There’s an ancient story about a man who was walking down the road when he encountered a great sage, whom he greeted with great respect. The rabbi replied “You worthless, ugly person. Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” The man rebuked him, saying “I don’t know, but you should say to the Craftsman (God) that made me: How ugly is the vessel you made.” The sage fell do the ground, contrite.
Contemporary studies find that beauty is an advantage. Beautiful people are typically treated better by others, aren’t insulted by passing sages. For women, researchers found that enhancing a woman’s attractiveness boosted people’s perceptions of her competence, likability and trustworthiness. Of course concepts of beauty may vary, from Rubenesque fleshy appearance popular from the 15th century, to the emaciated Twiggy look of the 1960’s. Powdered wigs, blonde hair, green hair, no hair… the variation is endless.
Physical beauty or ugliness is rarely an issue in Judaism; wisdom and knowledge take priority. In Proverbs we are told that a woman’s charm is deceptive, her beauty vain. The same woman, though, is praised for her wisdom.
The novel Quantum Cannibals was inspired by a woman from history; both wise and beautiful. I introduced her:
Asenath accepted her beauty and wisdom as a gift. The former, she ignored; the latter, she nurtured and fed. She didn’t feel arrogant about either. “Tanayt” wasn’t a name, but a title her people had bestowed on her. It was reserved only for the greatest sages, for the most able of leaders, and hadn’t been given to anyone in hundreds of years. Certainly not to a woman… Such beauty, people reasoned, could only be a result of divine favor.
This description applies as much to the historical (16th c.) Asenath Barzani as it does to my fictional adaptation. She was head of the Jewish religious academy in Mosul, Kurdistan, and was admired by both the Muslim as well as Jewish population. Although she was a legitimate female rabbi, her title “Tanayt” was a much higher designation.
I took my Asenath out of ancient Kurdistan. I kept her as a scholar, but placed her in Bronze Age Mesopotamia. I also set her in the arctic, where she was an exiled inventor, quantum biologist and warrior. It may sound confusing, but if you read the book you’ll understand.
The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said “never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” The historical Asenath Barzani was the personification of that idea in her beauty and wisdom; in her life.