Contact Us

What is Beauty?

What is Beauty?

 Email

Every name is a book waiting to be read. The foreclosure of a person in their name means a period of gestation. Summoned forth, the narrative read within the name divulges the person enclosed inside as long as one is in fact carried in one’s name—the “I” reflected in the conscripted identity. What “I” am is a story read from the book which is my name. Noah is such a name.

The name “Noah” lies undecipherable from the stories of Noah. His name being a book unto itself plays along and marches in the greater world of the Torah which is itself a book. Thus, names as books are read from within the Book of Books which is itself identified as one monumental name: The Name—The Name of all names—the Torah as an extended and elaborate signature of G‑d according to the mystical tradition.

The world dies from being improperly named

Sometimes the problem arises from our common plight of ‘living far from words’ under the assumption that language is a barrier that damages our experience of the world. Yet, the kabbalists teach us that the world is itself built from language—where G‑d speaks and realities come into being—the Name that names names. Consequently, we need to pry open the words of creation, to seek the secret of names, to listen to the stories that only they can tell. The world dies from being improperly named. Identity theft consists of feeling that ‘they’ stole my name by giving me a name in which I could no longer recognize myself in my world. Our difficulty consists in acknowledging the fact that we are all placed in names. We hope that we are properly placed.

Who is Noah? He is a person dressed in a story. However, to really know him we must tunnel into the ‘characters’ that molded his Hebrew identity. Noah is the contemporary of the name that inhabits him and which he in turn inhabits. The ‘bookmark’ within the story of his life, is drawn from two Hebrew letters nun-chet which when vocalized produces his primal call-sign “Noach” or Noah. What do we gain from pronouncing Noah as Noach? We get the etymological affinity with the term for rest: Noach. We barely meet Noah in the record of his birth (Genesis 5:28-29): “And he called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one will bring rest (y’nachenainu)…’” when this initial play of his name, his first nature, is followed by a different predication purchased from the comportment of his life: “And Noah found grace in the eyes of G‑d” (Genesis 6:8). Here, grace “chen” (chet-nun) is the mirror image of the Hebrew letters in Noah’s name (nun-chet). To reach rest, a stable state, one must process an inner quality of grace apprehended in the eye of the beholder.

Here the eyes of G‑d serve to remind us of the highest order of perception that sees a balanced or proportionate reflection of these two Hebrew letters. Taken idiomatically, we may submit that chen “grace” or “favor” as the reverse of Noach (Noah) implies the concept of symmetry. Rest or stability reflects symmetrical states of being—the attunement to balance and proportionate distribution. While these physical properties have mathematical and elementary physical implications, we will focus our attention upon the aesthetic repercussions of “graceful” symmetry as elegance itself.

Leaping inter-textually to the famed poetic song of praise, the Woman of Valor, that King Solomon enshrined at the conclusion of his celebrated book of Proverbs, we encounter a polemic against “grace” and aesthetic beauty. In this context (Proverbs 31:30) he asserts that “Grace (chen) is false and beauty vain; a woman who has awe of G‑d, she should be praised.” Here the aesthetic by itself does not suffice to carry us to truth. Unlike the Greeks for whom beauty in virtue of being beautiful must therefore be truth, the case at hand presents a different view: only when something has established its spiritual truth in relation to G‑d does its beauty become meaningful. Something is beautiful because it is true and not true because it is beautiful.

We might be tempted to ask along similar line: why was beauty created i.e. what is the ultimate function of beauty in creation? Moreover, why is this question couched in the above verses dealing with the beauty of a woman? Who is implicated in his critique of the aesthetic? Applied in a straightforward manner, we may come to think that only the idealized physical properties of a person make them beautiful. In other words, the human tendency is the quest after prime examples to ‘model’ the symmetry of the human face.

Balanced proportions of facial and bodily features find favor to the observer, or so we might think. Often the case is otherwise. Physical beauty can be described as slight imperfections or dissymmetries that engender the uniqueness that differentiates beauty from beauty, face from face. Our Sages teach us that amongst other qualities “there is no woman (created) other than for beauty” (Tractate Ketuvot 57b). This Talmudic dictum suggests that the very category of the aesthetic belongs to the feminine realm.

As is often the case, a generalization such as this carries along with it a great deal of fine print. In order to fully appreciate this assignment of attributes to a single side of the gendered world, we are enjoined to reread this statement in light of another important general principle in the vast wisdom of kabbalistic literature (particularly Tikunei Zohar 61a) in which the term “woman” is distanced from its biological meaning and reconfigured as the emblem of the body of all human beings.

Something is beautiful because it is true and not true because it is beautiful

The masculine in our context becomes the soul that is carried for the term of its life in the womb that is its feminine body. The body as womb or vessel or house indicates the biological function of the mother but without limiting the female subject to this operative status. Thus the beauty ascribed to women by the Sages is in essence the beauty of the body itself.

The feminine exhibits a greater attunement to the body and optimally an awareness of a body permeated with soul. The body as beauty is not negotiated by the body by itself but in relation to the “awe of G‑d.” This awe, in our context, refers to the awe of the infinite, the over-awing relation to that which is beyond representation—the G‑d of the Torah of whom no graven image may be made. ‘For He has no body nor corporal properties.’

Beyond resemblance and representation, G‑d or awe of G‑d, informs us that the body carries within it a soul, a trace of infinity. The physical limits of the flesh overflow themselves and carry with them a new definition of grace, one that strikes a balance and harmonizes the plexus of the physical and spiritual. We sense this about ourselves and others every time we are greeted in the mirror and are dissatisfied with our objective beauty, when everything looks fine and yet something is still wrong.

We see that the real aesthetic issues are not cosmetic problems but stem instead from the opaqueness of a body that has become an obstacle to the soul. We experience the strange but not uncommon feeling of being imprisoned in the very bodies within which others identity us. Letting oneself out from inside, the radiation of the soul through the body in the true sense of grace, the rest or serenity pours out into a world or amongst people and places in the awe of the infinite that channels the beyond through our bodies. Thus we read true beauty.

Rabbi Asher Crispe is the Executive Director of Interinclusion.org, celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and Torah thought. He is a world-renowned lecturer on Chassidic and Kabbalistic philosophy.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
9 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Rock quetta, United States of America February 28, 2011

Nice! I think, it is heartwarming to learn that the answer to low esteem is to be found in the good book and not in indulging in cosmetic surgery. Reply

valerie LONDON, London January 10, 2011

Beauty,in the eye of the beholder I like what Michaela has to say,it is short and sweet.When we live in a world where women are judged by how they look,it is heartwarming to learn that the answer to low esteem is to be found in the good book and not in indulging in cosmetic surgery.
For those of us who have never thought ourselves to be attractive or told that we are beautiful.this is just what we needed. Reply

Anonymous Pretoria, South Africa September 5, 2010

I have a problem with 'no corporeal parts'. In the Here-hereafter the body and soul reunite - why then would there not be corporeal parts? We read that G-d has a face, hands and a body as told my the recount of Moses' interaction with G-d through the wilderness. We are also told that we are made in the Image of G-d. I cannot understand that this can only mean self-will in Judaism - could you possibly help me to understand? Reply

Sharon Kay Oliver Portales, New Mexico September 13, 2009

Sometimes, G-d signs His name Once, when my grandson and I were in the yard looking at a rainbow, he said, "Grandma, G-d signed His name in the sky." What an insight. He then said, "What a beautiful signature." Only through the eyes of a child, can we learn this. Shalom, Sharon Oliver Reply

Malka Stern via chabadisraeli.net January 7, 2009

Thank you, Rabbi Crispe. Please keep writing for us! Reply

siddharth new delhi, india June 9, 2007

outer beauty we want the defination of outer beauty.

Reply

Michaela Rochester, NY February 9, 2007

"Something is beautiful because it is true..." Thank You for helping me feel beautiful even when the world doesn't see it in me. Reply

cblehmann Toledo, OH January 4, 2007

Think of how beautiful is a loved one in whose love you are unconditionally confident - an unmeasurable symetry of joy! Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, NY October 29, 2006

fresh/change of pace Nice to read something new and interesting here. Reply

Related Topics