Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Beauty in the Eye of the Matchmaker: How Religious Zionist Matchmakers in Israel Deal with Their Clients' Desire to Find Beautiful Partners

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Beauty in the Eye of the Matchmaker: How Religious Zionist Matchmakers in Israel Deal with Their Clients' Desire to Find Beautiful Partners

Article excerpt

Introduction

Jewish sources devote relatively little attention to defining norms or boundaries for human beauty, though they certainly do not reject beauty as an admirable feature meriting cultivation, provided that it is employed to serve the higher purpose of goodness, effectiveness, and sanctity. The sources also identify negative aspects of beauty, which if misdirected can cause a person to stray from the Bible's moral teachings.

In light of this dual perspective, we sought to examine the importance of physical appearance in the everyday life of contemporary religious Zionist Jews in Israel. Outward appearance is an important consideration in marital choice, and in traditional Jewish society matchmakers played a significant role in introducing potential partners to one another. We thus sought to investigate matchmakers' attitudes and practice regarding their clients' views on issues of beauty, through interviews with matchmakers about the role of beauty in their work.

In Section I we examine a number of Biblical sources that pertain to the issue of beauty. Section II provides important socio-cultural background information about the norms and values of the sampled population. In Section III, we present the findings and discussion on the research.

I. Biblical Sources

In the Bible, women's beauty is treated as the perfection of a divine object, and therefore the Bible generally addresses beauty in a positive manner, with wonder and awe. Nonetheless, problematic aspects of beauty are also presented to the reader: its strong appeal and seductive character may cause man to transgress biblical laws and morals, and receive punishment as a result. G-d is the source of what is beautiful, good and eternal. G-d's actions are described as beautiful (Ecclesiastes 13:1). Thus, we can understand the words "it was good" that conclude each portion of the story of creation (Genesis 1) as signifying beauty, because beauty and goodness are synonyms in the Bible, such as at Genesis 9:27. The mothers of the Jewish nation, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, are described as beautiful and of comely appearance, while of Queen Esther the Bible declares that she "... was of beautiful form and fair to look upon" (Esther 2:7).

The Talmudic Sages followed the Bible and gave further praise to beauty in the Oral Law, declaring "Three things increase a man's self-esteem: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothes" (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 57:2). In addition to objective beauty associated with physical harmony, such as the beauty of the Matriarchs1, of Rachel, Avigail and others, the Sages also recognized beauty stemming from character and virtue. The Sages acclaimed and elaborated upon the value of a woman's beauty extensively, saying that woman was created to embody the beauty of the world; beauty is woman's mission in life (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 31a). Accordingly, a man is instructed to allow his wife to purchase clothing, make up and jewellery to enable her to make herself more attractive (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Marital Relations 13:1-6).

Since a woman's beauty is important, Rabbi Hiyya argues in the Gemarah (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot, 59:2), that although a woman's work is granted to her husband in exchange for her livelihood, there are some domestic tasks such as grinding, baking and laundering that women are not obligated to perform because they destroy their beauty and "A wife [should be taken] mainly for the sake of her beauty." For this reason, the Mishna (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot, 61:2) relieves the woman from working with linen, because it requires her endlessly to place the linen threads in her mouth to moisten them with her saliva, and "Nor may he compel her to work in flax because flax causes one's mouth to be sore and makes one's lips stiff."

However, women were not exempted from other difficult chores, such as the daily kneading of a large quantity of dough for baking bread for the family, which requires a lot of effort and causes pain to the hands and the back. …

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