Rabbi Chaim Jachter writes:

This week, we will begin to our discussion of the range of opinions regarding the Halachic propriety of cosmetic surgery. We will review four classic responsa on this topic from four great late twentieth-century Poskim - Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Breisch, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg, and Rav Yaakov Weisz. These four Rabbanim rank in the first tier of late twentieth-century Poskim and we will carefully examine their rulings on this topic. I am indebted to my cousin Yehuda Brandriss, with whom I studied this topic, for the insights he provided.

Rav Moshe Feinstein Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked in 1964 whether it is permissible for a young woman to undergo plastic surgery in order to improve her chances of finding a suitable marriage partner (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:66). Rav Moshe permitted the surgery based on the Rambam’s (Hilchot Chovel Umazik 5:1) definition of the prohibition of Chavalah (wounding). In general, the Torah prohibits wounding another person (see Devarim 25:3) and the Gemara (Bava Kama 91a) states that this prohibition applies even to wounding oneself. The Rambam writes that this prohibition applies when it is performed “in a degrading manner.” An alternative text reads “in a belligerent manner” (Poskim regard both texts as viable). This is highly significant as the Rambam rules in accordance with the Tannaitic view that an individual is forbidden to wound himself. Rav Moshe infers from the Rambam that if the wounding is done in a beneficial manner the prohibition of Chavalah (to others or oneself) does not apply. An individual may wound himself if it is done for his benefit.

Rav Moshe cites four Talmudic sources for the Rambam’s ruling. First, the Gemara (Bava Kama 91b) records that when Rav Chisda walked among thorns he would roll up his pants so that his skin would be scratched instead of his clothes. He explained that the skin heals itself and the clothes do not. We see that the prohibition to wound oneself does not apply if it is not done in a degrading or belligerent manner. Second, the Tanach (Melachim 1:20:35-36) and Gemara (Sanhedrin 89) condemn the individual who refused to follow the Navi Michah’s order (communicated from Hashem) to the individual to wound the Navi. It was necessary for Michah to appear wounded in order to emphasize a certain point in an exhortation he would deliver to King Achav. We see that wounding for a positive purpose (in this case fulfillment of the Divine command) is permissible since it is not done in a degrading or belligerent manner. One could question this proof, however, since a Divine command would seem to suspend a prohibition.

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