This is a response to the article printed in the Jewish Press, Purim and The Tyranny Of Beauty: A Plea to Mothers of Girls in Shidduchim.
I was rendered absolutely speechless by a Jewish Press article entitled Purim and The Tyranny Of Beauty: A Plea to Mothers of Girls in Shidduchim, in which the author, Mrs. Yitta Halberstam, urges mothers that: “There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan.” Furthermore, mothers are encouraged to “borrow the money if [they] have to….”
A number of procedures are actively encouraged or tacitly condoned through a friend’s story: “…a nose job….gastric bypass …botox injections….her teeth were capped…..and she wears violet-blue contact lenses.” In response to the criticism that “there’s practically nothing about her that’s real” comes the rebuttal: “She’s getting married next month!”
It’s no surprise that many men like thin, pretty women. Nevertheless, while Judaism places value on beauty, it is not the highest priority. Let us look at who was attracted primarily to beauty.
The article came out around Purim and references the holiday in its title, so let’s start there. Esther was beautiful and the fact that she married the king turned out to be a good thing for the Jewish people, but was Ahasuerus whom Esther would have aspired to marry? Here was a man who chose his wife through a beauty pageant. He also wanted to trot out his first wife, Vashti, so he could show her off like a piece of meat. When she failed to comply, it was goodbye, Vashti! So, king or not, Ahasuerus was no prize.
Sarah was also known for her great beauty. In Genesis 12:11, after decades of marriage, Abraham (then still called Abram) said to Sarah (still known as Sarai), “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman….” Because of their great modesty and the emphasis they placed on character, Abraham truly didn’t realize how beautiful Sarah was. It was only as they were about to enter Egypt, where Sarah’s beauty could lead to trouble, did her looks even occur to Abraham. Sure enough, Sarah was abducted by Pharaoh, whose first and only concern was beauty.
The parsha of Ki Seitzei (Deuteronomy, Chapter 21) tells us about the case of a soldier who sees a beautiful captive girl whom he wishes to marry. The very next scenario in the Torah is the case of a man who hates his wife. Rashi on verse 21:11 cites the Midrash that the hated wife of the second case is the same as the beautiful girl of the first case. Her beauty, while compelling enough for infatuation, simply wasn’t a basis for a lasting relationship.
Let us contrast these cases with Ruth. How beautiful was Ruth? Who knows? All we know is that Boaz was attracted to her modesty and her fine character traits (see Talmud Shabbos 113b). Ruth also attracted attention, but she attracted the right kind of attention from the right kind of person. Yes, the woman who had all of the cosmetic surgery performed is getting married, but is she marrying the right kind of person? Did she attract an Ahasuerus or a Boaz? (As a friend of mine put it, she’s marrying a man who loves her for everything that she’s not.)
Mrs. Halberstam is kind enough to disclose that she herself does not have a daughter. She has a son who, happily, is in great demand. But how would it fly if she were advised that her son could attract far more beautiful girls if he gave up his studies and focused all his efforts on making as much money as possible? Yes, it would work, but no doubt those are not the kinds of girls he wishes to attract. Similarly, girls who follow the advice to undergo surgery may attract boys, but will they be the ones they want?
There’s nothing wrong with beauty. Nice hair, clothes, make-up and nails are all advisable. And yes, there may be extreme cases where surgery is called for. That’s a very personal decision and it should not be undertaken lightly. A blanket call to botox and nose jobs, however, is simply misplaced. We live in a society where girls’ self-esteem is under constant bombardment. Eating disorders based on unrealistic body-image expectations are at a record high. We need to fight back against these trends, not give into them.
King Solomon tells us in Proverbs 31:30, familiar from Eishes Chayil, that “charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; a God-fearing woman is the one to be praised.” We like beauty. We like charm. They’re just not our priority. Beauty is only skin deep and it will pass with time. A person’s true measure, man or woman, is their character. Strive for a Boaz.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of four books, including The Tzniyus Book, available on Amazon. His fifth book, The Taryag Companion, is anticipated for summer 2012.