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Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Why be Jewish?

I'm just out of college and struggling to forge my identity. I have strong Jewish feelings, but am meeting some really nice non-Jewish women and am having trouble articulating why Judaism is so central to my identity.

Can you tell me why I should hang in there with the Jewish people?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Let’s start with the classic “bad” reasons: Your grandma will be upset. Guilt is not a sufficient motivator, and certainly 3,300 years of Jewish history has been driven by much more powerful forces.

Imagine someone buying a microwave for the first time, and not thinking they need to read the instructions. They put some food covered in tin foil in the microwave, and it starts to spark dangerously. It may even ruin the microwave.

So too with life. Life is quite complex – how to pick the right spouse, how to attain true happiness, how to get in touch with your spiritual side, etc. Just as any complex piece of equipment comes with instructions, so too God gave the world a set of "instructions for living" – the Torah.

Everyone is looking for immortality. Some people build tall buildings and attach their name; others create great works of art that will hang in a museum. Historians have not the vaguest ideas how to explain Jewish survival, especially during the last 2,000 years of exile. And it is not "Jewish identity" or "Jewish cultural products" which survive: Jews have been involved in assimilationist movements throughout history and those movements have not survived.

Rather, what survives is a specific way of life. Jewish values, beliefs and traditions seem historically indestructible.

The strength of Judaism is that human needs and desires remain consistent throughout history.

Even though some things may seem outdated (e.g. "Reuven's ox gores Shimon's ox..."), these are paradigms that apply to a wide range of situations, for example auto accidents. Judaism provides specific guidelines and methodology for deriving new laws from existing principles. There is nothing that Torah does not address – artificial insemination, space travel, etc.

By any measure the Jewish contribution to human life and thought is awesome. But with monotheism and morality, Judaism gives the foundation of a worldview and the essential agenda for the future. When it is appreciated that both these elements are of Jewish origin, world history takes on a different aspect: The world steadily becomes more and more Jewish!

Beyond this is the quality of life in traditional Jewish communities. Statistics show that these communities have great success in many important respects, including violent crime, drug addiction, divorce and family relations, literacy and general intellectual development. (Note that perfection is not claimed, only favorable distinction.)

One more point: Why is it that through the centuries, our ancestors have endured the torments of exile, torture and ovens – yet continued to remain loyal to the Jewish people?

Obviously Judaism must have provided them with some deep dividends. The values that the civilized world takes for granted – monotheism, love your neighbor, peace on earth, justice for all, universal education, all men are created equal, dignity of the individual, the preciousness of life – are all from the Torah. This is an enormous impact and we accomplished it under the most adverse conditions.

Finally, I suggest you start in earnest by attending a Discovery seminar. It provides an excellent overview of Jewish history, philosophy, and literature. The seminar is given in hundreds of cities throughout the world. For a current schedule, visit www.aish.com/dis/

Basis of Jewish Belief

I am proud of my Jewish identity, but I don’t get this whole thing about Jewish tradition and observance. I enjoy Jewish music, and have a lot of Jewish friends. Isn’t that enough?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Being culturally Jewish, without belief in God, is compared to a cut flower. While it still retains much of its vitality, the flower has been cut off from its source of nutrition, and within a short time will wither and die. The ideals which have kept the Jewish people alive and thriving over the millennia – despite all odds – can only be transmitted with the framework that the Torah provides.

The basis of Jewish belief is the recognition of God. This is codified in the Shema prayer, the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4). (See more at: www.aish.com/jl/m/pb/48954656.html)

The second foundation of Jewish belief is that the Torah was given by God to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and its commandments are unchanging and binding for all time.

Historically, any Jewish group which denied the basic principles of Jewish tradition – Torah and Mitzvah-observance – ultimately ceased to be part of the Jewish people. The Saducees and the Karites, for example, refused to accept certain parts of the Oral Law, and soon after broke away completely as part of the Jewish people. The Hellenists, secularists during the Second Temple period, also soon became regarded as no longer "Jewish." Eventually, these groups vanished completely.

To learn more, see this series on Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Jewish Faith: www.aish.com/jl/p/mp/

Also, I suggest you attend a Discovery seminar, which provides an excellent overview of Jewish history, philosophy and literature. The seminar is given in hundreds of cities throughout the world. For a current schedule, visit www.aish.com/dis/

Cosmetic Surgery

What does the Torah say about nose jobs – both from a legal and philosophic point of view? Are they permitted, or is this considered tampering with Creation?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

First things first: In Jewish consciousness, we are not the “owners” of our bodies, and therefore one is not allowed to cause any wound to himself (Code of Jewish Law – C.M. 420:31). However, a cosmetic procedure is constructive and not destructive (i.e. the intent is to heal, not to harm), this does not violate the prohibition against wounding oneself.

“Constructive” here is defined as repairing an obvious defect. However, if done for erotic or overly vain reasons, it is forbidden. (Igrot Moshe – E.H. 4:66)

Regarding the philosophical aspects, there are different ways to look at things. One way is to accept a large nose as being part of a person's personal challenge. Learning how to live it with can help a person build self-esteem in a way that promotes internal growth and strength.

On the other hand, a person is entitled to use the means God has given him to make his stay on earth more pleasant. If one’s nose is causing considerable distress, then an operation may be in order. Some “good reasons” to get cosmetic surgery are: an inability to earn living, difficulty getting married, or causing serious marital strife. In the words of the Sages, if the emotional pain is so great that one is embarrassed to be seen in public, "there is no pain greater than this." (Talmud – Shabbat 50b, Tosfot)

Bad reasons for getting cosmetic surgery are: It’s the fashionable thing to do, or it’s my boyfriend's personal preference. I am reminded of the man with big ears who came and asked the doctor to surgically pin them closer to his head. “Why do you want that?” asked the doctor. “So that my children won't inherit this feature,” the man replied.

As for the philosophical question of "changing one’s destiny," and tampering with the Divinely-ordained package that God gave you, that presents no problem in Jewish thought. After all, would you stay sick or poor because God put you into such a situation?! Of course not. Perfecting the world is our job. We see this from the mitzvah of Bris Milah: God created the human body with a slight imperfection which requires our involvement to bring it to “perfection.” In this way, we are partners with the Almighty in repairing and perfecting the world, and that message should carry over into all our endeavors.

I would like to end with a true story that I heard about an Orthodox Jewish family. Their boy was born premature, and due to complications he spent the first few months in the hospital. The doctors concluded that he would always remain especially short. At age 10, a new, untested growth hormone became available, and the boy’s parents took him to a leading endocrinologist for advice. The doctor, who was not Jewish, told them as follows: “Normally I would advise to go ahead, even though the drug is experimental. But that’s because I live in the wealthy area of Scarsdale, where one’s self-esteem depends so heavily on external appearance. But your Jewish community places more emphasis on wisdom and character. So in your case, it’s not worth the risk.”