Dear Rabbi Fried,
My mother and I have been having a difference of opinion concerning cosmetic plastic surgery. I have wanted to get a nose job and face-lift for a few years now, and she says this is the face God gave me, and I don’t have the right to play God and change it. What’s the Jewish view of this?
There are a couple of issues here. The Torah says that one is not allowed to inflict a wound upon a person, termed chavala, with the Talmud explaining that this prohibition applies to oneself equally to another. This is telling us that we don’t actually “own” our bodies, but rather are custodians over our bodies which are “owned” by God. This means we are not free to do with them as we wish, but we’re given rules how to take care of our bodies, one of which is to not mutilate them. This, of course, is excluded by any operation necessary to preserve or enhance our health. At times, mutilation of the body is necessary to preserve its very life, such as an amputation to prevent the spread of cancer or gangrene.
The position of the leading contemporary authorities of Jewish law, is that cosmetic surgery done simply because one would like a change, to be a bit prettier, etc., would come under the prohibition of chavala as above. (It goes without saying that a yearly makeover à la Michael Jackson is unacceptable.)
However, if one is truly bothered by a certain aspect of their appearance, making it difficult to date or gain self-confidence, or other issues one may have which truly bother that person and plastic surgery can help them go on with their life in a more positive way, this would be different. Such surgery would not be included in the category of unnecessary chavala as it is to “treat” a type of a “condition,” and is permitted. This is part of the modern miracle of plastic surgery that one’s life can at times truly be enhanced in ways that were not possible even a few years ago.
As to the question of “playing God,” the same issue could be raised any time a surgeon lifts his knife, even to cure a serious illness. God Himself tells us in the Torah “…verapoh yerapeh…,” “…a doctor should surely cure him…” (Exodus 21:19), upon which the Talmud comments, “from here we see it is a mitzvah for a doctor to perform a cure.” To the extent one is suffering from an issue they have with their appearance, to cure that would be no different from curing an illness and would be a mitzvah.
This is a general outlook, and each specific case would need to be discussed individually to see if it falls under the above category. Although we are to accept God’s control over the world and the way we were created, He, at times, gives us the free choice and the ability to participate in bringing ourselves and the world to perfection.
[P.S.: Sam was a guy who, after years of hard work, never got ahead. Sure enough, one day he won the lottery, got a tummy tuck and complete makeover. After leaving Saks Fifth Avenue in a new $3,000 tweed suit and feeling like a million bucks, he walked into the street and was killed by a car. When it was his turn in line at the Heavenly court, he said he wanted, with due honor to the court, to register a complaint. He had finally just made it in life, and is that the time to be taken away? They answered, Sam, is that you? We didn’t recognize you!]
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.