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?