BEAUTIFUL, THE, IN JEWISH LITERATURE:
To the speculative theory of the beautiful the Jews can not be said to have contributed fruitful thoughts. In the economy of the humanities this field fell to the inheritance of the Greeks. This statement will stand, even though, as is now admitted, the origin of art in Greece points to Semitic influences. The impulses in this domain came to the Greeks neither from the Phenicians nor from the Egyptians, but from the Assyrians. The cycle of Cadmus myths may be dismissed as having no evidential relevancy on the problem (see Gruppe, "Die Griechischen Kulte und Mythen," 1887). Still, whatever power the Assyrian civilization may have exercised to quicken and arouse the artistic genius of the Greeks, the Hebrews can scarcely be credited with having cultivated the beautiful. The common distinction—though resting on one of those sweeping generalizations for which modern thought is indebted, among others, to Ernest Renan—between the office of the Aryan mind and that of the Semitic seems to be on the whole beyond dispute. Beauty is the preoccupation of the Greek soul; righteousness, that of the Hebrew. The philosophy of art, therefore, is naturally and nationally under the spell of Plato's speculation. His theory of beauty as "something abstract, divine, with an absolute and distinct reality quite apart from man," has sounded the key-note of almost all the later disquisitions (see Eugene Veron, "Æsthetics," English transl., London, 1879).The Greeks and Beauty.
For the Greeks Creation itself became under Platonic instruction a work of beauty, a cosmos. The Creator took on the functions of an architect, molding the shapeless and often stubborn material in accordance with his preconceived and vitalizing ideas. Philo, the Jewish Platonist, does not hesitate to adopt the fundamental element of this Greek conception. According to him, the first day in the Mosaic account of Creation relates to the intelligible cosmos; and he proceeds to unfold his meaning by illustrating it with copious appeals to the methods of architecture in which the ideal plan created and existing in the mind of the architect precedes and controls the execution of the real in stone or other material ("De Opificiis Mundi," §§ 4, 5). Similarly, the ideal tabernacle was revealed to Moses as the precreated pattern of the material one ("De Vita Moysis," iii. 3). The Septuagint manifests its dependency upon similar Platonic concepts, when, in Gen. ii. 1, it renders the Hebrew"Ẓeba'am" by κόσμος, a rendition which could easily be read into the original by a slight change of the Masoretic "ẓeba'am" into "ẓebyonam" (their beauty, R. H. 11a). Moreover, it is more than likely that in Gen. i. 2 the rendition of the Hebrew "tohu wabohu" by "ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκτασκεύατος" is due to similar Platonic influences (compare Siegfried, "Philo," pp. 8, 9).Creation a Work of Beauty.
In rabbinical Haggadot many instances occur of similar Platonizing interpretations, worked out according to the general method of haggadic exegesis through appeal to the letters of text, but withal proofs of the influence attained in the thinking of the rabbinical homilists by the conception of Creation as a process of unfolding beauty. Some of these analogies have been adduced by Siegfried (l.c. pp. 148, 149). More characteristic than those cited by him is the following, credited to Judah ben Ila'i: When God was about to create the world, He consulted the Torah as one would an artist or architect, and then carried into effect His preconceived ideal Creation (Tan., Bereshit, 5 [ed. Buber, p. 4); Gen. R. i.].
The construction of the Tabernacle and the making of the utensils it contained are in the same manner likened to the procedure which an artist confronted with a similar task would adopt. Heavenly patterns descended within the vision of Moses; and these he copied in the practical execution of the command (compare among others Yalḳ., Cant. 369). The assumption in Ab. R. N. xiii. that when Moses was preparing to erect the "Mishkan" he refused to confer with the princes of the tribes, rests on the notion that as the plan had been divinely unfurled there was no necessity for discussing the work of mortals.The Beautiful in the Hebrew Vocabulary.
How far the Platonic theory of beauty influenced Aristotle is a moot question. One might find in the Jewish Aristotelians—notably Maimonides—indications of an appreciation of the beautiful. The opening discussion in the "Moreh" on the significance of "ẓelem" as distinct from "demut" would seem to have a place in this interesting though perilous, because doubtful, chapter of Jewish speculation. At any rate, it is plain that the absolute denial to the Jewish mind of the capacity to appreciate and realize the beautiful can for good reasons be relegated to the lumber-room of prejudices. Granted that the principal anxiety of the Jewish consciousness lies in the plane of the religiously ethical, the artistically beautiful, or esthetics, can not be located in another plane. There are points of intersection between the two. In his quest for the harmonies of life, the Greek evolved also a theory of the harmonies of character and conduct of no mean range or depth. And, on the other hand, the Hebrew, in his zeal for the discovery of the divinely and eternally true and righteous, could not but perceive that Creation moved to a rhythm of divinely ordered harmonies. The vocabulary of Judaism does not lack terms connoting both the beauty of the body and that of the soul. Thus "yafeh"—applied to men, animals, things, and countries—signifies "beautiful in general outward appearance"; "neḥmad" denotes "attractive to the eye," with the underlying suggestion of the "desirability" of the object (Gen. ii. 9), the corresponding noun "ḥemed" being used in combinations (Isa. xxxii. 12; Ezek. xxiii. 6; Amos v. 11); "naweh," from the verb "iwah," also denotes "desirability," hence "beauty"; "ṭob mareh" signifies "good in appearance," hence "comely."
The Hebrew also employs paraphrases with nouns; for instance, "'eẓ hadar" denotes "a tree of beauty or splendor."
Other combinations with "'ḥen"—for instance, "ba'alat 'ḥen"—imply beauty not so much of the body as of the soul—grace. In the common proverbial colloquial language of the Jews to the present day, "'ḥen" is employed to characterize that undefinable something which goes far to render its possessor beloved of men. Loveliness is also expressed in "no'am." Besides, the words "yofi," "shefer," "hadar," "hod" (splendor), "ḥesed" (love), "kabod" (honor) are used to indicate various manifestations of physical and spiritual gracefulness and beauty. The highest degree of personal charms or local attractiveness is expressed by "miklal yofi."
In the Talmud not only is the same appreciation of beauty shown by the use of these and similar terms—as a glance at the various Hebrew and Talmudical dictionaries shows; the Greek word for "beautiful" (καλός) gave rise also to the verb "kalles" (), to declare as beautiful; that is, to praise—but it is enjoined as a rule "to offer up a benediction on seeing beautiful creatures or beautiful trees" (Ber. 58b; Tan., Pinḥas, 10).
While the Greeks applied the golden mean of proportion and harmonious relations to art, and the Jew—as Maimonides counsels, and others tacitly practised—construed his rule of conduct on the realization of the law of moderation, still the eyes of the Jew were not blind to the beauty which laughed out upon him from God's own world.Appreciation of Physical Beauty.
There have been times when the Jew was in conscious and fanatic revolt against the Greek ideal. The Maccabean struggle and that against Rome could not but react in favor of a rigid and unrelenting hostility to whatever in the least smacked of concessions to Greek or Roman conceits. The athletic games of the gymnasium, the divine honors paid to the images of the emperors, naturally carried the pendulum of Jewish thought to the opposite pole. The result was that, for a while at least, attention to physical culture (of the body) fell under the ban; also sensible appreciation of the difference between idolatry and sculpture came nigh to be impossible. Nevertheless, evidence abounds that beauty of the body, both in men and in women, was regarded as a distinction to gain which was worthy of the ambition of the best. At all events, it is certain that the art of ornamenting the body was highly developed among the Jews at a comparatively early period. The third chapter of Isaiah shows that the boudoir of the Hebrew woman was well provided with the things she deemed needful to enhance her charms. Other passages prove that house and home were richly embellished (see Nowack, "Hebräische Archäologie," passim).Standards and Types of Beauty.
Nor did the art of heightening the natural beauty of man or woman fall into disuse during the Talmudic era. Fondness for bathing was made the subject of special note in the case of no less a personage than Hillel. The use of ointments (Lev. R. xxxiv.); the attention paid to the toilet of the bride on her day of joy; the ornaments which are deemed indispensable to woman (Ket. 48a, 59b; B. B. 22a); the recorded use of artificial cosmetics ("kāḥal") to beautify the eyebrows or the finger-nails; the fondness ascribed to women for fine garments and fine surroundings in preference even to luxurious food (Esther R. i. 9); the artificial heightening of the forehead ("kilkul," Shab. viii. 4; 80b)—these and many similar particulars, abundantly scattered throughout Talmudic literature, go far to disprove the popular thesis of the lack of appreciation for beauty of body or surroundings among the Jews. "Woman's attractiveness is her beauty" (), said the fair maidens of Jerusalem at their gathering on the hills on the Fifteenth of Ab and at the close of the Day of Atonement (Ta'anit 31a). In fact, the Jews had a standard of personal beauty which was largely their own. The acrostic praise of the good housewife's virtues in Proverbs throws some light on the peculiar disposition of the Jewish mind in this field. Still more telling are the descriptive adjectives and similes of the Song of Solomon. There is good reason for saying that, in the estimation of the Jews, physical beauty both in the Biblical period and during that of the Palestinian Talmudists conformed to the requirements which we know to have been considered indispensable by the Arabs (compare Lane's "Arabian Nights," i. 25). Just as the Bible extols Sarah (Gen. xii. 11), Rebekah (Gen. xxiv. 16), Rachel (Gen. xxix. 17), Joseph (Gen. xxxix. 6), David (I Sam. xvi. 12), and Abigail (I Sam. xxv. 3) for beauty of appearance, so the rabbis mention, as the most beautiful women that ever lived, Sarah, Rahab, Abigail, and Esther (Meg. 15a). Another version gives Vashti in place of Esther, the latter having owed her seeming beauty to the grace bestowed upon her by an angel. The sons of Beeri and all the daughters of the tribe of Asher are said to have attracted attention by their beauty (Pesiḳ. R. 38 [ed. Friedmann, p. 135b]). Eve, again, is extolled by the rabbis as the type of all womanly beauty. A picture ("eiḳon") of her, it is said, was traditionally transmitted to the heads of the generations; but Sarah is held to have been her superior, while Abishag merely approximated the prototype (Gen. R xl.). God Himself adorned her before presenting her to Adam (Gen. R. xviii.). "The daughters of Israel are all beautiful by nature, only poverty disfigures them," says R. Ishmael (Ned. ix. 10, p. 66a).
In connection with the rabbinical amplification of Sarah's adventure in Egypt, it is stated that, in accordance also with the Shulamite's words in the Song of Songs, black or dark complexion was considered to detract from beauty (ib.). The hair worn high and coiled back was regarded as an effective device to increase personal beauty (Cant. R. iv. 1; compare Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." ii. 385); while the eyes of the bride, if sparkling and soft, were held to be sufficient and to free her from the necessity of resorting to other ornaments. In this connection it is interesting to note that from these passages it would appear that the hair must have been worn exposed; though mention is made of veils and hoods, which, however, were of such material as to heighten rather than to conceal the magnificence of the hair. One of the ways to allure a would-be suitor and to inflame his passion was the plaiting of the hair (Yer. Sanh. ii. 20a; Num. R. ix. 24). Child-bearing was known to be detrimental to the comeliness of the body; the matriarchs preserved their beauty so long because they were childless for quite a time (Gen. R. xlv.).Female and Male Beauty.
Adam is regarded as the type of all manly beauty. As by the Mohammedans the beard is looked upon as the sign of manly beauty and is, therefore, ordained by the Prophet as a mark of the true believer, distinct from the infidel, so among the Jews manliness and beardlessness were held to be well-nigh incompatible (Yeb. 80b). Abbahu is mentioned as one of the handsomest of men, not merely on account of his towering stature, but also—and in this respect distinguished even beyond Johanan—for his flowing beard (B. M. 84a); see Rashi on the expression . This latter declaration that the beard constitutes the splendor of the manly countenance is variously credited to R. Akiba and to Joshua ben Ḳorḥa (Eccl. R. x. 7; Shab. 152a). R. Johanan b. Nappaḥa was so deeply impressed with his own beauty that he used to sit for hours by the portals of the bathing-establishments, in order to impress the women with his appearance and thus influence the looks of their expected offspring (Ber. 20a; Löw, "Lebensalter," p. 63). The desire to have beautiful children was keen among the women of Israel; and various devices are on record employed by them to accomplish this end (Löw, l.c.), although the father transmits his own beauty as well as his vigor to the sons ('Eduyyot ii. 9).
If the attention paid to physical culture was less insistent or less intense among the Jews than among the Greeks, it was due to the moral abhorrence of nudity. The Maccabean era influenced in this direction the habits and prejudices of the Jews for centuries; while the sad persecutions to which they were exposed in the Middle Ages deprived them of the opportunity to cultivate physical beauty. To the former cause must be ascribed the suspicion with which athletic sports in the circus and the theater were regarded. Especially was attendance at theater and circus performances on the part of Jewish girls declared to be improper (Ruth R. ii. 1); theaters could not but be suspected of influences making for idolatry. Moreover, then as now the stage was employed to cast ridicule on the Jews (Lam. R., Introduction, and iii. 13). In many ways the contact with Roman degenerate life had led to practises which shocked the moral sense of the better Jewish classes.
There is no legitimate reason for holding that the Jews were indifferent to the cultivation of beauty and art. In all departments of art they displayed much ability, if not originality. The Bible shows that they were adepts in all the domestic arts, in weaving, spinning, dyeing in purple; they knew how to workin metals, to carve and chisel, to refine the precious metals, to engrave precious stones and gems, and were proficient in music and the dance. Dramatic genius was not theirs; but they shared this want with their Semitic kinsmen, and, by way of compensation, excelled in story-telling, gnomic wisdom, and the lyrics. The parable is their preeminent domain. And these artistic leanings, clearly brought out by the study of Biblical civilization, did not atrophy in later days. The contrary is the truth. The Jews, with modifications conditioned by their changed situation, developed them steadily.
It may be doubted whether in architecture the Jews can be credited with inventive genius. The Bible seems to indicate that whatever of the building art they had, had come to them from their neighbors, the Phenicians. Still, in Alexandria and elsewhere, unless the law of their rulers interfered, they saw to it that their public edifices had a dignified, even a luxurious, character. The Talmud speaks of the glory of the synagogue in Alexandria (Suk. 51b).
That the Jew was ever alive to the appreciation of beauty may be learned from the fact that the rabbis did not hesitate to accord the palm in the strife for the beautiful to the Greek; so that to them the Aryan races, the sons of Japhet, were typified by the Greek as representative of beauty; being explained as (Meg. 9b). When Aquila had finished his Greek translation of the Pentateuch before R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, they lauded him; applying to him the words, "Thou art fairer than the children of men" (Ps. xlv. 3 [A. V. 2]).
On the other hand, the rabbis claimed that nine-tenths of the beauty of the world were bestowed upon Jerusalem as the seat of God's majesty (Ḳid. 49b; Yoma 54b, in accordance with Ps. 1. 2). One of the highest angels in rabbinical angelology bears the name of "Yafefiah" (beauty of God) (Targ. Yer. to Deut. xxxiv. 6). In fact, it is declared by R. Ishmael to be a duty enjoined on the Israelite, in the fulfilment of any of the ceremonial laws, to aim at beauty of form, to have a beautiful "lulab," "sukkah," "ṭallit," or "tefillin," wherewith to praise God, according to Ex. xv. 2 (Hebr.), "This is my God; I will extol Him"; that is, "I will make everything consecrated to His service appear beautiful" (Mek., Beshallaḥ, Shirah, 3).
Especial stress is laid on moral beauty and the avoidance of ugliness in speech and conduct (Yoma 86a; Shab. 33a). It has been asserted that the Jews were without a sense of the beauties of nature ("Naturgefühl"). Yet that very feeling is evinced in almost every line of the Psalms, while the descriptions in the Book of Job and many graphic similes in the writings of the Prophets challenge comparison with the best produced by the Homeric poets. It differs, however, from that of the Greeks in so far as it responds to the larger totality of the universe, the might and majesty of nature as a whole. It is not the individual star, nor the particularized flower, nor the local sunset, that inspires the Hebrew singer to articulation; but it is the heavens as the throne of God, the mountains as melting under the touch of His will, the earth in the throes of a God-ordained destiny, and similar general appreciations of the sublime and exalted in God's handiwork that impels the Jewish bard to sing. Homer's description of the bee tribe is offset by that of the ant in the Proverbs. Rhetorical art certainly reached a high development among the Jews in Bible days.
Nor, though general opinion to the contrary, is Talmudic literature barren of literary beauty. The study of the Midrash from this point of view has indeed never been attempted; but it would be an undertaking full of promise. In their analogies derived largely from court life, in their illustrations taken freely from the operations of a builder and the like, the homilists of the rabbinical age showed a keen insight into the implications of rhetorical beauty and ornamentation. Some even in the reported text, full though it is of corruptions due to the misunderstanding of the dialect in addition to other failings of the copyists, must be assigned high place among the coiners of original phrases through the employment of the finer methods of literary composition, such as Alliteration, assonance, and even rime. Bacher, in his work on the Haggadah, has paid some attention to this aspect of the subject.
That later Jewish poetry is not unworthy a niche in the temple of literary beauty, both on account of its form and its contents, may be said to be now recognized by all competent to speak on the matter (Delitzsch, "Jüdische Poesie"; Winter and Wünsche, "Jüdische Literatur"). Emma Lazarus' and other versifications in English or German of Hebrew originals; Einhorn's prayer-book, "Olat Tamid," and especially his memorial services, are proofs of this. Modern writers of Jewish extraction or faith have contributed to the literatures of the peoples among whom they lived, and whose nationality and language, since the middle of the nineteenth century, have been theirs. This is sufficient proof against the assertion that the Judaism of these writers has operated to the detriment of the quality of their style.
As in music so in poetry it has been contended that the Jew is always beset by the love of the extravagant and the disproportionate; that his criticism runs to acid dissolution and sarcasm; his poetry to the absurd, baroque, and dissonant. They who have enriched modern literary canons with this discovery of the pernicious effect of Judaism on style are ignorant of the literature which under the direct inspiration of Jewish thought and ideals took on form and shape. Only to a very limited extent is their dictum in accordance with facts. Under the exclusive dominance of the pilpul and owing to the sad conditions socially and politically prevailing in their European Egypt—a veritable house of bondage—the Polish and Russian Jews may with some show of justice be said to have lapsed into literary barbarism. What tendency to the same effect there may have been in the German Jewries during the centuries following upon the epidemic of the Plague and upon the Crusades was effectually checked by the influence of the Mendelssohnian era; while the Sephardic Jew never fell a prey to this disorganization, which anti-Semitism, with a pretense at scientific generalization, traces to the irradicable mental bias and inartistic obliquity of Judaism and Jewish association. Güdemann's work on the "Erziehungswesen und Kultur der Juden" contributes many significant proofs of theincorrectness of the equation between Judaism and lack of artistic feelings. Modern Jewish literature, even the Neo-Hebraic literature preparatory to Zionism, needs not dread inspection from the point of view of the requirements of the implications of the beautiful. See Art, Attitude of Judaism toward.