Sunday, May 2, 2010

You're so vain...

Four years ago, when half of my right eyebrow turned white, my dermatologist counselled me to apply a cream (Elidel) that might help the pigment cells regenerate, and to dye it in the interim. He also talked about treating the small segments of skin that had turned a little lighter than normal.

My gut reaction was to recoil; it seemed vain, this idea of undergoing cosmetic treatments. (Leave aside the substantive halachic issue surrounding whether a male may dye his hair for cosmetic purposes.) The doctor pressed the point, gently noting that many people would respond negatively to a face that looked odd.

He was likely right, but I decided against his advice and left my ugly mug as is.

That conversation came to mind this past week, as I prepared a shiur for adolescents, entitled, “What I learned from Susan Boyle.” I ended up going a different route with the shiur, but here's the core idea I was going to use:

After talking about the difference between the ways people reacted to Susan Boyle before she sang and the way they reacted afterward, I was going to present five sources, with different perspectives on beauty:

1. Samuel I 16:1-7 (Shemuel’s trip to coronate a son of Yishai)
And G-d said to Samuel… Fill your horn with oil, and I will send you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have seen a king for Myself among his children.
And when they arrived and Samuel saw Eliav (the firstborn), he declared, “G-d’s anointed one is here before Him!”
And G-d said to Samuel, “Don’t look at his appearance and his height; I have rejected him. It’s not about the things people see; people see the visible, but G-d sees the heart.

2. Talmud, Taanit 31a (regarding the talmudic Tu b’Av matchmaking session)
Beautiful women enticed potential husbands by saying, “Look at beauty; wives are for beauty!”

3. Proverbs 31:30
Charm is false and beauty is empty; a woman who is in awe of G-d is to praised.

4. Isaiah 33:17
Your eyes should see the king in his beauty.

5. Talmud, Taanit 20a-b
Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, was riding a donkey along a riverbank, traveling from Migdal Gedor, where he had been studying. He was very happy, and filled with pride because he had learned a great deal. He encountered an extraordinarily ugly man, who greeted him, “Peace to you, my master!”
Rabbi Elazar did not reply with a greeting; instead, he said, “Empty one – how ugly this man is! Is everyone in your city as ugly as you?”
The man replied, “I don’t know; go tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is this vessel You created!’”
Rabbi Elazar realized he had sinned. He descended from the donkey and threw himself down on the ground and said, “I am humbled before you; forgive me!”
The man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is this vessel You created!’”

The first source says that beauty is a false indicator of worth, while in the second source women cited their appearance as something worth noting.
Then the line from Proverbs decries beauty as a false indicator, but Isaiah says that a king should maintain his beauty for the public.
And then Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, is chastised for being influenced by physical appearances.

(I would have brought many more sources on both sides if this wasn't a session for teens; there is considerably more evidence on both sides.)

Which is it? Is beauty a valid indicator of worth, or a misleading cheat?

I think my dermatologist was right: Beauty is a major factor in first impressions and shallow encounters. The positive texts above talk about shallow relationships – a first meeting with a potential spouse, a royal audience. It’s normal to pursue beauty when setting up that relationship, because the other party has nothing else to use in making an assessment. And pursuing beauty in these shallow settings won’t convince me that my physical appearance is Me; I know the difference.

But when we use appearances to shape what should be deep relationships, then we include beauty as one of the traits define our genuine identity and worth. The negative texts talk about what should be a deeper relationship - picking someone to be king, admiring one’s spouse, valuing someone else. Those ties should be based on our true characters. If we pursue beauty in these cases, then we send a message (to others and ourselves) that physical beauty is our true identity.

Not terribly deep or novel, I suppose, but I think it’s a message that matters for teens.

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