One of the big cultural differences between the Greeks and the Jews in the background of the Chanukah story was how to view physical beauty. The Greeks were very much into it, it was a noble thing for them, they pretty much worshipped the human body and sought excellence and perfection in that. Jews, on the other hand, believed in an invisible G-d, were against statutes and other physical representations and glorifications. This theme is echoed in some ways in this week’s Torah Parsha of Vayeishev, with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, not only was he handsome, but he reveled in that, and it got him into some trouble, not only with his brothers but with Potifar’s wife as well. These and other texts give you the feeling that Judaism isn’t the biggest fan of physical beauty.
On the other hand, Torah does speak positively of physical beauty. Many a time, Torah verses describe its women as “beautiful of form and appearance” and there is much in the Talmud about the importance and value of women beautifying themselves and seeing them as such. So we can’t be that against it either.
I once heard an interested unrelated but related observation from Dr. Jonathan O’Brien obm on how the three major religions differ in how they relate to wine. Muslims ban all alcoholic drinks altogether. Christians sanctify wine as a religious sacrament. Judaism embraces it, it is even used in Kiddush for Shabbat and holidays, but doesn’t revere it – it’s not a sacrament.
Whatever you think of this Dr. O’Brien observation (and yes, there were sacrificial wine libations on the Temple altar etc) there’s a point here about Judaism valuing or utilizing or recognizing certain things without raising it to a level of adoring reverence. And the same can be said about the Jewish view of beauty. Yes, we think it is beautiful, but we don’t consider beauty itself to be the ultimate, it’s not G-dly in and of itself. We don’t (or shouldn’t) let it override everything else we believe in or hold dear.