Is Cosmetic Surgery Permissible According to Jewish Law?

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 – Exodus 21:19. – See Deuteronomy 22:5. – This according to Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach (1910–1995).
This according to Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach (1910–1995).
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