Jewish Beauty and Greek Beauty

According to the Getty Museum ancient sculptors used canons—sets of “perfect” mathematical ratios and proportions—to depict the human form. The earliest known canons were developed by the Egyptians, whose grid-based proportions influenced Greek sculptors in the Archaic period (700–480 B.C.). Over time, sculptors and painters sought to create a canon that would allow them to depict the perfect human body—not a body based on a real person but a body based on a defined harmony among parts. This idea prevailed into the Classical and Hellenistic periods even as artists became increasingly interested in presenting the human body in more natural poses.  The idea of beauty as understood by these ancient sculptors was exactly that – an ideal – not a reality.

Greece is associated with beauty in the Torah “G-d gives beauty to Yefet (ancestor of the Greeks)” and it is not by coincidence that Keats’ poem with his famous line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is in his Ode on a Grecian Urn.  So we do recognize that there is beauty in mathematical harmonies and ratios, and we recognize that there is beauty in a purely physical form.  However, we also understand that there are other aspects and forms of beauty that exist.

There is a fascinating insight made by Rashi regarding beauty in Parshas Miketz.  Pharaoh dreams of seven cows “beautiful in appearance” coming out of the Nile. Joseph interprets this to symbolize seven years of plenty.  Rashi comments, “Beautiful in appearance is a sign of times of plenty, when creatures look beautiful to each other, for no one is jealous of the other.”  So when someone is feeling good, content, and generous, everything looks beautiful to him.  When we appreciate what we have and are not jealous of others – then others look beautiful to us.  Things look ugly to us when we are jealous, upset and angry.  So a Jewish concept of beauty is not defined by mathematical proportions and ratios, or by some objective scientific standard.  Beauty, as Shakespeare correctly said, is indeed in the eyes of the beholder.

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