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Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude
Religious Believers

The Sanctity of the Human Body

Reproduced with permission
Daniel Eisenberg, M.D. *

. . .Judaism retains a markedly paternalistic view of medicine. . . . Man is given custodial rights to his body, and has no more right to harm or destroy his body than the superintendent has to ransack the building he is hired to maintain.

While the culture in the United States has swung toward patient autonomy over the past few decades, Judaism retains a markedly paternalistic view of medicine. The Torah states that the human body was created Bi'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d, and is the property of the Creator. Man is given custodial rights to his body, and has no more right to harm or destroy his body than the superintendent has to ransack the building he is hired to maintain.

This simple concept has applications in all facets of medicine. The Torah (Leviticus 19:28) forbids tattooing because it permanently mars the body, akin to graffiti on a magnificent building. Piercing of earlobes is permitted because it is not a permanent change and will heal if the posts are not continuously kept in place. Aesthetics aside, presumably any other body part may be pierced if the effects are not permanent. We see in the Torah that Rivka wore a nose-ring!

Suicide is strictly prohibited (Genesis 9:5) because the custodian may not prematurely destroy the body he is duty-bound to protect. By extension, a physician may not hasten the death of a patient, not only because of his duty to preserve life, but because he has no right to destroy the property of another, in this case G-d.

One's custodial duties extend even further. He must protect his body from harm and do everything possible to repair any damage that occurs. Therefore, the individual is required to live a healthy life (including preventive healthcare) and to seek medical care when needed. Maimonides was one of the earliest medical proponents of preventive medicine, clean air and environment, and the value of a healthy diet and exercise. Judaism does not recognize the right to refuse effective therapy. On the other hand, we are generally forbidden from performing dangerous experimental treatment on humans, unless the expected outcome is therapeutic and no established effective treatment exists.

Even after death, the stewardship continues. The Torah (Deuteronomy 21:23) requires immediate burial for everyone, including criminals. Without a valid reason, no invasion of the body is permitted, because it is created in the image of G-d. The accepted opinion in Jewish law, formulated in the 18th century by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, forbids autopsy and transplant unless an identifiable human life may be saved. Because one's body is not his property, the halachic consensus is that one may not donate his body to science or to a medical school for the training of future physicians.

One modern scholar who dealt with the prohibition on harming one's body was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. While dieting for medical reasons is certainly permissible, Rabbi Feinstein examined the question of dieting for vanity alone, which deprives the body of the pleasure of eating and may involve substantial discomfort. He ruled that dieting, even if only to look thin, is permitted because the personal gain from the feeling of looking good is greater than the benefit one derives from eating the extra dessert!

While plastic surgery to correct deformities is certainly permissible, Rabbi Feinstein rules that plastic surgery is sometimes also permitted to improve self-image. He reasons that improved self-image is a tangible benefit that, in certain circumstances, may outweigh the prohibition on harming oneself.


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