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The Beauty Wars

December 22, 2005 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Why the Hanukkah battle isn't over yet.

Monica, at age 15, was a talented musician and poet with an insightful, witty personality and an I.Q. of 165. She had loving parents, both professors, who adored their only child. Nonetheless, Monica was depressed enough to enter psychotherapy.

What was she depressed about? Her appearance. "I'm a pimply whale," she described herself. "When I walk down the halls [in school] I feel like a hideous monster."

All the kids shunned Monica because she was overweight. "I'm a good musician," she declared wistfully, "but not many guys are looking for a girl that plays great Bach preludes." Girls, too, obsessed with the ideal of thinness, did not want to be seen with Monica. "I can see people look me over, size me up as unattractive and look away," Monica complained to her therapist. "I'm not a person to them."

Monica is a case study in psychologist Mary Pipher's best-selling book Reviving Ophelia. Dr. Pipher writes about the ordeal that faces most contemporary adolescent girls:

I wouldn't have written this book had it not been for these last few years when my office has been filled with girls -- girls with eating disorders, alcohol problems, posttraumatic stress reactions to sexual or physical assaults... self-inflicted injuries and strange phobias, and girls who have tried to kill themselves or run away. A health department survey showed that 40 percent of all girls in my Midwestern city considered suicide last year. [p. 27]

Dr. Pipher identifies one of the main culprits in this ongoing catastrophe to be the pressure to be beautiful. She coined the term "lookism," which she defined as "the evaluation of a person solely on the basis of appearance." Dr. Pipher writes: "In early adolescence girls learn how important appearance is in defining social acceptability. Attractiveness is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for girls' success. This is an old, old problem. Helen of Troy didn't launch a thousand ships because she was a hard worker." [p.40]


Dr. Pipher is right; beauty as the ultimate value is an "old, old problem." In fact, we can trace its roots to ancient Greek culture. The Greeks innovated the aesthetic ideal. While other ancient cultures beautified their buildings and pottery, the Greeks introduced the idea of beauty for its own sake, or, as we say today, "art for art's sake."

The ultimate value of the Greeks was beauty; the ultimate value of the Jews was holiness.

Historian Will Durant, in his book The Life of Greece, refers to ancient Greece's "infatuation with physical beauty and health," to the exclusion of "the study of character and the portrayal of soul."

In fact, the Torah identifies the ancestor of the ancient Greeks to be Yefeth, the son of Noah. "Yefeth" means beauty.

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Jews over the Greeks. The conflict was not only a military war, but even more so a Kulturkampf between opposing values. The ultimate value of the Greeks was beauty; the ultimate value of the Jews was holiness. Even a cursory glimpse at contemporary Western society reveals that the Hanukkah battle isn't over yet.

Judaism does not scorn beauty, but it relegates it to secondary importance. Beauty is worthwhile only when used to enhance the holy. Thus, the sages of the Talmud praised the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for its beauty, declaring that "one who never saw the Temple never saw a beautiful building." Jewish art consists of ancient mosaic synagogue floors and 19th century Polish Hanukkah menorahs. Even the performance of mitzvot, the crux of Judaism, includes a concept called hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the mitzvah. This is one of the reasons why Jews do not light just one Hanukkah candle per household per night, but rather each person lights an increasing number of candles of the menorah every night.

The concept that beauty should be secondary to holiness corresponds to Noah's blessing to his son Yefeth that he should "dwell in the tents of Shem." Noah's son Shem was the ancestor of the Jewish people. When beauty serves holiness, it enhances. When beauty becomes its own master, it tyrannizes.

If a person's sense of self devolves on external beauty, every pimple will trigger an identity crisis.

This is the tragedy of Monica and the traumatized girls Dr. Pipher writes about. If a person's sense of self devolves on external beauty, on the slimness of her body or the sleekness of her hair, her sense of self will be as fragile as a hollow plaster figurine. Every pimple will trigger an identity crisis, every gained pound a personal cataclysm. Dr. Pipher chronicles the sad case of one frizzy-haired, homely girl who said of herself, "I'm a dog."

Judaism's rebuttal to such "lookism" is: You're a soul. Your self worth is intrinsic and immutable. You are created in the image of God, which means that your essential self is holy. And the more you identify with your spiritual essence rather than with your physical exterior, the more liberated you will be from the tyranny of the Greek god of external appearance.

Obeisance to the external tyrannizes because it's never good enough. No anorexic girl is ever thin enough; no attractive woman can compete with the billboard models; even an hour assiduously applying makeup falls short of the faces in the magazines.

Those who value the holy, on the other hand, are always good enough, because holiness is an essential, incorruptible quality of every human being. It can be obscured, but never eradicated. Moreover, unlike physical beauty, holiness is the province of all. Only some people are born beautiful, but all people are born holy.

What would the Jewish value of internality look like translated into contemporary terms? It would manifest as: middle-aged people untraumatized by wrinkles and gray hair because they know that as they grow older they grow wiser; well-adjusted teenage girls who spend more time praying than primping; husbands who adore their wives for their inner qualities rather than their dress size; and secure wives who are not worried that their husbands will divorce them for younger, slimmer women. This is what a true victory over the Greeks looks like on the ground.


Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the rabbi of Jerusalem's Old City, teaches an incisive Hanukkah lesson. Kindling the Menorah required two components: pure oil and the Golden Menorah. The beautiful Golden Menorah in the Temple had been pillaged by the Greeks. When the Maccabees reconquered the Temple, they had to improvise a rough menorah made of their own spears, iron coated with tin. It was years before the Jews could afford a nice silver Menorah, and decades before they could replace the beautiful Golden Menorah.

If God miraculously produced pure oil, why didn't He miraculously produce a beautiful Golden Menorah?

Rabbi Nebenzahl answers that the pure olive oil, whose purity was spiritual rather than physical, represented that which is internal. The beautiful Golden Menorah represented that which is external. The miraculous finding of the oil -- but not the Menorah -- was God's statement to the victorious Maccabees that the inner is more important than the outer. And that realization is the real victory over the Greeks.


Historically, the battle of Hanukkah was a civil war. Most of the Jews in the urban centers had become Hellenists, or aficionados of Greek culture. Although the Maccabees did have to fight the Greek army, the real foes of the loyal Jews were the Hellenists in their midst.

Mary Pipher contends that the culprits that spawn false self-images are the culture, the music, the media, and the advertising industry. Of course, she's right. But the real enemy is the Hellenist in each of us, that part of us that is dazzled by and devoted to external appearance: the men who are attracted more by cuteness than kindness, the women who spend more time working out than working "in"; the individuals who spend a fortune on clothes but hesitate to give a hundred dollars to charity; the parents who pass false values on to their daughters and sons; and those of us who judge others according to how they look rather than how they act.

King Solomon summed up the Jewish value system 2900 years ago: "Grace is false and beauty is vain; the woman who reveres God, she's the one to praise."

And that's something to think about as we kindle the Hanukkah lights, commemorating the miracle of the oil, which represents the overriding importance of what's on the inside.

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