According to Judaism, is physical beauty a quality to be valued for women, or is the main thing to be righteous? If it’s righteousness that is to be valued, then why does the Torah praise Sarah for her beauty?
One of the well-known verses of the chapter of Proverbs, referred to as “Eshet Chayil”, declares the laudable traits of the Jewish woman. It states, “Charm is false and beauty is futile; rather a G‑d-fearing woman is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30). This clearly indicates that according to Judaism, the ideal woman is not defined by physical beauty but rather by her spiritual and personal character. Her value as a woman and a person runs much more than skin-deep.
In fact, we find that the Talmudic Sages praise Sarah for her spiritual beauty and splendor. Based on the verse which identifies Sarah as Yiscah (Gen. 11:29), the Sages note (Megilla 14a), “Why does the Torah call Sarah by the name of Yiscah? Because she saw (sacha) with prophetic inspiration”.
The Talmud brings as a source for her elevated stature the fact that G‑d instructed Abraham to heed her demand to banish Ishmael due to his negative influence on Isaac. Thus the Torah states, “And G‑d said to Abraham…whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice” (Gen. 21:12).
Actually, it is from this teaching that Rashi comments that Sarah’s level of prophecy was greater than Abraham’s (ibid). By way of explaining why Sarah’s spiritual splendor was greater than Abraham’s, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes that while Abraham arrived at his knowledge of G‑d by finding His Presence in the external, natural world, Sarah derived her knowledge of G‑d through introspective contemplation into her own Divine soul.
This is due to the fact that men are generally more externally oriented, whereas women are more internally focused. This adds an extra level of meaning to another well-known verse, “All honor is accorded to a King’s daughter whose focus is internal; her raiment is superior to settings of gold” (Ps. 45:14). Again, we see that inner refinement is more valued than external beauty and adornment.
Nevertheless, you are correct. Sarah, as a paradigm of the ideal Jewish woman, is also praised for her physical beauty. The same teaching cited above regarding Sarah’s name Yiscah offers another parallel explanation: “Why does the Torah call Sarah by the name of Yiscah? Because all gazed (sachu) upon her beauty”. Furthermore, before Abraham and Sarah descend to Egypt, Abraham said to her, “Behold, now I know that you are a woman of fair appearance” (Gen. 12:11).
Parenthetically, various midrashim note that the wording of the verse implies that only then did he notice her beauty, but he did not notice it during the many prior years of marriage. One explanation is that on their way to Egypt, they bent to drink from a stream, and when he saw her reflection he noticed her great beauty for the first time. But since she was also named Yiscah on account of her acclaimed beauty, even this explanation is difficult.
However, a possible understanding is that until then, he recognized her beauty, but attributed it to her inner, spiritual splendor which glowed from within. However, when he saw only her physical countenance reflected in the water, he saw that not only did her refined soul radiate beauty, but her physical features were beautiful as well. And indeed, the verse later states, “And it came to pass when Abram came to Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very pretty” (Gen. 12:14).
Accordingly, physical beauty is at most secondary to spiritual beauty. And while an attractive appearance may be marred by unrefined attributes, refined attributes may beautify a marred appearance. What’s more, for the inherently refined and spiritually splendorous tzadikim, their inner beauty is actually manifested and expressed in a physically attractive countenance.
Also, even if a woman appreciates beautiful adornments, this does not necessarily mean that she wears them in order to be beautiful. And of course, the most precious gems with which a woman may adorn herself, as pearls around her neck, are pure and holy children and a righteous husband. Regarding this, the chapter of “Eshet Chayil” states, “Her children will grow and gladden her with contentment, so too will her husband praise her” (Prov. 31:28).