Ask the rabbi…Rabbi Raymond Apple answers

August 31, 2014 by J-Wire
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Q. Do the ends justify the means?


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. As a general rule, no. On the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20), Bachya ben Asher says that the doubling of the word “justice” indicates “Justice, whether to your profit or loss; justice, whether in word or action; justice, whether to Jew or non-Jew”. Others say that the verse identifies both the mitzvah and the means, i.e. “Justice – by just means”.

But why should it matter how we get to the right goal? If the destination is correct, why worry about the route?

The issue arises in halachah quite often, and the decision is almost always that means matter as much as ends. If we want to pronounce the blessing over the lulav (an admirable aim), it is not acceptable to steal the lulav in order to make it possible. If we want to benefit a charity it is unacceptable to embezzle the money to make the good deed possible. The Talmud remarks that “He who steals a measure of wheat and says a prayer over the bread is a blasphemer” (Bava Kamma 94a).

How about what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “moral man and the immoral situation”? May the moral individual ever act immorally – for example, is it permissible to be “gonev min haganav”, “one who steals from a thief”? The Torah seems to allow it. For example, Jacob gains the birthright from his unworthy brother by using some guile. But the commentators are uneasy and are not all convinced that he has acted correctly.

It does, however, seem that an emergency can be an exception to the rule that ends and means must both be upright, but only if it is clear that the whole enterprise is in jeopardy, that no other option is viable, and whatever is at stake is of the utmost seriousness (Norman Frimer, in “Tradition”, vol. 13 part 4/vol. 14 part 1, 1973). Normally, though, just means and just ends are both required.


Q. What, if any, is the Jewish perspective on beauty contests? I know the Purim story focuses on Esther who, because she won a beauty pageant, became queen of Persia, but are not such contests a mundane exploitation of the physical form?

A. Women’s beauty was always appreciated in Judaism. Rachel was “beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance”, whilst her sister Leah had soft, beautiful eyes (Gen. 29:17).

Precious spices and oils figure frequently in the Bible as means of enhancing female beauty and attractiveness (e.g. Shir HaShirim 5:13). Brides in particular would spend a long time beautifying themselves (Shir HaShirim 3:6).

But physical beauty could be over-emphasised. Isaiah has a long, disapproving list of beauty aids: “anklets, fillets, crescents, pendants, bracelets, veils, head-tires, armlets, sashes, rings, nose-jewels, aprons” and so on (Isa. 3:18-23).

King Solomon, whose record suggests a fondness for (presumably beautiful) women, declares that piety and character are what really matter: “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who is God-fearing, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31;30). The Talmud praises the bride who has “neither paint nor rouge nor hair-dye, yet radiates charm” (Sanh. 14a).

Not only female but male beauty, too, led Judaism to advise caution. In the days of the Greeks whose hellenisation of Eretz Yisra’el eventually led to the Maccabean rebellion the almost idolisation of the (naked) male form was regarded as an emphasis on the wrong things and a breach of modesty and morality.

Which suggests that the simple answer to your question is that beauty contests simply have the wrong agenda from the Jewish point of view and what we should be concerned with is perfecting the mind, soul and character.


One Response to “Ask the rabbi…Rabbi Raymond Apple answers”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Dear Rabbi, I hope that this finds you well.
    I dare interlude with a completely different take on the issue “between” the category of “ends” and seemingly the distinct one of “means”.
    In actual fact there are no two distinct categories.
    Simply put “means” are ends in themselves. Everything we endeavour is an end as such. Hurting someone in order to obtain specific benefits, i.e. ENDS, serves as an end in as much as “pain” constitutes a desired affect, an end of the act of physical pressure/constraints.
    This is also to say that if ethical principles apply to the notion of “purpose”,”ends”, in the same manner, the same ethical principles apply to what we falsely categorise distinctly as “means”. One may differentiate between a non tangible category, such as an idea, a principle, as an end to be followed and the distinct category of physical means of implementing the said principle. Still no distinction in ethical terms.
    When the example of one’s efforts in achieving estetical, lascivious visual effects is seen as subservient to certain “material” effects, advantages, it is falsely seen as means of “deception”. Humans derive necessary, normal biological feelings from encountering pleasing sights, therefore what could be means of deceit are in fact ends in themselves of satisfying certain needs. Beauty , the satisfaction of emotional states is not a “means” but and end in itself, one inexorably contained in human existence.

    best regards


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