Unfortunately for all of us, this ambivalent attitude does not begin and end with Jewish scripture or the Jewish sages. It also affects our daily existence. Anyone who studied in the religious school system is accustomed to looking the other way when the issue of beauty arises. But sometimes there are moments when you can’t ignore it any longer, and you need to look at someone’s appearance and say, I like it, or I don’t.
Take, for example, the issue of matchmaking. It’s always one of the embarrassing questions when enquiries are made about a potential candidate. After religiosity, family, and family financial means (which is not considered embarrassing) comes the question that has to be asked, though it isn’t really clear how. On the one hand you don’t want to look like someone who places too much emphasis on looks, but on the other hand, every person has his preferences. So what do you do? You tiptoe gently around it.
You ask: “Is the girl nice”? (when you aren’t referring specifically to her sense of humor) or “Is he healthy?” (when you want to know if he’s overweight). There’s also “Does she look like her sister?” (the neighborhood beauty). Some people attend an event at which the potential match will be present in order to get a look at him or her and give a passing or failing grade. In short, you find indirect ways to ask about the burning issue without revealing your cards.
Mixing beauty with modestyIt isn’t always done this way. Sometimes there is one righteous man or woman in Sodom who is prepared to say such awful things as “I want someone tall and thin” or “I’m interested in a girl with blonde curls” and lo and behold, he isn’t struck by lightening and it doesn’t take the matchmaker three and a half months to understand what he is looking for based on his refusing all her other matches.
The more serious problem starts when you mix the issue of beauty with the issue of modesty. You turn the word “modest” into a synonym for ugly, and then beauty becomes clearly undesirable. The strictly Orthodox ideal, the official one, is apparently like wallpaper. Even if it’s there, you don’t really look at it.
Accordingly, for many girls the whole question of looking good is taboo, and certainly for anyone who is not at the critical age of dating. Why should I put on face cream? Why bother doing my eyebrows? It isn’t necessary. It isn’t important. Is she God-fearing? Is she intelligent? That’s enough.
Generically programmed to want certain peopleWhat’s sad is that there are some people who really buy this, and they discover only too late that they’re in trouble. For a childhood friend of mine it took three years of disappointment until she realized that it wasn’t possible that everyone was shallow for looking for a girl who is beautiful and well groomed. Today she is happily married, but she carefully supervises the children’s style.
Let me state plainly that the desire not to get sucked into Western culture—with its cosmetic surgery and other treatments—in order to look like some ideal of beauty that someone in Paris invented (which is what our teachers liked to say) is clear and absolute. But there’s a great distance between that and completely ignoring what a person looks like.
So what can we do? We were and will be human beings, not angels. We needn’t be ashamed that we were given eyes, and we are genetically and culturally programmed to want more or less certain shapes and colors of plants, furniture, and yes, people. So even though beauty is an optical illusion, it’s important. But if a God-fearing woman with inner depth is also beautiful, wow, that would be really something!