The Beauty of the Human Form

Ruby Namdar on Beauty On Tuesday, LABA kicked off our year of study around a table in the 14th Street Y’s gorgeous theater, washing down our discussion with food and wine. Each of our fellows and staff brought in a beautiful item and explained its power in an effort to begin to parse our personal relationships to beauty. And then, cracking open our discussion entirely, our teacher, Ruby Namdar, led us in an illuminating textual analysis. Below, Ruby’s meditations as we embark on our year of BEAUTY.

My fascination with ancient Jewish text started early in my intellectual life. I discovered it in dusty, outdated-looking books crowded on a marginal shelf in the library. I was immediately captivated by the strange, often awkward and sometimes eerie charm of these ancient textual gems. They did indeed feel like gems to me, cut in a strange, archaic technique that differed vastly from the brilliant diamonds of modern Hebrew. But they were jewels nonetheless. The strange and wonderful style, symbolism and imagery of the Bible, the Talmud and the Midrash have been my inspiration as a writer, and the friction between them and the contemporary Hebrew in which I live and work has been a wonderful source of inspiration to me. I am very passionate about sharing these text with fellow Jewish writers and artists, helping them to see their hidden beauty and use them as a source of inspiration and meaning. This is my main mission at LABA.

This year we will study the volatile theme of BEAUTY and focus on the least “safe,” most loaded and therefore most intriguing aspect of it — the beauty of the human form. We live in a time in which human beauty is mass-produced, reproduced, objectified and commercialized. Every day we are bombarded with countless synthetic and artificially perfected images of human beauty, which redefine our relationship with our bodies, our faces and our place in the world. Billions of dollars are spent in pursuit of beauty. Young people starve, damage and re-shape their bodies in order to fit in with the cult of beauty. Never before did the obsession with beauty govern our cultural and individual lives as it does now. The Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash and the Kabbalistic texts that we’ll study this year offer very fresh, and often surprisingly counter-intuitive, perspectives on the question of human beauty. The Jewish canon is not indifferent to beauty, nor does it brush it aside as “vanities” or “distraction.” Human beauty is an arena in which the divine struggles with the diabolical, and virtue struggles with vice. Some of the “chosens” of the Bible and the Talmud are described as exceptionally beautiful people, and yet their beauty can also be a dangerous thing, and serve as the source of their demise. No matter what your expectations from sacred texts, the Jewish canon is bound to take you by surprise. This originality and unpredictability of the ancient texts, together with their immense beauty, are our source of inspiration at LABA.

– Ruby Namdar