Referring to the "debate" over cosmetic surgery in Jewish law, the author cites the relevant value-concepts from the Jewish legal tradition. As a Reform rabbi, he expresses his opposition to the practice as dissuasion–rather than as an outright ban as a more traditional rabbi might–but his opposition represents a consensus that transcends denominational boundaries. Reprinted with permission from the author’s book Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, published by the UAHC Press (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), 2001.
Jewish law prohibits us from causing physical injury (havalah) to ourselves without sufficient justification. The debate over cosmetic surgery within the tradition accordingly centers upon the precise definitions we give to this prohibition.
Some assert that, so long as a particular cosmetic procedure is not unusually risky and is being contemplated for honorable reasons, the surgery does not violate the guidelines set forth by our sources and sages.
Others, however, argue that cosmetic surgery, like all other medical treatment, is permissible only for r’fu’ah, for healing, for legitimate medical purposes. The desire to improve one’s physical appearance is, in and of itself, not such a "legitimate medical purpose." Indeed, it may be viewed as an act of arrogance, a desecration of the human form, and an example of misplaced values: with all the important work that we need to do in the field of medicine and healing, is the enhancement of physical beauty a proper end to which we ought to apply our knowledge and resources?
Reform responsa view the latter position as the better interpretation of Jewish teaching. Our reverence for the sanctity of the human body prohibits us from the capricious manipulation of its form, and surgery intended merely to improve one’s physical appearance should be discouraged.