September 17, 2013
Is beauty a Jewish value?
When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.
Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.
And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.
Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.
Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?
One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.
So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.
“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”
In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.
Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.
As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.
“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).
“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”
In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love.
As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.
As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.
I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.
If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.
In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.
How’s that for superficial?
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.