Welcome to BEAUTY


The idea to spend a year studying beauty was not a new one. We at LABA have spent years contemplating the possibility of having beauty as our theme, but each time we ended up passing on it. Why? We thought beauty was too simplistic, too political and, perhaps worst of all, unlikely to engender new ideas.

But these weren’t really the problems.

The truth is, we feared beauty. We feared that we, faculty and group, would be unable to move past the cliches surrounding the topic. We feared that the critique of beauty that threaded itself through 20th century art would make us seem old-fashioned and unserious. And we feared the way beauty makes animals out of all of us. In its presence our post-enlightenment ideas about equality so easily vanish and, if only for a moment, we become captive to the exquisite, the extraordinary — the potential for replication swells us with delight.

“What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it,” begins Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just. She goes on to argue that aesthetic pleasure is what teaches us about conviction, a mental state that is so pleasurable “that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction — to locate what is true.” She draws a line between our ability to recognize beauty and our ability to recognize justice, explaining that an appreciation of beauty can, ultimately, foster social good.

Through our study of ancient Jewish texts we will explore the tensions surrounding beauty. Is our appreciation of it, as Scarry argues, integral to our desire for justice? Or just more evidence of our instinct for style over substance, an instinct that has been particularly oppressive to women throughout history? Indeed, as we contemplate the great human beauties of the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud we suspect there will be a lot of wrestling with this relationship between morality and aesthetics. Beauty is never simply a path to pleasure in these stories, but a sign of holiness and possibly righteousness. Beauty soothes. Beauty ravages. Occasionally at the same time. The architects of Jewish intellectual culture never shied away from beauty’s power and contradictions and, now, neither shall we.

Elissa Strauss
Editorial Director of LABA


Meet the new LABA fellows who will join us for our exploration of BEAUTY.