Thursday, June 14, 2018

This Surgery Is Elective

In the late twentieth century there was, according to anecdotal evidence, an epidemic of “deviated septum” among American Jewish girls. The implication, along with many not-so-funny jokes, was that many young Jewish women were finding medical reasons to have rhinoplasty.   Today, in the 21st century, cosmetic surgery and rhinoplasty are basic and easily available options and have moved from being a tabloid title of derision to being an advertised standard option for anyone.

Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is always a primary priority in halacha (Jewish law) discussions. But, plastic surgery, particularly elective procedures done purely for aesthetic purposes, does not fall into the life-saving category, and one might wonder if these procedures are therefore allowed according to Jewish law. This question has been discussed by many important halachic experts since the 1960s, when the practice first became popular.

One common argument raised in the discussion of cosmetic surgery is the religious prohibition of chavala, injuring one’s body. However, it is commonly accepted, as explained by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides/Rambam), that this prohibition refers specifically to hostile actions.

Another primary point made is the question of safety. It is not permissible to put one’s life in danger unnecessarily, and many cosmetic procedures require general anesthesia. Advances in technology and medicine, however, have made those risks negligible in most cases. Pikuach nephesh raises the issue of health and healing, the validity of which many may question when discussing cosmetic surgery. However, in may cases, the benefits of the surgery is to heal a person’s internal needs by helping to create a positive sense of self, which can be just as important as a healthy body.

Like most choices filtered through a Jewish lens, every case involves an individual halachic decision and one should always discuss such issues with a rabbi.

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