The Beauty of Tradition
“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.