Dear Cyber Rav,
I truly enjoy your pulpit, CyberShul and synagogue news commentaries. They are uniformly insightful, succinct and entertaining (even if I don’t always agree). Your recent comments on the Jewish view of tattoos “spiked” my interest. I am curious about the current Jewish philosophical view of cosmetic plastic surgery. Aren’t all those tummy tucks and facelifts that are not medically necessary also considered defiling the body? I am of course, not referring to reconstructive surgery due to injury, cancer or congenital anomalies.
Or does it fall under the mitzvah of taking care of one’s health, including psychological and emotional health?
An MD with Curiosity
This is a very interesting question. As far as I know, I have never heard it asked and I've never heard any rabbi prohibit such cosmetic surgeries. Cosmetic surgeries are probably more tolerated (as opposed to fully accepted) as they may be more intimately connected to a person's self-perception and their anxieties about how others may see them. Tattoos, in contrast, are merely faddish and therefore completely gratuitous. If someone were to ask me about cosmetic surgery, I don't think I would conclude it to be assur or prohibited, but I might venture a discussion about why this person thinks it necessary. What is it about her/himself that finds it necessary to undergo such surgery? Is the person succumbing to societal pressures which are vain, youth-oriented, and as deep as a sheet of paper? Who actually defines what true beauty is in our world? And if others are defining it, what authority do they have to define it and who is forcing us to actually listen? Those are the issues I would want to explore with them and although they don't, prima facie (no pun intended), sound like Jewish issues, on a deeper level they very much are.
Just to make things messy--for such is life--I recall seeing a documentary on tattoos in which a woman having undergone a double mastectomy, and having rejected reconstructive surgery for fears of what such surgery might entail, decided to have her chest tattooed in order to render it beautiful again. Here again, I think the above questions as well as a discussion about the nature of beauty, how we perceive our own wholeness, the extent to which we regard the perceptions of others as critical, would be important. But as I thought through her situation, I think I would have had a harder time saying "Don't do it," especially if I failed to convince her that it was unnecessary.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav