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Is Cosmetic Surgery Permissible According to Jewish Law?

Is Cosmetic Surgery Permissible According to Jewish Law?

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The issue of cosmetic surgery is discussed by several contemporary posekim (halachic authorities), who address several concerns such surgery poses.

Though I will be giving you a brief overview of the pertinent issues discussed, the information provided is for academic purposes only. Before making an actual decision in this regard, you must personally speak to your rabbi, who will render a decision based on your individual circumstances.

Our bodies are not our personal property which we may treat as we please. Our bodies are on loan to us from G‑d for the duration of our lives, to enable us to fulfill our mission in this world—a mission which requires having a physical body. (A soul alone cannot don tefillin or light Shabbat candles.) As our bodies are merely on loan, we are not entitled to mutilate them in any way. Thus, “wounding oneself” by undergoing surgery is problematic.

Now, we are commanded by the Torah to heal ourselves, maintain our health and value our lives. Therefore, surgery which is deemed necessary in the course of the treatment of an illness or injury is allowed—and actually required. But the question remains: is the prohibition of tampering with our bodies waived for a purely cosmetic concern?

An additional consideration raised by the posekim in regard to purely cosmetic surgery is the fact that every surgery, especially one which requires general anesthesia, presents a certain element of risk and a chance of complications. As mentioned above, we are enjoined to guard our health and to avoid unnecessary risks to our wellbeing.

In 1964, a question was posed to several leading posekim regarding a woman who felt that benefiting from plastic surgery would enhance her prospects of finding a suitable husband.

Rabbi Jacob Breisch (author of responsa Chelkat Yaakov) maintained that the prohibition of wounding oneself does not apply in a situation where the pain is intended to alleviate another, more excruciating, pain. He brought proofs from various places in the Talmud that the psychological pain associated with having abnormal features overrides the pain associated with the surgery. He therefore permitted this surgery when done to alleviate psychological distress. A similar explanation was offered by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the most recognized posek of the past generation (1895–1986), who explained that the Torah only prohibits self-affliction when done with malice, or in a degrading manner.

Rabbi Breisch also addressed the risks associated with surgery, and ruled that with the advancement of experience and expertise in this area of medicine, the risks involved have been greatly minimized, and therefore undergoing such a surgery cannot be reasonably considered a risk to life.

However, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (1916–2006, author of responsa Tzitz Eliezer) disagreed with these opinions, and ruled unequivocally that cosmetic surgery is forbidden. In his opinion, the Torah’s statement, “He shall provide for his cure,”1 from which we learn that one may and must seek medical help, does not apply to ailments that are purely cosmetic.

He also adds a philosophical reasoning. One must believe that G‑d, the greatest artisan of all, formed him or her in the most fitting way, and one must not change this form. Changing one’s figure for beauty concerns alone is tantamount to insulting G‑d’s handiwork!

Many authorities have reached some sort of compromise—ruling that cosmetic surgery is permitted in order to remove an abnormality, if there is a grave psychological need, or to facilitate a happy marriage or decent livelihood; but prohibited if it is being done for beauty or convenience alone.

Another issue raised is the Torah prohibition precluding a man from indulging in feminine activity.2 Some view cosmetic enhancement as such, and therefore consider this another reason to prohibit a man from undergoing such surgery. This, however, would also only apply to surgery done solely for aesthetic purposes.3

As this is a very subjective issue, in which people can easily delude themselves about the degree of pain and abnormality associated with their looks, it is of utmost importance to personally discuss this with your rabbi for an objective assessment as to the degree of need and convenience, which varies with each case.

Best wishes,
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson

FOOTNOTES
1.

Exodus 21:19.

2.

See Deuteronomy 22:5.

3.

This according to Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach (1910–1995).

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
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Discussion (16)
April 23, 2014
To facilitate a happy marriage? If my hubby find me unattractive he is free to leave.
I told my best friend and she was shocked. I want to be with a man who wants me.
And a nose job or some other thing is just a bad bad idea to me.
There are many paths to beauty. Of course there is a better selection o f makeup than ever. Dermatologists can fix a lot these days. Mu husband says a smile is more impt than any other feature. BTW, I don't wear makeup often and dye my hair 3 times a year.If you don't like my gray hair you are free to look at anyone else is my motto.
Tara
May 9, 2012
hair dying
Since I've dyed my hair for many years, it's probably a little late to ask what the opinion is re:dying hair. However, I am curios re:this issue. Thanks for any input.
Louise Leon
long pond, PA, USA
May 8, 2012
cross-gender
I wonder what G-d has to say about people born with ambiguous gender and there are many and one might ask about human cruelty that posits a book and not the humane heart as final authority. IF we are not gathered here and elsewhere to question ethics with respect to humanity I would say we can then dispense with what is soul, what is essence. I totally believe we are here to celebrate diversity and there are those among us who argue for this and will not take a position that anywhere there is questionable dictum with respect to accidents of birth.. no accident.. we must dispense justice and mercy and empathy for those who are different for this is most deeply the true Kabbala of Torah.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
May 8, 2012
To Anon in Baltimore
A haircut is not a wound. Your nails and your hair are not a part of your body, and you may cut them - provided that you do so in accordance with Jewish law (not on Shabbat or holidays or times of mourning, and not shaving the beard or payot).
Rabbi Menachem Posner
May 7, 2012
Wouldn't that also mean that your not aloud to get haircuts or do anything to your body because of this?! Skoyoch!!
Anonymous
Baltimore
December 11, 2011
cosmetic surgery
What ever happened to free will?
louise leon
long pond, PA
November 10, 2011
Feminine Activity
The Torah forbids any form of cross-gender dressing or activity, both for a man to behave like a woman or a woman to behave like a man. This is in congruence with the Torah's view that men and women are equal but different, and neither will be happy trying to wear the proverbial (or literal) shoes of the other. While preoccupation with physical appearance is completely fine for either a man or woman, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, last year, men underwent 13% of all cosmetic procedures, while women made up the other 87%. Is it fair to say that cosmetic procedures are feminine behavior?
Anonymous
November 9, 2011
Wow, how sexist
Assume that only women want to improve their appearance, and that makes it "women's work" or "feminizing" and concurrently imbueded with less value than if it was something men wanted to do en masse. As usual, orthodoxy devalues "femine activity" either subtly or overtly.
Anonymous
Haslet, TX
November 8, 2011
judgmental views of what is right and wrong
I know of children born with all kinds of genetic anomalies, and we do know of accidents of birth and beyond, accidents that disfigure. One could ask, why did G_d give us plastic surgeons to ameliorate such terrible misery. A man who has no face, now can get something that serves and feel less hideous.

I would not go to a rabbi to ask what G_d wants but use my own sense of compassion as a guide. I have a good friend who is a plastic surgeon, and it's not just about making people with slight problems beautiful. it's a sacred art, and as such, should be respected.

I think there are rules that are meant to be observed as guides, as discussion points, but that humanity, another guide, about compassion and love, comes first and that is G_d's mandate: to weight ethics, and to decide, with angst, certain decisions that are not so clear, in terms of altering how we appear.

We are souls in bodies. Soul in terms of decision making is paramount.

To ameliorate human suffering is a mitzvah.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
November 8, 2011
Rav Moshe
My rebbe said that Rav Moshe Feinstein rules it permissable for a young woman who cannot get married without to get plastic surgery.
Anonymous
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