In an article that recently appeared in an Orthodox Jewish newspaper the writer, Yitta Halberstam, herself and Orthodox Jewish woman and mother, suggested that girls of marriageable age do whatever they can to augment their physical appearances. She made it clear that if necessary young Orthodox Jewish women should undergo cosmetic surgery to improve their chances of attracting a husband. This of course has garnered much debate within the community.
My initial response to this point of view was outrage. In fact I felt offended. I have a young daughter. Is this what will be expected of her as she grows up? I asked indignantly. Have Yeshiva boys become so shallow that they can only perceive that which is skin deep?
But then I remembered an incident that took place about thirteen years ago in Gush Katif. We were a group of Yeshiva boys of marriageable age spending a wonderful and meaningful Shabbat together at what used to be a beautiful seaside resort. During that Shabbat we met a large family that had come together to celebrate their family matriarch’s ninety eighth birthday. We approached this charming old lady and asked her to offer us some life wisdom. She said: “It may say in the Proverbs that ‘charm is false and beauty is futile,’ but you should make sure you marry a beautiful girl.”
Here was a women who had lived a long and full life and had brought up a large family that obviously greatly respected and adored her. Yet this was her only piece of advice to us. King Solomon, at the end of his life came to the conclusion that ‘beauty is futile.’ This old lady, however, was saying that from her perspective, having lived a full life, feminine beauty is extremely valuable.
The male and female perspectives could not be more polarized. According to the Proverbs a man should say that beauty is futile. From a female point of view, however, beauty should be important. This is demonstrated in the Torah (Exodus 38:8) when mirrors were brought by the Israelites to create the basin for the Tabernacle. Moses felt that the mirrors were an inappropriate donation because they were used by Israelite women to beautify themselves in order to arouse and entice their exhausted slave-driven husbands in Egypt.
The great medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that God instructed Moses to accept them saying that these mirrors are, “More precious to me than anything else because through them the women established many generations in Egypt.”
In other words from the perspective of the divine, when a women beautifies herself for her husband she is doing something holy. The rational is clear. Physical attraction is the glue that holds a marriage together making it more than just a deep friendship. Solid marriages create functional families. And cohesive families are the building blocks necessary for the creation of decent, civilized societies. Thus, from a female perspective it is important to be attractive in the eyes of her husband for reasons beyond her own desire for carnal pleasure. She is able to see the big picture in this regard.
Nonetheless men need to have a different perspective. King Solomon is warning the man that he needs to look beyond charm and beauty. He says the “a woman who fears God is the one that is to be truly praised.” In other words King Solomon is telling men to look on the inside of the person rather than on the externalities. It is character and spiritual allure that counts. This was also Moses perspective. As a man of God he felt it unnecessary for women to spend so much time making themselves beautiful for their husbands--it was what was on the inside that mattered to him.
The suggestion that young women undergo cosmetic surgery may be extreme. The larger point made by Yitta Halberstam, however, is valid when comes from a woman’s perspective. Jewish women from time immemorial have seen it their holy duty to beautify themselves for their husbands. At the same time Jewish men have always been encouraged to look deeper and recognize that beauty is only skin deep. The wisdom inherent in the balance of these two perspectives on beauty is striking. It occurs to me that this maybe one of the keys to the traditional high rate of successful marriages within the Orthodox communities.