Friday, December 14, 2018

Beauty and the Bess

On December 14, 2014, one of the most talked-about American Jews from the 1940s passed away. Bess Myerson, born in the Bronx on July 16, 1924, became the first and only Jewish “Miss America” when she won the 1945 pageant and its accompanying $5,000 scholarship, which she used to pay for graduate school at New York’s Julliard School of music and Columbia University.

The confluence of Ms. Myerson’s pageant victory and the horrific news reports and newsreels about emaciated Jews emerging from the concentration camps under Nazi hegemony was not lost on the media. Upon her death, Religion News Service suggested that “Bess Myerson represented the resurrection of the Jewish body – the journey from degradation to beauty.”

Ironically, Ms. Myerson was entered into the Miss New York City competition by someone else. She was embarrassed by the entry, as she was raised in a home that valued scholarship and culture (she was a very serious pianist). In fact, she had to borrow a bathing suit for that component of the competition. The Jewish view of beauty, preaches that while inner beauty is true and everlasting splendor, there is great value to external attractiveness as well, but within parameters.

The Jewish virtue of tzniyut, modesty, protects that which is most attractive and beautiful and reserves it for more private settings, not public ones. Tzniyut governs appearance and attitude, and encourages Jews to live with humility and to recognize that our commendable accomplishments and attributes are from God. But that divinity within each person, also means the Jews must carry themselves with dignity, honor as befitting a creation of the Almighty.

The Talmud (Shabbat 114a) warns, that a Torah scholar with a stain on his shirt is liable to the death penalty. This, of course was not meant to be taken literally. As representatives of God and the Torah, any “stain” on our clothes or character, reflects poorly on God, and His people. Jewish tradition clearly notes that the matriarchs were beautiful and that certain males were handsome such as Joseph and Absalom. As Jewish Treats has previously written, the Talmud relates that when one sees a person of exceptional beauty, one should recite a blessing that concludes: “Who has such [beautiful] things in His world.” Spouses need to be physically attracted to one another, which is why Judaism proscribes marriage until the couple have met and determined their mutual attraction.

Beauty is laudable and virtuous, so long as it is used properly and does not cause one’s humility to weaken.

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