You may have seen the tragic story of the beautiful 18-year-old girl who suffered brain damage during breast augmentation surgery. She had saved up $6,000, the cost of the procedure. This tragedy is a sad commentary on the distorted values of Western culture.
But these values are not new. They are as old as ancient Greece and came to the fore during the events leading up to the miracle of Hanukkah, which occurred in Jerusalem 2,180 years ago.
The Greeks, who idolized the body, did not want to kill the Jews, only to change their way of thinking. For this reason, the Greeks prohibited Torah study. There was nothing wrong with developing the mind; in fact, what we call philosophy today was invented by the Greeks — but learning about a bodiless, invisible, and
singular G-d (there was just no logic to such a concept) could not be tolerated.
There were horrible edicts, too: pigs were sacrificed to Greek idols in the Holy Temple. Every Jewish girl, before her wedding, was forced to have relations with the Greek hegemon. Sabbath observance was also forbidden. But the decree that brought the outnumbered Maccabees to wage war against the Greeks was a ban on circumcision, which had resulted in the torture and death of those who continued its practice.
What is the significance of circumcision in the Jewish faith? Circumcision was G-d’s first commandment directed specifically to Abraham, the first Jew, and much of its primacy derives from this fact. But circumcision has a deeper meaning, too. Circumcision creates an indelible imprint of spirituality on the most physical part of the body. Bearing a sign of physical imperfection is a constant reminder that our mission is to perfect the world.
Circumcision also instructs that the human body is meant to serve G-d; since this procedure was commanded by Him, and not to be admired and glorified for its own sake, which was the view held by the Greeks.
Ironically, given today’s acceptance, if not encouragement, of surgical modifications/beautifications, the first cosmetic surgery was meant to create a physical flaw, rather than to remove one.
There is a brilliant Twilight Zone episode, Eye of the Beholder, about a woman having plastic surgery. When her bandages are removed, she is given the news that the operation has been a failure. Throughout the story, the faces of the doctors and nurses have been hidden and now, suddenly, they are revealed. The twist in the story is that the face of the woman with the failed surgery has features associated with cinematic beauty, while the faces of the doctors and nurses are horribly contorted. The woman is exiled to a sanctuary village inhabited only by those who suffer from the same facial flaw.
The second to last verse in the last chapter of Proverbs reads as follows: Charm is deceptive and beauty an illusion; it is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised. Consideration of these words
would be in order, perhaps, for anyone contemplating cosmetic surgery. And watching that Twilight Zone episode might make a difference, too.
When the Maccabees entered the Holy Temple after the defeat of the Greek army, they found plenty of oil for lighting the menorah or candelabra which was always supposed to be lit. However, from all of this oil, they found only one small jug containing pure oil that had not been defiled by the Greeks.
The impure oil would burn just as brightly as the pure oil, but the Maccabees insisted on using pure oil exclusively, even though there was only enough of it to last for one day. However, because there was an insistence upon holiness, on using only pure oil, there was a miracle and that small quantity of oil burned for eight days.
The purpose of life is to engage in holiness, to enrich the physical with the spiritual. Impure oil burns as brightly as pure oil. Uncircumcised men can have great thoughts just like circumcised men. But it is the insistence upon holiness; restraint, you might say, that brings ultimate value, meaning, and miracles into our lives.