The Beauty of Tradition

February 19, 2013 1:45 am 0 comments

A Torah scroll. Photo: Algemeiner.

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” We might have attributed these words to an artist or a poet, perhaps someone engaged every day in the universe of aesthetics. We certainly wouldn’t have thought they came out of the mouth of a teenager hiding in a space with no windows out to the world. These were the words of Anne Frank. It is not her only journal entry about the importance of beauty, even in times of immense ugliness.

The elusive search for beauty is not a material impulse alone to be found in the purchase of a perfect pair shoes or a piece of furniture that complements a space just so. Beauty is regarded in sacred texts as a source of deep inspiration and hope. When we see something of beauty it often affirms our own sense of the beauty of life. It generates in us a sense of the transcendent.

When I was a teenager, I loved Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet, and still dip into it now and then. In his prose on beauty, Gibran writes, “And beauty is not a need but an ecstasy. It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty hand stretched forth but rather a heart enflamed and soul enchanted.” Beauty enchants and inspires in us passions of an ecstatic nature: the exquisite painting, the gorgeous girl, the fabulous view. But in Proverbs, beauty is illusory and deceptive, and we often confuse beauty with goodness. The writer Dorothy Parker once wrote in a similar vein, “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” That which is ugly often revulses and distances us from goodness and even godliness.

Exodus 15:2 states: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.” This mandate to glorify God is interpreted in the Talmud as a demand for beauty. We must beautify the rituals that surround us. In BT Shabbat 133b we read: “Beautify yourself before Him in mitzvot.” The Talmud elaborates on this in case we lack the aesthetic imagination: “Make before Him a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful ritual fringes, beautiful parchment for a Torah scroll, and write in it His name in beautiful ink, with a beautiful quill by an expert scribe, and wrap the scroll in beautiful silk fabric.” Something is beautiful by virtue of making sure that every element that goes into its design and creation is itself an object of beauty. If you want a Torah scroll to be beautiful, then use the best ink, the best parchment and the best quill in the hands of the best scribe. When it’s done, wrap it in the best fabric.

Obviously, having the best also comes with a price tag. Beauty can be costly. Just look at the price of skin cream in your local department store. But I believe that the Talmud is also advising us to make an aesthetic investment in Jewish objects so that we observe mitzvot with deep pride. A fake brass set of candlesticks given to by a synagogue president at a bat mitzvah will not make you feel special lighting them. No one can feel proud of blessing made in an ugly kiddush cup worth only slightly more than the wine in it. Aesthetic mediocrity can spill over into other crevices, like spiritual mediocrity.

Some of us live in beautiful homes with beautiful paintings on the wall and furniture hand-picked by interior designers. But the Jewish objects in our homes—if they exist at all—are often cheap and ugly. And it does not have to cost a great deal to be beautiful. With a little thought and intention, we can glorify God with the objects of Jewish life.

We are not only descendants. We are also ancestors. One day, when your artwork has been sold at auction because no one wanted it, a great, great grandchild may have your Seder plate on her table. She will think of you when she uses it. What will it look like? How will she feel about you and about the mitzvah? Beauty offers a glimpse of the divine in our world. Let’s bring more beauty into our spiritual lives.

Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz said on Wednesday that he will not eat anything between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday in observation of Yom Kippur, ESPN reported. “If I was playing, I wouldn’t fast, because I’ve got to be able to fuel myself to play,” said the Jewish athlete, who is on short-term leave due to a toe injury. “But it’s not that tough, really. I’ll eat dinner at 5:00 Friday, then I’ll go to services and I’ll just [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.