Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Features Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    JNS.org – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall. Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events. But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this […]

    Read more →
  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Actor Zachary Levi said casting directors have denied him roles for being “too Jewish,” despite the fact that he is not a Jew, the New York Daily News‘ Confidenti@l reported on Wednesday. “I guess they were looking for more of a corn-fed, white boy look,” he said. “My family is from f****** Indiana! Come on, I’m like dying here!” The Thor star clarified that he is Welsh, and that Levi is actually his middle name, while his real last name is Pugh. He said he […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    The secret of Chabad’s worldwide success is revealed by veteran Chabad shliach (emissary) Rabbi David Eliezrie in his new book, The Secret of Chabad. The Chabad movement was founded by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Liadi, Belarus, in 1775. Years later it came to the US with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in 1940, after his escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Upon his arrival in New York, a number of his co-religionists advised him that there was no place for traditional […]

    Read more →