Thank goodness, living in a part of Manhattan that was not directly affected by Sandy, I have no personal disaster stories to tell. But in recognizing the limitations of humanity, my thoughts turned to how we humans have always thought we knew better.
The Olympic games began in Greece around the time that Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Samaria in 722 BCE. Originally they involved a few foot races, and then expanded to include wrestling, throwing things, and chariots. And, apparently, cheating, bribing, and even killing your opponents was par for the course. As nations today compete, in those days Greek cities did. They offered huge rewards to winners. The modern Olympics were revived by the French Baron de Coubertin. The first was held in Athens in 1896. What has changed nowadays is the number of sports, the commercialization, and the cost. But the raw worship of the physical remains at the center of the Olympic ideal.
Greek philosophy in all its varieties contra posed mind over matter. The Olympics were the showpiece of how the physical could be developed and disciplined by the mind. They incorporated religious tradition with national pride. In contradistinction, Judaism posited something else; not just that that humans beings were made of mind and matter but that soul, spirit, religious fitness was as important as physical health. The Greek idolization of the body beautiful soon deteriorated into physical excess and Bacchanalian hedonism. Western culture emphasized the perfection of physical human form in its depictions of the idealized Holy Family.
I do not suggest that Western religions have no tradition of serving the lame and the halt! Quite the contrary. I recall as child what a hero the Christian theologian and pianist Albert Schweitzer was, giving up his comfortable European existence to work amongst lepers in Lambarene, and the reverence later accorded to Mother Teresa. Nevertheless, the prevailing mood in the secular world I grew up in was an emphasis on beauty that penalized ugliness.
In our tradition, Jacob was lame, Leah was ugly, Moses could not speak properly. There was indeed beauty too, in buildings, in the intricate Tabernacle. There was beauty in humans such as Rebekah, Rachel, Joseph, and David, to name only the obvious ones. There is the idea of “Hidur Mitzvah”, that whatever we use for ritual should be as beautiful as we can afford. But tradition chose to focus less on outer beauty and more on the inner. Hence the line we recite every Friday evening from Proverbs. “Beauty is deceptive, charm is empty, but a God-fearing woman is to be praised.”
There is a well-known Talmudic story (Sanhedrin 21a) about Alexander the Great. When he passed through the Middle East he was approached by various local nations with claims against the Jews. (Things haven’t changed much in two and a half thousand years.) Alexander then called on the Jews to defend themselves. Gaviah Ben Pasisah, a humble hunchback, asked permission to represent the Jewish people. He brilliantly demolished the arguments of his opponents, who ended up fleeing in disarray. It was not by accident that the Talmud contrasted a physically deformed and ugly, yet wise, Jew against the young, beautiful, militant, and philosophically trained Alexander. This is a lesson in different values.
Western art with its emphasis on human representation, glorifies beauty and vilifies ugliness. Think of the way Breughel paints the Jews. The result of this conditioning is that in the West, for years, the crippled, the ugly, or the variations of nature were regarded as repulsive, abused by society, or turned into objects of derision and prurient display. Instead of looking for their inner qualities, we were encouraged to mock their external characteristics.
In 1948 a group of war-injured men at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK, inspired by Jewish refugee Dr. Ludwig Guttman who used sport as a means of rehabilitation, founded the “World Wheelchair and Amputee Games”. Initially it was a quiet affair, because looking at crippled servicemen compete in sports was something society was not yet ready for. But over the years, very slowly it must be admitted, it has grown to the point where at London this year the now re-named Paralympics was a sellout and a massive success in its own right.
We have advanced tremendously in the way we treat and relate to the physically challenged. The fact that we see almost daily on television someone physically different than the norm, men such as Stephen Hawking, confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak unaided, and clearly suffering debilitating disease, yet one of the most brilliant men on earth confirms that the severest of handicaps need not consign us to asylums, hospitals, or circuses. Actors suffering from illnesses that would in the past have meant the end of their careers can still take on major roles. Actresses with speaking difficulties have won acting awards. All this has changed the way we relate to people with different challenges and appearances. Yet many handicapped people will tell you that they are conscious of how others look at them or avert their faces. In the same way that we have progressed in our attitudes to racial differences, we are still too often ambivalent about physical disabilities.
According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, good-looking men and women, which often simply boils down to meaning symmetrical faces, find it easier to land jobs. So do thin ones. The airbrushed world of models and stars creates an illusion of perfection and beauty that very few can achieve in reality. We do indeed prefer looking at aesthetic shapes, forms, and faces, even if tastes can vary culturally from (to give a simple example) big buttocks to small ones. Too much of our attention and money goes to the superficiality of externals. Not that they are unimportant, but we give them far too much credibility and influence.
I venture to suggest that whereas the Greek idea of the body beautiful worked against integrating the handicapped into society, the spiritual tradition insisted on trying to grant them dignity and value.