Body Worlds and the Dignity of the Dead
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Several years ago, during a visit to London, I was shocked to see grisly posters throughout the city, advertising an exhibition called simply "Bodies: The Exposition," in which, I soon discovered, the preserved bodies of dead human beings were displayed in various poses, athletic and more prosaic poses such as playing cards. I was horrified at the thought, and in my naivete wondered why anyone would create -- or attend -- such a ghoulish exhibit. An article in The New York Times clarified the entire matter: The London show was one of several traveling the world, most of which use mummified bodies, although the organizers of the various shows are vague about their precise origins.
The process of preparing them (called "plastination") and exhibiting them was masterminded by a certain Gunther von Hagens, a 64-year-old German medical pathologist. His show, "Body Worlds," has attracted more than 26 million people over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million. In other words, it is a major commercial enterprise.
"Body Worlds" has now come to Israel. It purports to have educational value in showing the wonders of the human body. Maybe so, but I have to ask: Is it really proper to display dead bodies in this way?
Is there really any argument that the dead must be treated with dignity and not used for display or entertainment? Treating the body of a human being as merely another piece of material to be molded, shaped and put on display is repugnant. It is a degradation of human beings.
Certainly, this is the approach taken by Judaism. Jewish law – halakha - requires that the body be returned to the earth at the earliest possible moment after death, a practice followed by Islam as well. As the Torah teaches, "You are dust and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). Deuteronomy 21:23 indicates that even a criminal who has been executed must be given a burial the same day and not lie unburied overnight, "for that is an affront to God." Although there are different ways in which this verse might be interpreted, it was not confined simply to a condemned person but applied to all.
The body of someone who is unknown -- a met mitzvah -- must be attended to immediately by those who find it, even a kohen, according to the Talmud (Baba Kama 81a), and the land where it is found becomes its property to be used as a burial place. Tradition goes so far as to posit that this is one of 10 enactments made by Joshua as a condition for Israel being worthy of entering the land. From this springs the Jewish practice of burial on the day of passing or as soon as possible.
On the one hand, Judaism forbids doing anything to destroy the body, such as cremation. On the other hand, it forbids doing anything to preserve it. There is simple dignity in this position. This is what we are, and this is what we will become. Treat the human frame with dignity, remembering that it once housed a human being.
The Torah goes so far as to consider the body to be the image of God. Although we no longer take this literally, preferring to believe, as Maimonides taught, that God "has no body," in rabbinic times, the Sages took this idea literally. Hence we have Rabbi Hillel saying that bathing his body was the performance of a mitzvah since the body is the image of God. Just as a pagan would want to keep an idol clean, he said, a Jew should do the same for the human body (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3). No matter how we understand this idea of the image of God, it calls on us to treat human beings and their physical form with respect.
The positive Jewish attitude toward the body is demonstrated beautifully in the blessing, known as "asher yatzar," recited in the morning service: "Blessed are You ... who fashioned the human being with wisdom, creating openings and organs ... if one should be open or closed it would be impossible to exist ... Blessed are You, healer of all flesh, who does wondrously." It is no accident that the very next blessing speaks of the soul, describing it as pure. Both body and soul, the physical and the non-physical part of human beings, are equally God's creations. As such they are both deserving of honor and respect.
It would be well for us to keep in mind that what is on display in this exhibit are not plastic or clay models, but the preserved bodies of real human beings -- of fathers, mothers, children who lived lives on this earth no different from our own. Would we want our bodies or those of our loved ones to be treated and indeed mutilated as these have been for the "edification" and entertainment of others? Even if all the proper waivers of consent have been signed, this seems to me a perverse usage of the body of a human being, reducing the person to a mere object. The "thou" becomes an "it."
To dissect a body for purposes of learning what caused death or in order to train doctors, who will use their knowledge to treat people and save lives, is one thing. To use them for display, placed in strange poses, and to charge admission as one would to a freak show is quite another.
The organizers of this exhibition hope that half a million people will see it during its run in Israel. I hope that no one will, but, given macabre human inquisitiveness, they are probably right and I am probably wrong. But one can always hope.
Reuven Hammer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement. His most recent book is "Entering Torah."