Physical beauty transformed: From Anthony Weiner to Sara of the Bible -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 8, 2011

I recently came across a fascinating blog. It is authored by an anonymous single mother inSan Franciscowho suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child at the hands of her own father and contains some of the deepest spiritual insights I have read. In a post entitled “Does your grandmother look good naked?” she writes:

“In our culture today, we seem to have allowed the porn industry to define female beauty for us. …I thought my grandmother was a beautiful woman. Actually – I know she was a beautiful woman. I remember the day I chose to name my only child after her: she was eighty-two years old, visiting her forty-three year old son in a nursing home (a horrible accident left him brain-dead). But she didn’t just visit him. She also brought gifts and smiles and attention to the other residents of that nursing home. Every one she touched could see how beautiful she was…I know what you’re thinking – my grandmother had spiritual beauty, not necessarily physical beauty. But how have we come to separate the two? They are not separate….My grandmother’s laugh lines, her arthritic hands, her dowager’s hump, her aged and tender skin-all of that was beautiful to me. Her body was beautiful because she lived in it. Your body is beautiful because you live in it…When we separate a body from its spirit; we turn that body into a corpse….Let’s stop treating our bodies as sex objects, and start embracing ourselves as sexual subjects. Only then will we have a shot at genuine beauty.”

I think she is talking here about an entirely new way of seeing beauty, sexuality, and attraction. That physical beauty must not be separate from emotional, relational, and spiritual beauty but that the two can be seen as deeply connected, as actually the same. Not jettisoning the physical for something deeper but seeing it in a new light, illuminated by the person themselves.

What would it mean to see each other in this way? How can we reframe when we feel attracted to someone due to their physical beauty alone? How do we see beauty as still beautiful and attractive but at the same time emerging from who someone is, the real person that inhabits that body, not from their skin? Is it even possible to see emotional and values driven beauty as inseparable from physical beauty? Not as many do, to see the soul and self in place of the body, but to see bodily beauty and sexuality as a manifestation of the soul? To see ourselves and others as beautiful, as sexy, but not because our skin is taught, not because we are an ideal figure, but as the “us” that inhabits our bodies.

It is interesting in this vain to reread the Bible’s description of the first Jewish woman, – Sara, who at 66 years old is described as physically, not spiritually beautiful. Shouldn’t the bible be more concerned with the spiritual or emotional beauty of Sara rather than her physical beauty? Is a 66 year old woman really the Bible’s image of physical beauty? Indeed the Bible does not describe many younger women this way.

Even stranger is that the context is one in which Abraham is afraid that due to Sara’s incredible beauty she will be taken by Pharaoh for a liaison. Pharaohs typically had access to all the young beautiful women their hearts desired, so why would Pharaoh notice Sara at 66 years old and take her? Is it possible that the blogger is right? That were we not inundated with media indoctrinating us to believe that beauty is only a manifestation of certain kinds of skin, certain weights, certain breast and leg formations, that beauty would be a wholly different type of experience for us? One in which the person and body were not separate, one in which the person themselves manifested their physical beauty?

In an age of Anthony Weiners who wish to be known only by their skin, in an age inundated by pornography and sexually oriented advertising, of television that only encourages us to see others and ourselves as objects, how can w cultivate the instruction of the anonymous but wise San Franciscan blogger? How do we move toward an appreciation of Biblical Sara whose physical beauty is her spiritual beauty and vice versa?

The French Emperor’s Burka: When Liberalism Leads to Close-Mindedness

April 13, 2011

It is ironic when liberalism generates, instead of open-mindedness and acceptance, limitation of others’ free expression and denial of their rights.   France, I think, in dictating the limitations of what Muslim women can wear, has unmasked its liberte et egalite and shown it to be something else entirely.  The French Emperor, it seems, is wearing no clothes.  Liberty and equality that in the name of French secularism does not allow religious freedom are just prejudice and fear masquerading as secular values.


Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern day Palestine (pre-state Israel) in the 1920’s, and father of modern day religious Zionism, understood that even in a religious context all things, even those usually deemed as anti-religious, can have value.  For instance, atheism, he said, has an important voice and place.  When others are in need, we must be atheists and not rely on God to help, not attribute the pain of others to divine justice, but jump in to assist, feeling the full burden of others’ needs as if there were no God for them to rely on.


I think secularism, too, has its place.  To be deeply religious, the tolerance and viewing of others’ religious values is of paramount importance.   If God is one and infinite then there are many keys to the kingdom.  When caught up in our own religious views (be they spiritual, or in the case of France, secular) it is hard to appreciate the take others might have on the big questions, i.e. God, people, the good, the universe.   But to have religious depth and not just self-righteousness, we must hear and appreciate the views of others, even if we do not accept them.   Ironically, the more we know about our own religion and the more secure we are in our observance and faith, the more we will be able to tolerate and learn from other’s views.   It makes one wonder how secure the French secularism that Sarkozy has touted really is (


The Talmud says that Jewish law follows the one who states the opposition’s opinion first and only then his own opinion.  Such a person’s view is truly informed and thus more likely to be correct.   When blind to another’s world view, it is easy to be right.  But if we first look through the eyes and values of another and only then commit to our own values, our own opinions will be more true and just.


How ironic that France, birthplace of revolution and freedom, in unmasking the Muslim woman, has donned its own cultural blinders.







On Modesty and Misogyny by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 23, 2011

The sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week brought me to think a bit about the role of modesty in religious countries.   Egypt is a country in which most women are religiously required or encouraged to cover themselves completely.  Yet paradoxically it is also a country in which women on the street, even those who are covered, are constantly at risk of being sexually harassed by men.

The following paragraph is from the Canadian government’s travel advisory on Egypt:

“Women, particularly foreign women, are frequently subject to unpleasant male attention, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. This often takes the form of staring, inappropriate remarks, catcalls, and touching.”

Trying to make sense of this dichotomy the author of a recent Associated Press article reacting to the Lara Logan case hypothesized the following:

“Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game.” If this is so it paints the picture of a perverse and one sided take on the idea of modesty.

It seems to me the role of modesty in religion is two fold.  Firstly, to be modest before God.  Flaunting the body is a kind of haughtiness because it shows we wish to be desired, respected, and approved of, not for who we are essentially (a being made in God’s image according to the Bible) but for something external.  This is the quintessence of hubris, to be lauded for what one has rather than what one does.   The same is true of flaunting one’s car, one’s money, or one’s house.

Secondly, modesty keeps sexual desire in its place.   Spiritual paths all seem to understand that sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and that, if utilized correctly in specific contexts, that power can produce the holiest of things: the creation of new human beings with divine souls, and the deepest of human connections between two willing people.

While the Associated Press theory above may be correct, it bespeaks a one sided sense of modesty gone awry.   Formulating modesty as something that focuses on women and not upon men leads to only half the population cultivating the important values that modesty should teach, and seems to actually result in an overall lack of modesty.   Delineating a modest society or religion by how its women dress and not by how its men act leads to a bizarre double standard such as that in Egypt: women in extremely modest dress being sexually harassed by men who supposedly buy into the same religious value of modesty, but practice it not at all.

A double standard of modesty is sometimes depicted, (admittedly with out the same violent results) in a county close to my heart, Israel.  There are very religious Jewish sections of Jerusalem where upon entering one sees signs warning women to dress modestly, yet there are no signs warning men to watch what they look at, though there is much written in Judaism’s books of religious law about this very issue.   In fact if one looks in the Talmud, Judaism’s most basic source of tradition and law, or even in later codes of Jewish law one finds almost nothing prescribing  female dress, but much about the care men must exercise in guarding their eyes and speech.

Unless we see modesty as more than just how women dress but also as how we all act then we have facilitated hypocrisy rather than religious humility before God.  As the prophet Micha (6:8) said so long ago, “What does God ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”