Beauty, Outward Beauty, and Health
Judaism recognizes the primacy of an inner beauty, but we are nonetheless
called upon to care for our bodies and not discouraged from tending
to our appearance.
By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld
Reprinted from A
Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (Schocken
Judaism's concern with care of our bodies is also
reflected in issues of physical appearance and wellbeing. Societal
standards determine what constitutes modest attire, and many of
the specific statements in our tradition no longer seem applicable.
In broad terms, however, the tradition attempts to maintain an appreciation
for the beauty of the body and its sensuality while consistently
reminding us that we are more than just bodies.
Each of us is created in the Divine image. It is
natural for us to want to be attractive to others and to be noticed
by those around us. Unlike secular society, Judaism does not have
an idealized model of beauty. We are all created in God's image.
In all our diversity, fat and thin, tall and short, we are all equally
As the vessel that holds our soul, Judaism seeks
most of all to have our outside selves be a reflection of our inner
beings. Our inner beauty is what counts and it is always reflected
on the outside. The important thing is to focus on who we are and
how we live rather than how we look. Indirectly, Judaism addresses
those who may be dissatisfied with their outward body by pointing
out that all individuals differ:
“Therefore people were created unique, in
order to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One. For if a person
strikes many coins from one mold, they are all exactly alike. But
though the King of kings, the Holy One, has fashioned every person
in the stamp of the first human, not a single one of them is exactly
like another.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a)
This is not to deny that our body image is important
or that it may often be a conflicted part of our self-image. Nor
does it mean that clothes don't make a difference in how we feel
about ourselves or how others feel about us.
"When you dress or otherwise do something
to improve your appearance, putting on nice clothes or ornaments,
your intention should be holy and for the sake of heaven--to beautify
and adorn the Divine Image...." [Noam Elimelekh, by the 17th
century Polish Hasidic teacher Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk]
Caring for Our Bodies
Nor does Judaism's focus on inner beauty release
us from our obligation to care for our bodies. This is especially
true with regard to matters of health, such as eating the right
foods, losing excess weight, and regular exercise. In fact the tradition
regards the body as a precious gift to us from God.
" ‘He who does good to his own person
is a person of piety' (Proverbs 11:17). Such a one was Hillel the
Elder. After taking leave of his disciples, he proceeded to walk
along with them. His disciples asked him, 'Master, where are you
going?' He answered, 'To perform a precept [mitzvah].' 'What precept?'
'To bathe in the bathhouse.' 'But is this a precept?!' 'It is indeed.
King's statues set up in theaters and circuses are scoured and washed
down by the official specially appointed to look after them, who
receives a salary for the work. More, he is esteemed as one of the
notables of the empire. How much more am I required to scour and
wash myself, who have been created in God's image and likeness,
as it is written: In the image of God, God made people' [Genesis
9:6]!" [Leviticus Rabbah34:31]
Our Bodies Reflect the
So doing good to one's self is not regarded as
being "self-indulgent," but rather as being pious, for
we are created in the Divine image. Almost paradoxically, Judaism
asks us to accept and appreciate ourselves as creatures of the Creator
and yet calls on us to strive to improve ourselves. Finding the
correct balance is not always easy.
This is especially true when it comes to feelings
about our bodies and our appearance. Nevertheless, the tradition
is clear about the need to refrain from self-destructive activities.
Judaism calls on us to alter habits, such as overeating or excess
drinking, which may endanger our lives. For this reason, in recent
halakhic literature a prohibition on cigarette smoking has been
"By keeping the body in health and vigor one
walks in the ways of God. Since it is impossible during sickness
to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator, it is therefore
a person's duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate
habits conducive to health and vigor." (Maimonides, Mishneh
Torah, Hilkhot De'ot 4:1)
Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society
for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in
Manhattan, co-author of The
First Jewish Catalog, The
Second Jewish Catalog, and A
Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The
Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary. He lives in New York
City with his wife and children.
© Michael Strassfeld, 2002, Schocken Books.