The Weight of a Human Leg
August 22, 2022•1,273 words
I am not altogether unaware of how cavalier this will come off as ablest speak, but here I am anyway, pondering the not-entirely-serious elective amputation of my left leg.
I've been wanting -- and trying -- to lose weight (20-or-so pounds) for months. I've been watching what I eat (watch me eat just one bowl of cereal in the morning instead of two!), and to tempt myself into doing more indoor cycling, I've been riding while I Veep (I've paired my rides with a re-watch of the show, so watch me ride for 30 minutes at a time instead of none!). Therein lies the (perhaps very literal) rub: My left knee has quickly become a painful and unreliable joint.
A few months ago, and further proof that the aging process is really cool, after a particularly exhausting ride, my left knee all but gave out. It continued hurting for a few more days prompting me to visit my doctor. He performed an X-ray which showed that very little was physically wrong with my knee outside of some inflammation. He prescribed an anti-inflammatory steroid pill that I was too scared to take (because of the steroid part), so I waited to see if something would happen through the magic of inaction.
The pain eventually subsided so I watched a few more eps/did a few more rides, but the pain and inflammation returned. I've iced it. I've worn a brace on days when it was at its worst. Nothing really helped, so I finally popped them pills and can happily report that the pills did nothing for my knee, but they did cause slight feelings of bloat and IBS.
Having dealt with the inflammation for a while now, I think I'm finally ready to put my foot down -- as in: I'm finally ready to go down to one leg from two. I've given tremendous thought (little-to-none) to the difficulties and challenges I would face in doing so, but I'm pretty sure they'd be minimal at worst and believe that this is the only right thing left to do. As an added bonus -- though it would not be from the area that causes me the most trouble shirts-fitting-wise -- the loss of the leg would bring me much closer to realizing my weight-loss goals which, in the world of bargaining, is a win-win.
Beyond the physical weight lost due to the leg's removal, however, is the moral weight potentially gained from the burden of this decision. Therein lies the (perhaps less-literal-and-more-halakhic) rub: Where does modern Jewish thought stand on the topic of amputation?
In Judaism, the belief -- insofar as I understand it -- is that a person should do their best to remain as whole as possible in this life (olam ha-zeh, or in this world) for when they die so that their entire physical being can be returned to the earth and their whole spirit can be returned to God (or the universe if you want to remove the spiritual component from it all). Since Jews don't believe that there's yet been a Messianic age, then when that time does come (olam ha-ba, or the world to come), their body/spirit in that world will be full and intact.
The Rabbis and Sages throughout Jewish history, however, also understood that life happens. Or rather, that things happen that may threaten ones well-being/livelihood/life. Jewish law dictates that actions should be taken to save a life, even if it would otherwise go against a mitzvah (commandment), so the Rabbis determined that any such life-saving actions are not only allowable, but are themselves a mitzvah that should be performed. If the removal of a limb is required for the survival of someone's life, then you're commanded to remove the limb.
A quick aside that I find beautiful and absolutely love: In Judaism, a fetus is not considered a full human being until it is brought to full term and the crowning of the baby occurs. In most modern circles of Judaism, this means that if there are circumstances that call for it -- the mother's life is endangered, the baby was conceived through less-than-ideal circumstances, bringing the baby into this world would be detrimental to the livelihood of the mother or her family, the baby would be born with issues preventing it from having a normal healthy life, etc... -- then the abortion of the fetus is acceptable. In other words: If the mother believes having a child is not right for her or her family, then she has the ability to choose to have an abortion, and there is no ethical or moral wrongdoing in doing so. What a frickin' concept.
But please: Back to my leg...
One might look at me and my situation and say "I don't know, man. Amputating your leg seems a bit extreme under these circumstances." And I wouldn't fault anyone for thinking that, but another beautiful thing about Jewish thought is its acknowledgement that improving one's mental health is health care, to the point where Rabbis and Sages have made Talmudic commentary on precisely this instance! If the pain and suffering I bear caused by the occasional inflammation of my left knee is so great as to cause mental anguish, to where I simply find it too unbearable to live, then it is permissible to remove my leg (so long as it is not for monetary gain) as a therapeutic measure.
Therein lies one final potential rub, however: The weight of the intent behind the removal of my left leg.
Just like my boy George Washington (not my boy), I cannot tell a lie: I am not in any mental anguish. My knee hurts occasionally, which prevents me from riding my bike, which potentially makes it more difficult for me to lose weight, but I'm otherwise alive and well and there is no need for me to remove my leg. The intention for me to do so is purely self-serving -- a way to quickly lose about 20 lbs. -- so the exact opposite of a performing a mitzvah. In fact, as it currently stands, the elective amputation of my leg holds more weight ethically and morally than a woman's decision to abort a fetus.
I could atone, of course, for the vanity I displayed with the elective removal of my leg, in the hopes that I may be forgiven and that my name will be inscribed in the book of life for the following year. And if I am forgiven, I could perhaps avoid spending time in the purgatorial afterlife realm of Gehenna (Judaism's idea of hell, which would only last up to 12 months anyway...13 months, tops!) when I die. But the longer-lasting implications of it all comes down to, should a Messianic age ever arrive, I would not be intact in olam ha-ba. While I naively feel confident that this is something I could live with in this life, is the weight of the decisions and actions we make in this life worth bringing along with us in the world to come? What is the true weight of a human leg, and would removing one leave me with a leg to stand on in the next life? There may be only one way to truly find out, but it turns out that I'm not there just yet; at least for a little while longer, the weight of this leg is worth keeping.