On Beauty

[With apologies to Zadie Smith.]

Introducing Smallpox

For all those worrying about Shidduchim, love, or life in general, just remember – it could always be worse. At least we’ve eradicated smallpox; ironically, this most monstrous of God’s creations is the only disease that we’ve managed to eradicate:

Smallpox is believed to have emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC. The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year during the closing years of the 18th century (including five monarchs), and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Of all those infected, 20–60%—and over 80% of infected children—died from the disease.

During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths. In the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and that two million died in that year. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979. To this day, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been eradicated.1

Indeed, the triumph over this ghastly demon is such a noble accomplishment, that Rav Yisrael Lipschütz singled out Edward Jenner as one of the most praiseworthy of gentiles for his pioneering work on smallpox vaccination:

[אנחנו] רואים כמה מחסידיהן שמלבד שמכירין יוצר בראשית, ומאמינין בתורה הקדושה שהיא אלקית, ועושין גמילת חסדים גם לישראל, וכמה מהן שהטיבו ביותר לכל באי עולם, כהחסיד יענער שהמציא הפאקקענאימפפונג, שעל ידה ניצולים כמה רבבות בני אדם מחולי וממיתה וממומין2

[This remarkable passage, which I intend to discuss more fully in a future post, בג”ה, was first brought to my attention several years ago by a letter to the editor published in Hamodia, if I recall correctly.]

Now that these cheerful introductions have been made, we move on to the primary themes of this post: Halachah, ethics, decency, love, beauty, and constancy,

Halachah, Ethics and Decency

An issue that I find most fascinating is the intersection between Halachah, morality and decency. I recently encountered a classic example of this intersection in a brief responsum of Rav Yisrael Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna. He was asked about a woman who had contracted ‘the disease of the pox’ (probably smallpox) three months after her engagement, and as an effect of the disease, her face had become “wrinkled”, and she became “repulsive in the eyes of the fiancé, who does not wish to marry her”. The Rav of Kutna begins by ruling that as a matter of law, the man is perfectly entitled to break the engagement, without financial penalty, but he then insists that as a matter of “מוסר ויראה” this is wrong, and makes an eloquent and stirring plea to the man (and his parents) to not be faithless toward the completely innocent and blameless girl with whom he has entered into a covenant, and to not humiliate her by breaking the engagement. Notwithstanding the Talmudic dictum that אין אשה אלא ליופי, he reminds them of the even more ancient (and better known) Biblical admonition that שקר החן והבל היופי, and assures them that he will merit children who are “proper and fearful of sin” if his intention shall be לשם מצוה:

בדבר השאלה בבחור ובתולה שנשדכו ואחר שלשה חדשים חלתה הכלה מחלת הפאקען ועבור זה נעשה פניה קמטים ונמאסת בעיני החתן ואינו רוצה לנשאה,

וצד הכלה תובעין חצי נדן קנס דנסתחפה שדהו וגם רוצים שימתין עוד כי הרופאים מגידים שתתרפא,

הנה כבר מבואר בתשובת מהרי”ק שורש ק”א דבשידוכין לבד לא שייך נסתחפה שדהו לפי שלא זכה בה בשום ענין ואינו אלא כשנים שנשבעו לעשות ד”א לכן אין טענת צד הכלה כלום אם הוא מום דקפדי אינשי, גם הטענה שימתין עוד על הספק אינה טענה

אמנם זה אם החתן אומר יקוב הדין את ההר אמנם על פי המוסר ויראה אינו נכון לעשות כזאת אחר אשר בא עמה בברית והיא לא פשעה נגדו בשום דבר אין ראוי לבגוד בה ולבייש אותה על לא חמס בכפיה ולא עשתה שום עול נגדו

ואם חלתה עד אשר נשחת יפיה הנה הבל היופי ושקר החן וראוי לו ליקח את מקחו לשם שמים ובודאי יהיו לו בנים הגונים ויראי חטא אם יהא כוונתו לשם מצווה

ואל יהיה קל בעיני החתן ואביו ואמו בושת בתולת ישראל וראוי להם לדבר על לב בנם להתפייס בה ויערב לו מקחו והיה זה שלום:

נאום הדו”ש ישראל יהושע חופ”ק קוטנא.3

Love and Beauty

This reminds me of a passage in Radak’s Commentary to Genesis. He notes that Ya’akov apparently falls in love with Rahel (at first sight) due to her great beauty, and wonders why righteous men, whose goal in marriage is procreation, and not lust, should care about such things:

וללבן, ספר זה בתחלה בעבור מה שעתיד לספר באהבת יעקב את רחל, ושעבד בעבורה שבע שנים, כי לא היה עובד מה שעבד בעבור לאה אלא שרמה לו לבן:

ועיני לאה רכות, יפה תואר היתה אלא שעיניה היו רכות ודומעות, אבל רחל היתה יפת תאר ויפת מראה בלא שום מום. ותאר הוא על צורת הפנים ושאר האברים וקומות הגוף, ומראה על הבשר שהיה לבן ואדום והשער שחור:

אעבדך שבע שנים ברחל … ויש לשאול אחר שכוונת הצדיקים לאשה לזרע, למה היו מחזירים אחר אשה יפה כיון שאין כוונתם לתאוה, ויעקב אבינו בחר ברחל לפי שהיתה יפה מאד ועבד בה שבע שנים והתרעם בלבן אחר שנתן לו לאה תמורתה לפי שלא היתה יפה כמו רחל?

ויש לומר כי כונתם לטובה לפי שהאשה יפה מעוררת התאוה, וכדי להרבות בנים היתה כוונתם לעורר תאותם, ועוד כדי שיהיו הבנים והבנות יפה מראה ויהיו דומים להם, ועוד כי צורה הנאה משמחת לב האדם כל שכן הצורה שתהיה לפניו תמיד שתהיה שמחתו בה תמידי, וצריך שיהיה האדם שמח בעולמו ובחלקו שנתן לו הקל, כי האלקים מענה בשמחת האדם ומזמין לצדיק אשה יפה כמו שעשה לאבות ולשאר צדיקים שיהיו שמחים בחלקם ומולידים בנים כמותם:4

[Incidentally, Radak’s somewhat dogmatic insistence that the feminine beauty ideal is red and white skin and black hair is fairly common among the medieval Sephardim; see my discussion in Wine, Women and Song: Some Remarks On Poetry and Grammar – Part III.]

Similarly, Ralbag:

והנה היו ללבן שתי בנות ולא בחר יעקב בגדולה לפי שעיניה היו רכות ודומעות והוא חולי מה. ובחר בקטנה כדי שיהיה הזרע שיהיה לו ממנה יותר בריא ויותר שלם. מצורף לזה שהיא היתה יפת תואר ויפת מראה.5

התועלת העשירי הוא במדות. והוא שראוי לאדם שיבחר באשה שלמת היצירה. כי הזרע שיהיה לו ממנה יהיה יותר בריא ויותר שלם. ולזה לא בחר יעקב בלאה כי היו עיניה דומעות תמיד והוא חולי מה. ובחר ברחל שהיתה יפת תואר ויפת מראה. עם שיהיה זה סבה שתשקוט תאותו בה ולא יהרהר באשה אחרת.6

It seems to me, though, that as we say in Yeshivah: the קשיא is better than the תירוצים …

All this is also reminiscent of this remarkable biographical tidbit about Rabbeinu Tam, recorded for posterity in the name of Maharil:

אמר שמעידין על ר”ת כשהיה רוצה ללמוד תמצית מהלכה חמורה היה נותן לפניו תל של זהובים לשמוח בהן ונתרחב לבו ולמד בכח.7

Constancy

Returning to the situation discussed by the Rav of Kutna, we close this post with excerpts of a famous novelistic account of a lover (and an unprofessed one, at that) who remains faithful to his beloved even after she has been disfigured, also apparently by smallpox:

CHAPTER XXXV—Esther’s Narrative

I lay ill through several weeks, and the usual tenor of my life became like an old remembrance. But this was not the effect of time so much as of the change in all my habits made by the helplessness and inaction of a sick–room. Before I had been confined to it many days, everything else seemed to have retired into a remote distance where there was little or no separation between the various stages of my life which had been really divided by years. In falling ill, I seemed to have crossed a dark lake and to have left all my experiences, mingled together by the great distance, on the healthy shore. …

By and by my strength began to be restored. Instead of lying, with so strange a calmness, watching what was done for me, as if it were done for some one else whom I was quietly sorry for, I helped it a little, and so on to a little more and much more, until I became useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again. …

First I complimented Charley on the room, and indeed it was so fresh and airy, so spotless and neat, that I could scarce believe I had been lying there so long. This delighted Charley, and her face was brighter than before.

“Yet, Charley,” said I, looking round, “I miss something, surely, that I am accustomed to?”

Poor little Charley looked round too and pretended to shake her head as if there were nothing absent.

“Are the pictures all as they used to be?” I asked her.

“Every one of them, miss,” said Charley.

“And the furniture, Charley?”

“Except where I have moved it about to make more room, miss.”

“And yet,” said I, “I miss some familiar object. Ah, I know what it is, Charley! It’s the looking–glass.”

Charley got up from the table, making as if she had forgotten something, and went into the next room; and I heard her sob there.

I had thought of this very often. I was now certain of it. I could thank God that it was not a shock to me now. I called Charley back, and when she came—at first pretending to smile, but as she drew nearer to me, looking grieved—I took her in my arms and said, “It matters very little, Charley. I hope I can do without my old face very well.”

I was presently so far advanced as to be able to sit up in a great chair and even giddily to walk into the adjoining room, leaning on Charley. The mirror was gone from its usual place in that room too, but what I had to bear was none the harder to bear for that. …

And now I must part with the little secret I have thus far tried to keep. I had thought, sometimes, that Mr. Woodcourt loved me and that if he had been richer he would perhaps have told me that he loved me before he went away. I had thought, sometimes, that if he had done so, I should have been glad of it. But how much better it was now that this had never happened! What should I have suffered if I had had to write to him and tell him that the poor face he had known as mine was quite gone from me and that I freely released him from his bondage to one whom he had never seen!

Oh, it was so much better as it was! With a great pang mercifully spared me, I could take back to my heart my childish prayer to be all he had so brightly shown himself; and there was nothing to be undone: no chain for me to break or for him to drag; and I could go, please God, my lowly way along the path of duty, and he could go his nobler way upon its broader road; and though we were apart upon the journey, I might aspire to meet him, unselfishly, innocently, better far than he had thought me when I found some favour in his eyes, at the journey’s end.8

For I had not yet looked in the glass and had never asked to have my own restored to me. I knew this to be a weakness which must be overcome, but I had always said to myself that I would begin afresh when I got to where I now was. Therefore I had wanted to be alone, and therefore I said, now alone, in my own room, “Esther, if you are to be happy, if you are to have any right to pray to be true–hearted, you must keep your word, my dear.” I was quite resolved to keep it, but I sat down for a little while first to reflect upon all my blessings. And then I said my prayers and thought a little more.

My hair had not been cut off, though it had been in danger more than once. It was long and thick. I let it down, and shook it out, and went up to the glass upon the dressing–table. There was a little muslin curtain drawn across it. I drew it back and stood for a moment looking through such a veil of my own hair that I could see nothing else. Then I put my hair aside and looked at the reflection in the mirror, encouraged by seeing how placidly it looked at me. I was very much changed—oh, very, very much. At first my face was so strange to me that I think I should have put my hands before it and started back but for the encouragement I have mentioned. Very soon it became more familiar, and then I knew the extent of the alteration in it better than I had done at first. It was not like what I had expected, but I had expected nothing definite, and I dare say anything definite would have surprised me.

I had never been a beauty and had never thought myself one, but I had been very different from this. It was all gone now. Heaven was so good to me that I could let it go with a few not bitter tears and could stand there arranging my hair for the night quite thankfully.

One thing troubled me, and I considered it for a long time before I went to sleep. I had kept Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers. When they were withered I had dried them and put them in a book that I was fond of. Nobody knew this, not even Ada. I was doubtful whether I had a right to preserve what he had sent to one so different—whether it was generous towards him to do it. I wished to be generous to him, even in the secret depths of my heart, which he would never know, because I could have loved him—could have been devoted to him. At last I came to the conclusion that I might keep them if I treasured them only as a remembrance of what was irrevocably past and gone, never to be looked back on any more, in any other light. I hope this may not seem trivial. I was very much in earnest.9

We were standing by the opened window looking down into the street when Mr. Woodcourt spoke to me. I learned in a moment that he loved me. I learned in a moment that my scarred face was all unchanged to him. I learned in a moment that what I had thought was pity and compassion was devoted, generous, faithful love. Oh, too late to know it now, too late, too late. That was the first ungrateful thought I had. Too late.

“When I returned,” he told me, “when I came back, no richer than when I went away, and found you newly risen from a sick bed, yet so inspired by sweet consideration for others and so free from a selfish thought—”

“Oh, Mr. Woodcourt, forbear, forbear!” I entreated him. “I do not deserve your high praise. I had many selfish thoughts at that time, many!”

“Heaven knows, beloved of my life,” said he, “that my praise is not a lover’s praise, but the truth. You do not know what all around you see in Esther Summerson, how many hearts she touches and awakens, what sacred admiration and what love she wins.”

“Oh, Mr. Woodcourt,” cried I, “it is a great thing to win love, it is a great thing to win love! I am proud of it, and honoured by it; and the hearing of it causes me to shed these tears of mingled joy and sorrow—joy that I have won it, sorrow that I have not deserved it better; but I am not free to think of yours.”

I said it with a stronger heart, for when he praised me thus and when I heard his voice thrill with his belief that what he said was true, I aspired to be more worthy of it. It was not too late for that. Although I closed this unforeseen page in my life to–night, I could be worthier of it all through my life. And it was a comfort to me, and an impulse to me, and I felt a dignity rise up within me that was derived from him when I thought so.

He broke the silence.

“I should poorly show the trust that I have in the dear one who will evermore be as dear to me as now”—and the deep earnestness with which he said it at once strengthened me and made me weep—“if, after her assurance that she is not free to think of my love, I urged it. Dear Esther, let me only tell you that the fond idea of you which I took abroad was exalted to the heavens when I came home. I have always hoped, in the first hour when I seemed to stand in any ray of good fortune, to tell you this. I have always feared that I should tell it you in vain. My hopes and fears are both fulfilled to–night. I distress you. I have said enough.”

Something seemed to pass into my place that was like the angel he thought me, and I felt so sorrowful for the loss he had sustained! I wished to help him in his trouble, as I had wished to do when he showed that first commiseration for me.

“Dear Mr. Woodcourt,” said I, “before we part to–night, something is left for me to say. I never could say it as I wish—I never shall—but—”

I had to think again of being more deserving of his love and his affliction before I could go on.

“—I am deeply sensible of your generosity, and I shall treasure its remembrance to my dying hour. I know full well how changed I am, I know you are not unacquainted with my history, and I know what a noble love that is which is so faithful. What you have said to me could have affected me so much from no other lips, for there are none that could give it such a value to me. It shall not be lost. It shall make me better.”

He covered his eyes with his hand and turned away his head. How could I ever be worthy of those tears? …

He left me, and I stood at the dark window watching the street. His love, in all its constancy and generosity, had come so suddenly upon me that he had not left me a minute when my fortitude gave way again and the street was blotted out by my rushing tears.

But they were not tears of regret and sorrow. No. He had called me the beloved of his life and had said I would be evermore as dear to him as I was then, and I felt as if my heart would not hold the triumph of having heard those words. My first wild thought had died away. It was not too late to hear them, for it was not too late to be animated by them to be good, true, grateful, and contented. How easy my path, how much easier than his!10

Note to the tender-hearted reader: this thread of the novel, at least, does have a happy ending: (I, II). I confess to having utilized the SparkNotes for help in tracking down the appropriate sections of the text.

  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Smallpox,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Smallpox&oldid=351976669 (accessed March 25, 2010). []
  2. תפארת ישראל, אבות פרק ג’ בועז אות א []
  3. שו”ת ישועות מלכו, אה”ע סימן מ”ו – קשר []
  4. פירוש רד”ק על התורה (פרעסבורג: התר”ב), בראשית (ויצא) כט:טז-יח – קשר []
  5. פירושי רלב”ג על התורה (מוסד הרב קוק – ירושלים: תשנ”ב), בראשית (ויצא [אולם נדפס ‘תולדות’ בראש הדף בטעות]) ביאור הפרשה לא:טז-יח, עמוד קפ”ג []
  6. שם, תועליות, עמוד קצ”ד []
  7. ספר מהרי”ל – מנהגים (מכון ירושלים: תשמ”ט), ליקוטים, אות פ”ג, עמוד תרל”ב []
  8. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 35 – link. []
  9. Ibid. Chapter 36 – link. []
  10. Ibid. Chapter 61 – link. []
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2 Responses to On Beauty

  1. Bad4 says:

    Just to respond to your small point in the first paragraph…

    I saw or heard a quote from Donald Henderson that we haven’t eradicated other diseases not because we can’t, but because it isn’t worth the expense and effort. Nothing else is nearly as bad.

    • Yitzhak says:

      Donald Henderson:

      Even towards the end of smallpox eradication, the senior staff never talked about potential eradication of any other disease. There’s a reason for this. No other disease had so many of the attributes that made smallpox amenable to eradication. The polio vaccine can be expensive and requires several doses and even then protection is not guaranteed. Protection against smallpox for 10 years or more is possible with a single vaccination. The smallpox vaccine could be kept at 37 °C for a month, whereas the polio vaccine has to be kept cold up until it is actually administered in the field. This is difficult to do in developing countries. We knew exactly where smallpox was because each infected individual had a distinctive rash. With polio, there are 200 infected children for one paralytic case, so the other 199 are perfectly able to transmit it to others. And they could spread it, undetected, to many different parts of the country. You could not do what we did with smallpox in terms of focusing specifically on an outbreak and on vaccinating the people around that to prevent spread.

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