tuesday, November 07, 2006

In Defense of the Body

כה וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

-Genesis 2: 25

~

The body is beautiful.

The body as an expression of art, of pain, of suffering, of feeling, the body in and of itself, flawed, scarred, dull, lustrous, the body in whatever form it exists...is beautiful.

It is with the body that we experience pain and pleasure, with the body that we live our lives, that we focus upon the mundane and the holy; it is the body that we sanctify to God, the body we afflict when we seek atonement, the body that is our conduit for life, the body that houses our spirit and our soul.

So how can it be that I hear those who do not treat the body with respect, who giggle and smirk when we speak of the body, who laugh behind closed doors? How can someone term the body "disgusting," how can someone attempt to strip the body of its sensuality, its raw sexuality? How can someone seek to make the body less than what it is, to ascribe to it a morality and code that it cannot own? How can the body in and of itself be sinful? What is the body if not beautiful?

On Sunday the Honors Program at Stern took various students to see a ballet. It was a ballet at the New York City Center, a ballet performed by the American Ballet Theatre company. Only women were taken to see this ballet- students of Stern College for Women. Only members of the Honors Program.

And yet people called it "disgusting."

And why was it disgusting? Because, in its first act, called Clear, it featured male ballerinas, men dressed in tan leggings and bare-chested, men who leapt and stepped across the stage with the grace of an angel and the command of a master. These men are strong, muscular, handsome; they can whirl ballerinas as though they weigh little or nothing, can strike poses and contort their bodies, can dance and perform with no thought to the audience, exhibiting only the sheer joy, the beauty that they find within their art.

But they were men in tan leggings. And they were bare-chested.

And hence, according to some, disgusting.

And I cannot see it. How can you not admire these men, men who have mastered such precise control over their muscles, their bodies, men who are masters of an art that requires more skill and thought than perhaps any other sport? Everything must be precised, timed; there is so much trust in ballet- to spin, to whirl, to fall, to be thrown, to catch the one who is falling- one misstep, and your partner has fallen, perhaps to the ground, perhaps injuring himself or herself.

And do I tell you that I appreciated the act only for the clear beauty described by their dancing? Of course not! No! I do not lie. I appreciated it for exactly what the act was meant to convey, and what was demonstrated by the final dance between the principle male ballerina and the principle female balerina, the sensuality that enveloped them, the chemistry that flickered between them, the elements and their battle against the young couple, as the day darkened into night. The female ballerina was exquisite, her entire body suggesting vulnerability; the eerie grace of her limbs, the phantom aura about her, the idea of passion suggested but not fulfilled. This is beauty, and it is an art- it evokes feelings in people; it tells a story. Ballet is a response to but also a dialogue with music; it serves to heighten and evoke emotions within us.

So why must these men, by virtue of their attire, be termed disgusting?

Why, because they are sexual beings, sexual creatures. And how is the young Jewish girl to relate to such a spectacle? Of course, as is most prevalent, it must be with revulsion and disgust, expressing disgust with the human body and all that it encompasses. And where does this disgust come from? Perhaps from what the young Jewish girl cannot see as anything but a brazen display of flesh, and an appalling lack of shame. Where is their shame? Why aren't these men insecure, why don't they try to cover themselves, to hide their bodies and who they are?

Why, simply because they are not. They are not ashamed. As ballerinas, as ballet dancers, artists, and principles, their body is their tool, sculpted as their weapon, their instrument, their dramatic performance. Others play upon instruments, others perform upon external objects. They, on the other hand, express themselves with their every step- their every move- the wave of a hand, the point of a toe, the matching of steps to music. The body is theirs, their weapon, their tool, theirs to expose to vulnerability and simultaneously to hold as strong. The body is beautiful.

And I was not ashamed for them.

The other acts saw changes in costume; the YU audience particularly liked the third act (I did, too) titled In the Upstairs Room. There, the men were wearing red shirts and black and white striped flowing trousers, not as molded to their forms.

Today, while in the Bait Midrash, I heard Stern girls whispering and laughing together about niddah. They used the words "disgusting," liberally; one sentence I overheard was one girl's exclamation that once you understand the euphemisms used in the Gemara to describe nidda "it's all disgusting!" And they continued in this vein, mockingly mentioning the "ankle metaphor" in the text, and so on and so forth.

And this- more than what was said of the ballet- appalled me. Because how could you speak so of your own body? You are women, you are women; how could you call yourselves disgusting? This terminology is so wrong, so incorrect in context. One of the most fascinating aspects of Gemara is how calmly everything is discussed, from the laws dealing with the dead to the most intimate aspects of the body (albeit, sometimes, through the use of euphamisms.) The scholars felt no need to hush or talk in silent whispers when it came to the body- everything was frank, open, honest; everything that the Torah mentioned was up for discussion. Zav, zavah, niddah- the secretions of the body, nudity, prayer and nudity, emissions and the like, were all subjects for debate and analysis.

And here, too, there was no need for shame.

So why this secret shame? Why this urge to label the body as "disgusting," to try to hide it away, to shrink at the thought of the body as having the ability to give pleasure, to view the body as beautiful? Not only do people malign the body, call it names it does not deserve, ascribe adjectives to it that it has not warranted, but they even associate it with that which they see as perverse or wrong- reference with a sneer the "bodily pleasures," try to do away with it in its entirety.

Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that the body as an entity is outside the typical Jewish girl's realm of experience. So much of her life has been devoted to an understanding of (ideally) or an obsession with (unhappily) modesty, that is likely her notion of the body is totally skewed. The body is something which must be covered, something which has the ability to force men to lap at her skirts slavishly like dogs, something which must be hidden away- in other words, at the heart of the matter, women are made to be ashamed of their sexuality.

This is not only accomplished through tznius, I am certain, but simply with most Orthodox family's refraining to discuss the body as beautiful, instead considering it secret, hidden- something which cannot be brought out in public. The body, you see, gives pleasure- sexual pleasure, most specifically. And of course, in most people's minds, sexual pleasure immediately denotes sin. And hence the body must be sinful. Or so a good number of people think.

And I have to wonder why this correlation, why we have adopted Puritanism into Orthodoxy. It is understood that one sanctifies the body by keeping it separate, by obeying certain laws (mikvah especially) to keep it holy; it is understood by most in Orthodox circles that the body is to be shared only when one is married. But why have we made the further judgement, why have we now termed the body in and of itself "disgusting?" Why degrade the body? Simply because it has the ability to bring sexual pleasure? And since when is sexual pleasure a sin! If taken outside the bounds of marriage, the Torah cautions, it may then be a sin- but surely this pleasure in and of itself is not sinful! Surely the body in and of itself is not disgusting!

It saddens me to think that there are women who grow up ashamed of their bodies, not because they are physically malformed or concerned about their weight, or God forbid, suffering from an eating disorder, but simply because they have been brought up to think the body is in and of itself sinful, and an appreciation of the body must mean that one is sinful as well. To connect the body to sin, to connect pleasure with that which is disgusting- why is this necessary? Are we so afraid?

Is the only way to slake one's lust to instill revulsion and disgust with the object of one's lust? Is that really what we believe today?

I hope not...

because it would be a sad society that did not recognize the beauty of the body, in and of itself, that flesh which is us and sustains us, on the biological and internal level of the organs that keep us functioning, and on the physical level of beauty. The Torah itself mentions the physical traits of various men and women in the Torah (Sarah, Joseph, Esther and so on) and does not do so apologetically. This is a character description; their beauty is a part of them- and may even be important in further description of the characters (particularly seen by Joseph, also seen by literal interpretation of the Book of Esther.) In fact, beauty almost always plays a major role in the story (why did Jacob prefer Rachel to Esther? why was Sarah taken from Abraham and given to Pharoah?)

Why, then, have we decided that the body, beautiful as it is, is linked to sin? Why must the body be sinful; why must such ugly adjectives be forced upon such a beautiful creation?

God created man- with a body and a soul. God created man with a body that has the ability to give pleasure. God even sanctified this pleasure and this body. God, therefore, cannot believe that the body is in and of itself disgusting or ugly.

It is only the thoughts that dwell in the minds of those who fear the body...(and I do not say those made uncomfortable by the body, for that is different) that allows them to malign it in this fashion, to term it "disgusting" or laugh at that which they don't understand. These thoughts are of their own creation, probably demonstrative of their own repressed lusts and desires, urgings and leanings which they have been told are sinful. In retaliation, they take it out on the stimulus- the body.

And it is unfair. Unfair to the body, the beautiful body, our bodies in all their shapes and forms.

For the body has done nothing. The body merely is.

It is we who impress desires upon it, ascribe thoughts and leanings to it, tendencies. We who demean it and try to force it to be evil and bad when it is not.

If the body is disgusting, it is we who have made it so.

To me, therefore, the body can only be beautiful.

29 comments:

B. Spinoza said...

Chana,

nice post. Chazal don't refer to the body as disgusting, but they certainly valued greatly the idea of modesty. I was reading the midrash tanchuma on shabbat and I came across the passage where they discuss the creation of woman. The midrash asks why was woman created from the rib as opposed to the ear or the arm or leg? The answer the midrash gives is because the rib is hidden inside, and that is the characteristic of a woman that she should be hidden in the house. You can find many similar thoughts throughout Chazal's writings. Very rarely if ever will you see them praising the body as beautiful and therefore one should be proud and show it off

Jewish Atheist said...

Is the only way to slake one's lust to instill revulsion and disgust with the object of one's lust? Is that really what we believe today?

I think that's how self-hating closet-cases like Haggard happen.

G said...

True, that may at one time have been the nature of mankind. However, a little later on we know that things changed. They may not have changed for the better, but nevertheless...

ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles.

כא וַיַּעַשׂ יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ, כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר--וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם.

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

Rare Find said...

The body is a gift from God, and is anything but disgusting. In a similar vein, it bothers me when people are called shallow for admiring beauty. I understand that beauty is not the most important thing in the world, but as a God-given gift, there is nothing wrong with admiring it, just like there's nothing wrong with admiring someone's intellectual capacity.



Side note:

"Is the only way to slake one's lust... "

Believe it or not, I've never heard the word "slake" before. But now I did. Todah.

Chana said...

Sure, they wore clothing, g. Nobody says we should walk around nude. But nowhere in the verses does it say the body is disgusting, and that it must be covered because of that. Their eyes were "opened," i.e. they had more knowledge now. It's arguable what that knowledge entailed. I argue that thinking the body in and of itself to be shameful and/or disgusting is not it.

G said...

I only supplied the additional pesukim as a way of showing that the original pasuk used in the post should not be seen as an absolute.

My aim was not to promote or support the idea that the body is "disgusting". Only that while man may have entered into creation w/o the feeling of shame at his God given form, there was a change that took place in this aspect of his relationship w/ the world at large. A change that both man and woman recognized and God reinforced.

As is the case w/ most things, either extreme is not correct.

ilan said...

I feel that you, and possibly the Stern girls you clearly disapprove of, are conflating two issues:
1. Should the body be considered inherently disgusting and/or sinful?
2. Should we consider certain displays of the body, whether visual or verbal to be shameful or even sinful?

The answer to #1 I would argue is clearly no. You're right. We don't believe that there is anything inherently problematic with the body. But #2? Of course there are some displays of the body that are a problem. Maybe "disgusting" is the worng word, and maybe it isn't, but that's semantics.

Charlie Hall said...

'Why this urge to label the body as "disgusting,"'

I think you hit it on the nail when you used the term
"Puritanism". This is clearly an example of Christian (and maybe Muslim) influence. Judaism values modesty, not self-degradation.

Chana said...

Ilan- excellent point. I agree with you.

I personally do not feel ballet connotes sin, but rather art.

In terms of the conversations I overheard, however, the idea was that the display of the body was disgusting BECAUSE of the very nature of the body and its physicality (relating the two, I think.)

But it's true. If we're arguing semantics, so be it. I dislike the word "disgusting." If one is an art critic and decides, through experience, that the ballet is vulgar or tasteless because of this, that might be okay.

So I'm now straying into the idea of...who is qualified to hold an opinion?

But on the main point- I agree that I conflated the issues. Thanks for pointing that out.

Chana said...

While I'm playing with semantics and to make one point very clear-

Ilan said "the Stern girls you disapprove of"-

Let's get this very straight. I do NOT disapprove of Stern girls in general. I disapprove of certain OPINIONS held by Stern girls (and other people, too, for that matter.)

*smiles*

Halfnutcase said...

our rabbis certianly didn't hold beauty to be disgusting or worthless, infact they made instituted a bracha to be recited when you see beautiful people, it is a rare bracha to say, and probably an extreemely emberasing bracha to have to make under many circumstances, even a bracha that should be said so that noone can hear it to keep shalom under certain circumstances.

And they also made a bracha for a lack of beauty.

certainly they saw value in the concept.

Semgirl said...

Wow, I love the facelift you did on tis blog, and that picture is awesome.

Anonymous said...

ok Chana, I am the anonymous who has been critiquing/debating your posts. You are so right and so wrongon this one.

First You are right. The human body is considered an art form. Sensuality, art, beauty and physical attraction are one of G-d's gifts to mankind. Torah Judaism has no problem with sexuality - it is considered by chazal through Rishonim to modern gedolei Torah as a beautiful, wonderful thing. It is discussed and given the highest praises.

So why haven't you heard this message when I have over and over and over again - because you are an 18 year old single girl and I am married with kids!

The problem with this performance and your quote of the pasuk and your desire to praise the body is CONTEXT! You yourself admitted that the entire performance had overt sexual overtones. That is perverting something and cheapening it and that is disgusting.

The human body should not be used for exhibitionism but should be used as a tool for a higher purpose. And that higher purpose has been defined by the Torah as one that builds a home rather than for entertainment.
To keep something holy, one must keep it private. (i.e. aron in kodesh kedoshim, kohen gadol on Yom Kippur etc) Privacy is the hallmark of tznius. This is the way tznius has been defined by chazal. Esther's actions were not defined as tznius because she wore extra baggy clothes but because she kept her private life to herself. Same with Shaul. And this is why discussing or flaunting one's sexuality in public is so distasteful.

I agree with you that the sense of shame that young women feel toward their body will inhibit them from being able to express it in the proper time. It will lead to many problems emotionally and in relationships when the beauty is meant to be used and cherished. I think schools that emphasize that a girl should look put together and take pride in her appearance go a long way in instilling this value without being so explicit about it. However, I think the opposite extreme is far more dangerous.

Chana said...

"The problem with this performance and your quote of the pasuk and your desire to praise the body is CONTEXT! You yourself admitted that the entire performance had overt sexual overtones. That is perverting something and cheapening it and that is disgusting."

Perhaps romantic would have been a better term than sexual. This was a ballet. A dance. A meeting of minds and a performance of bodies, the bodies expressing the words that couldn't be spoken. The man and the women whose forms work in harmony, her curve to his strong stance, her vulnerability to his protection.

This was not a cheapening of the body, a perversion. This was not a garish and vulgar performance. It was a dream, come from a dream-land, beauty and sexuality combined to form a romantic act. I have to disagree with you on this one, anonymous.

To be modest. To be modest is to act in a fashion that is modest; to act as one ought in various situations. At a performance- a ballet, a theater- I do not think modesty, as it were, is expected. The plot, the story, the tale they are telling involves us all. If this is a romantic tale, as it was in the case of the ballet, there will be sexuality.

I find that many movies and books are deepened by the sexual connection developed therein. I think it is the same with stories and plays, the theater even. But perhaps this all depends on the theater. Perhaps what I see as art, others cannot see but as being vulgar. Perhaps it depends on the perspective I bring to the show...to begin with.

What difference if I am a teenager and you a married woman? Teenagers are just as likely if not more likely to be interested in the oppostite gender, intrigued by sexuality. Honestly, this is all I ever hear about- who is going out on which date, who is cute, who is handsome, who is getting married to this one (and the ages at which these people get married just drop and drop...) and even honest people who TELL me they want to get married for sex. People here OBSESS over sex, while people I know at other schools treat it more normally- simply because it is accepted.

My view is to accept sexuality, and hence to make it attainable, something people feel they can understand and learn about and even appreciate (and no, I'm not condoning premarital sex.) My view is to say, sure! watch the ballet and take pleasure in its beauty and yes, frankly, the chemistry between the characters. Either aesthetically or in that you're living vicariously through the characters, it's okay. It's even normal to appreciate this. It's not dirty or wrong.

Relations between a man and woman are sanctified in marriage. But I do not think it is a sin for people of each gender to be curious about this, to try to understand, even to feel an emotional response to a performance. I think it is normal, really, and it is abnormal for someone to claim they are wholly uninterested in the opposite gender, indeed, that they find the male body "disgusting." I think that person is lying to herself, trying to invoke an attitude she feels she OUGHT to feel..when she doesn't. And I don't see the need.

canadian princess said...

did you know that birds of paradise can have baby boys?

------ said...

Who said that these Stern students found the male body per se "disgusting?" They found the message of expressing the body and its emotions in raw form disgusting. And look-- raw sexuality is animalistic. Now, that doesn't mean that bodies are intrinsically sinful. Au Contraire. We are human in that we have souls, and since we have souls, our bodies are klei kodesh. Even the sexuality that bodies have are a part of the holy function and capability of our bodies as the keilim of our souls.

But to take the expressions of the body and glorify them for the utility of their raw expression--yes, that seems rather disgusting to me. At least, it seems to stand in serious conflict with my understanding of Jewish thought.

B. Spinoza said...

Chana,

I agree with you. More people should use their common sense. If you feel that an action is degrading or brings you down then you shouldn't do it. But if you feel it improves you and makes you a better person, then by all means go for it.

e-kvetcher said...

The Greek ideal of beauty revolved around the human body. Wasn't this one of the key problems for Chazal in their opposition to the Hellenistic Jews of 2000 years ago?

Chana said...

Okay, I wasn't clear enough.

B. Spinoza, I want to clarify- I do NOT activate a feeling-oriented approach to Judaism, in that you just do whatever makes you feel good or happy. However, I don't think that any halakhot are being broken by watching talented dancers perform in an artistic setting. (I will assume that's a given. After all, why else would the Honors Program take us there?)

E-kvetcher, I think the problem was the glorification and adoration of the human body ABOVE ALL ELSE. Humanism alone and exalted, man over God. However, humanism allied to Judaism should be fine. And as these ballerinas were gentiles (or if not gentiles, then non-religious Jews) I don't see how their dancing conflicts with Jewish values.

I personally feel amazement and admiration when I observe how these people can command their bodies. In me it inspires awe.

---said, why is raw sexuality disgusting? I could understand why it might be immodest, were the dancers Orthodox Jews, but as they're not, what's wrong with passion and chemistry? Does this mean that watching any dancing- pasadoble, tango, salsa and the like (and I'm talking about a woman watching, not a man) which revolve around passion, is wrong, and inherently disgusting?

----- said...

I could understand why it might be immodest, were the dancers Orthodox Jews, but as they're not, what's wrong with passion and chemistry?

As Jews, we should certainly consider it a problem when gentiles are immodest. Of course, we can hardly expect them to keep tzniut in the Jewish sense. But every person in the world is prohibited from gilui arayos (think sheva mitzvot bnei noach), and even avizarei d'arayos are a problem. Indeed, no person should glorify sexuality if it's not for a higher purpose. Bodies are only beautiful in that they are the compartments of souls. Glorifying raw body expression is thus just as upsetting when it's a gentile in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Let's figure out how the schools should teach the children.
Teach them about their sexuality. Teach them not to be ashamed.
Teach them sex-ed in 3rd grade.

And all the for guys and girls.

What will that end up with?

Guys who are 13 and can't keep their hands and body off girls..
Guys and girls who are 16 and have "explored".

Yes, no one should be ashamed of their body- its a gift from g-d. And its part of us.

But we are a bit more then that, we are proud of ourselves.

Chana said...

Bodies are only beautiful in that they are the compartments of souls.
---said

Oh, how strange a statement is this! If this is the case, then kindly explain- why is it that we do not perform autopsies on the dead? Why is it that we don't allow cremation? Or mutilation of the body in any form? After all, it no longer houses the soul anymore, so according to your philosophy, it's no longer holy, no longer important. According to your philosphy, there's no reason to respect the body after death. Because after all, there's no soul then, right?

I, on the other hand, believe that the body in and of itself, with or without a soul, is beautiful and must be respected. The body in and of itself is beautiful and sexual and sacred and pure, all those things both simultaneously and at different times. And hence there are laws applying to the body even when we are dead, laws protecting it from any kind of scarring or hurt.

I don't know why it is that you seem to feel that an expression of sexuality is wrong- after all, this is hardly gilui arayot! These people aren't exhibitionists in a strip club; they're ballet dancers. There's a definite difference here. There's no Noachide law I know that prevents a man from walking around, or dancing shirtless.

Chana said...

Teach them sex-ed in 3rd grade.
-anonymous

Where in my post did I suggest this? Don't put words in my mouth. I don't appreciate it.

So, anonymous, if I read you correctly, you seem to favor a total lack of knowledge. DON'T teach children or teenagers sex-ed. Let them have primitive ideas and concepts of sexuality- what it is and what it entails. No knowledge, no information, is the way to go here. That way we'll instill "pride" in our children.

A lack of shame in the body does not mean a lack of modesty. It simply means that the body in and of itself is not despised. That sexuality is appreciated in and of itself, and not only as a side-part to the mitzvah of 'peru and revu.'

Do you think, by the way, that Modern Orthodox and even fully Orthodox Jews keep all the laws of sexuality, even if reared in the way you suggested? Definitely not. Masturbation, making out with girls...happens a LOT in otherwise Orthodox circles (yes, even yeshivish circles.) So to suggest it would happen more frequently were people given knowledge about sexuality is almost entertaining. Teenagers find out about this- if they don't find out through parents or adults or people they trust, they find it on the web.

If sex and sexuality is not an open topic to be discussed, a topic one can bring up in the family setting and understand, a topic to be taught not only from a halakhic point of view but from an understanding, compassionate and sympathetic point of view, I shudder to think at how teenagers think of themselves. The guilt, the anger, the self-reproach, maybe the rebellion...There's so many ways.

I don't think there's any knowledge in this world that is wholly forbidden. The question is how and when to distribute it (and sometimes, in the case of top-secret cases, to whom.) But to close off a topic- to shut that door- because you're scared of what MIGHT come to be, is simply to open the window to what will SURELY be amongst the uninformed.

B. Spinoza said...

>I want to clarify-I do NOT activate a feeling-oriented approach to Judaism, in that you just do whatever makes you feel good or happy.

Now let me clarify. I didn't say you should do what ever makes you feel good. I said you should use your intuition to do what you think *is* good for you. And if you think following halacha is good for you then you should follow it. But even something is permitted according to halacha if you think it would be bad for you then you shouldn't do it.

----- said...

The halachot against cremation and autopsies are Kavod hamet. We don't call them kavod haguf or hapigrah. I'm pretty sure that we respect the body after death because once it has been mukdash as a kli kodesh this status cannot be undone. Think of it as sheimos.

Of course, bodies are beautiful. But they are the most beautiful when you look at them and say, "Wow, there's a tzelem Elokim in there" instead of "Wow, that's viscerally impressive."

Chana said...

I'm pretty sure that we respect the body after death because once it has been mukdash as a kli kodesh this status cannot be undone

According to this philosophy, a known rasha can be cremated, then? Surely HIS body doesn't qualify as having been mukdash as a kli kodesh.

What if a qualified court were to proscribe someone a rasha so we absolutely knew/ there was no doubt? You then state that I could burn his body if I liked? Take a knife and mutilate it? I don't think so...

Regardless of who we were in life, our bodies are to be respected after death. That speaks volumes.

Why can't it be both? Why can't the body be both sacred AND, to use your term, "viscerally impressive?"

---- said...

There are a couple of ways to answer your first objection. Primary is the the answer that you allude to: we are fallible. Nobody has the power to judge another person to that degree, to say that they're an absolute rasha! That is pretty much out of the realm of human jurisdiction. Even the Sanhedrin, once they execute the person, give kavod to the met because they hope that the mitat beit din has been enough of a kapara that the person is no longer deemed a rasha.

Secondly, even were a person "absolutely evil," which seems pretty hard to achieve, nobody can undo their status as a tzelem elokim.

And why can't we have both worlds? The way I see it, we live in a universe where our perceptions are strongly blocked due to our sticky problem of having sensory mechanisms that can only see the physical. In general, it's a challenge for us to look past bodies and see tzalmei Elokim. But flaunting physicality only makes increases the difficulty in seeing beyond it. Physicality can very easily blind us if it's not in a framework of higher purpose.

Another Annonymous said...

I wrote a paper on the concept of beauty in Judaism while I was in seminary. Guess what my conclusion was? Physical beauty is a manifestation of a beautiful soul.

Artistic expression is all well and good, but calling something art does not does not require one to be comfortable with it. The body can express perfectly well without nudity.

Anonymous said...

Chana,

I am about to quote for you a dvar Torah written on this week's parsha--not necessarily for comment, but rather for contemplation. Just as background, it is given by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, author of many phenomenal Torah works and world-renown speaker:

"At the beginning of this week's parsha, the verse says, "Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years and seven years; the years of Sarah's life" [Bereshis 23:1]. The Medrash quotes the pasuk "Hashem knows the days of the perfect, their inheritance will be forever" [Tehillim 37:18] and comments "Just as the righteous are 'temimim' [perfect / complete] so too are their years 'temimim'. Sarah was as beautiful as a 7-year-old at age 20, and at 100 her quantity of sins was equal to that of a 20 year old.

The Medrash is obviously addressing the strange way in which the pasuk states that Sarah lived to the age of 127. It is understandable why the Medrash wants to point out the righteousness of Sarah. The longer we live, the more susceptible and open we are to sin. So we can readily understand the praise implicit in the statement that when she was 100, she was like a person who was only 20 in terms of the number of sins she had committed in her lifetime. This is a significant measure of piety that is worth knowing about our first matriarch.

But what is the point of the Medrash telling us that at twenty, Sarah was as beautiful as a 7-year-old? The Torah is not discussing someone who is entering a beauty pageant here. What is the point of this drasha (exegesis)? We are discussing our matriarch Sarah. Why is it significant to know that she had the beauty of a 7 year old when she was twenty?

Rav Mottel Katz, z"l, in his work Be'er Mechokek explains the very important concept of Biblical beauty. The Torah goes out of its way to describe the various matriarchs as being beautiful in appearance. This is not the type of description which we would expect to hear today in describing a prominent Rebbetzin or even in proposing a shidduch (marriage match) to a serious Rabbinical student. Even when someone is interested in "looks", it is still uncommon for one to stress "she is a beautiful girl" when discussing a potential match. We are supposedly above that. However, the Torah does point out that the matriarchs were beautiful people.

Our Sages state that ten measures of beauty descended to the world. Jerusalem took 90% of that beauty and the rest of the world divided up the remaining 10% [Kidushin 49b]. Here again, the Gemara emphasizes that Jerusalem is the most beautiful city in the world. Why is it important that Jerusalem be a beautiful city? Would it be any less meaningful or holy for the Jewish people if Jerusalem were not the most beautiful city in the world?

The answer is that we as human beings are very influenced by our physical surroundings. Physical beauty can put a person in a frame of mind that is more receptive to the spirituality that exists. The Talmud says elsewhere, "three things broaden a person's mind – a beautiful house, beautiful possessions, and a beautiful wife" [Brachos 57b]. What is the meaning of this Gemara? The meaning of the Gemara is that when a person lives in nice conditions and is not bogged down by physical distractions, he has the ability to be more receptive to matters of holiness.

A person who is in a beautiful home with beautiful furniture, beautiful surroundings, and a beautiful wife, can have the freedom and peace of mind to devote himself to the higher tasks of life. The beautiful home, car, and wife are not ends in and of themselves. But they allow the person to rise above the impediments of physical distractions that sometimes get in the way of spiritual growth.

When a person enters Jerusalem and looks out upon the beautiful Judean Hills, his soul becomes more receptive to be influenced by the inherent sanctity of the place than what would be possible if Jerusalem had been an equally sanctified but less attractive city.

Chazal tell us in the above quoted Medrash that the beauty of Sarah was like that of a 7-year-old. The beauty of a 20-year-old woman can sometimes be used for the wrong purposes in life. The beauty of a 7-year-old, on the other hand, has a certain purity and innocence. This is exactly the point made by Chazal. The beauty of Sarah was not used like the beauty of a 20-year-old woman can sometimes be used. It was used like the beauty of a 7-year-old girl -– not for malevolent, not for prurient, and not for sensual purposes –- but purposes of inspiration and aspiration, as our Sages say "Sarah converted the women.""