The Pagan and the Rabbi


« The Old Rabbi ». Rembrandt

Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?

Kant thought about this interesting question.

« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i

For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.

Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.

But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?

Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?

« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii

These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.

A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.

The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.

But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.

« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi

The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.

A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.

Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?

In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.

Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.

R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii

His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii

And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.

« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.

– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.

– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.

– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix

At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…

« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x

From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.

The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi

In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :

« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii

That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.

Or was it just a parable?

Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?

Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?

_____________

iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.

iiIsaiah, 53.2

iiiIsaiah, 42, 6

ivIsaiah, 42.4

vIsaiah, 42.1

viIsaiah 53:3-4

viiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Baba Metsi’a. §34. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.895.

viiiIbid.

ixIbid. §35, pp. 895-896.

xIbid. Baba Bathra. §37, p. 940.

xiIbid. Sanhedrin. §143. p.1081.

xiiRoman governor of Judea in the first century of the Christian era.

xiiiIbid ‘Avoda Zara. §34, p. 1234

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