The news surrounding Elena Kagan’s nomination has focused on more than her legal qualifications — her looks have caused a lot of buzz, too. Michael Savage, talk show commentator, said that Kagan “looks like she belongs in a kosher deli.” Another writer questioned, “Why do Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan all look like linebackers for the New York Jets?” JInsider wanted to get a Torah perspective on the relative importance of physical appearance from one of our favorite and most thoughtful rabbis, Rabbi Naomi Levy (www.nashuva.com).
Elena Kagan’s Looks (Do they Matter?)
When evaluating a Supreme Court justice, substance matters, character matters, intellect matters, a nominee’s judgment matters — but looks? Has a male nominee ever been subjected to such undignified scrutiny? We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity for women. And yet, no matter how high women rise, they are still viewed as sex objects. Who should be making the decisions that will affect our nations future? Someone with the right measurements or someone with the right legal knowledge?
Beauty & The Bible
In the book of Proverbs it says: “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears God, she shall be praised.” If only it were so. If only a woman’s deeds or strength or wisdom defined her worth.
The truth is, the fixation on beauty is as old as the Bible itself. Think of the difference between our patriarchs and our matriarchs. The men were leaders, they fought battles and they offered sacrifices to God. The women were pretty, except for Leah that is. But she only got into the matriarch club through subterfuge. Do you think Jacob would have ever married Rachel’s homely older sister of his own free will? How did Queen Esther rise to the throne?
Looks. How did Bathsheba become the wife of King David? Looks.
Yes, I suppose it’s a step in the right direction to say judge a woman by her inner beauty. But inner beauty is just as demeaning a measure of a person’s worth. Would we ever say, “Justice Kennedy isn’t such a looker, but he’s got inner beauty?” No. Why even put beauty into the equation? If only we could evaluate women based on strength or conduct or character or wisdom or goodness. What exactly is inner beauty? Too often it means meekness or sweetness or some other way of making a women seem harmless or small.
Beauty & Youth Obsession
Obviously we live in a youth-obsessed culture. Youth means strength. It means virility and beauty and sexiness. We chase after it, and pay plastic surgeons gobs of money to try to retrieve it for us. This compulsion doesn’t only plague women — just look at Joe Biden’s hair plugs or Kenny Rogers’ facelift.
I worry that this youth obsession is beginning to distort the Jewish community as well. I’ve counseled a number of rabbis in their 50s, both men and women, who can’t find jobs because synagogues are looking for young leaders who will bring in young families. What happened to the days when a rabbi’s experience and knowledge and wisdom mattered most? Jewish philanthropies are spending more and more of their dollars on the next generation. But what about Jews in their 40s and 50s and up? Don’t we want to target them and bring them back into the fold? Or should we just cut our losses and leave them for dead?
Teaching Moment for Kids
Find powerful role models among those who have aged wisely and gracefully. Spend less time looking in the mirror and more time looking into the world that needs your help. Find a cause and dedicate yourself to it. The ideal of beauty in movies and magazines is a distortion of beauty. Love yourself. Love your body. Eat. Don’t starve yourself. Value people for their actions, not their looks. Beauty fades, so don’t base your self-worth on your looks. Wisdom, kindness, honesty and generosity are qualities that will never grow old.
More on Naomi Levy
The rabbi is the author of the national bestseller “To Begin Again” and “Talking to God” and the founder and leader of NASHUVA, the Jewish spiritual outreach movement. Named one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, she was in the first class of women to enter the Conservative rabbinical seminary. Rabbi Levy has appeared on “Oprah,” “The Today Show” and National Public Radio. Rabbi Levy’s newest book, “Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living” (Random House), will be out in September.
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