Responsa in a Moment: Volume 3, Issue No. 8, May 2009
Yoreh Deah 357:1
Question: The Body Worlds exhibit opened at the “Madatech” in Haifa on April 6, 2009 and it will remain in Israel for three months. More than 10,000 people visited the exhibit during the first three days. (The Jerusalem Post, March 20, 2009, pp. 1, 10; April 14, 2009, p. 24) According to the Body Worlds website, the exhibit consists of 200 real human specimens, including whole bodies, organs, organ configurations and transparent body slices. To date, more than 26 million people around the world have seen these exhibits since they opened in 1995.
I) Justifications for the Exhibit
According to the Body Worlds website:
The BODY WORLDS exhibitions aim to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and show the effects of poor health, good health and lifestyle choices. They are also meant to create interest in and increase knowledge of anatomy and physiology among the public.
Invented by scientist and anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens in 1977, Plastination is the groundbreaking method of halting decomposition and preserving anatomical specimens for scientific and medical education. Plastination is the process of extracting all bodily fluids and soluble fat from specimens, replacing them through vacuum forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers, and then curing them with light, heat, or certain gases, which give the specimens rigidity and permanence.
The BODY WORLDS exhibitions rely on the generosity of body donors; individuals who bequeathed that, upon their death, their bodies could be used for educational purposes in the exhibitions. Currently, the Institute for Plastination has a donor roster of 8,000 individuals, 490 are already deceased.
All of the full-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens are from these body donors; some specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes. As agreed upon by the body donors, their identities and causes of death are not provided. The exhibitions focus on the nature of our bodies, not on providing personal information.
II) A General Reaction to these Justifications
I do not find these claims convincing. If the main purpose is education, why are the bodies posed playing poker, guitar and various sports?! If the main purpose is education, why did the owners allow a scene to be shot in 2006 at Body Worlds in which Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale kills one of his enemies in the middle of the exhibit?! If we want to educate adults and children about anatomy, physiology and cancer, we can easily use books and movies and CDs and websites; we don’t have to see actual plastinated bodies and organs.
As for the consent of the deceased, there are rumors that some are Chinese convicts who did not consent. However, even if they did consent, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is permitted. A Jew can consent to smoking or taking drugs or suicide, but all of these activities are still prohibited by Jewish law.
Finally, the fact that plastination was invented by a German physician whose father served in the S.S. is troubling and it behooves us to examine this issue with even greater care.
III) If the bodies on display were Jews
There is no question that if the bodies on display were Jews, it would be forbidden to visit this exhibit for the following reasons:
1) Kevurah: Jewish law requires burial in the ground (Deuteronomy 21:23; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 12:1 and cf. 14:1), but the bodies in Body Worlds remain unburied for an indefinite period of time.
2) Met Mitzvah: According to Jewish law, if you find a dead body in a field, you must drop everything and bury the person right away. Indeed, this mitzvahtakes precedence over Torah study and a Kohen must defile himself in order to bury a met mitzvah (Megillah 3b; Sifrey Bemidbar parag. 26, ed. Horovitz, p. 32; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 3:8; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374:1). Thus, it is a mitzvah to bury the bodies on display in Body Worlds.
3) Autopsies are permitted in Jewish law in order to save lives: to help others with the same disease, to determine the cause of death or, according to some rabbis, to help medical students learn anatomy (see Rosner; Steinberg; and Dror). To dehydrate bodies and replace the fat and water with plastic is not at all comparable.
4) Halanat Hamet: Jewish law does not allow leaving a dead body overnight unless burial is delayed for the arrival of a close relative or in order to bring a coffin or takhrikhin (shrouds; Deuteronomy 21:23; Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5; Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin 15:8 and Laws of Mourning 4:8; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 357:1). Indeed, according to minhag Yerushalayim (the custom of Jerusalem), one must bury a person at night in order not to delay burial (David Golinkin, Sidra 16 , p. 13), yet the bodies in Body Worlds remain unburied for years!
5) Nivul Hamet: Jewish law prohibits desecration of the dead (Bava Batra154a; Hullin 11b; Arakhin 7a). Filling bodies with plastic and posing them in various odd positions is nivul hamet.
6) Hana’ah Min Hamet: The organizers of Body Worlds have taken in over 200 million dollars and made a huge profit from the 26 million people who have visited these exhibits throughout the world. Benefiting from the dead is prohibited by Jewish law. (Avodah Zarah 29b; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 14:21; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 349: 1-2).
7) If the bodies are Jewish, a Kohen may not visit the exhibit because ofTumah or ritual impurity (Mishnah Oholot 3:6-7; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 3:3; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 371:1).
IV) If the bodies on display were non-Jews
One could claim that all of the above principles apply only to Jews who are obligated by Jewish law; since the bodies belong to non-Jews, there is no prohibition involved. I would reject this claim for a number of reasons:
1) Some of the bodies may belong to Jews, since many modern Jews tend to be very liberal about such issues. True, we have the halakhic principle of “Kol d’parish meruba parish”, “whoever is separated is separated from the majority”, which means we assume that all of the bodies belong to non-Jews. However, as I have shown elsewhere, legally this may be true, but factuallythere are probably some Jewish bodies in every exhibit. (See Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 3 [5748-5749], p. 86 re. artificial insemination)
2) Some of the above prohibitions can apply to non-Jews as well. For example, we read in Joshua 8:29:
And the king of Ay, [Joshua] hung on a tree until the evening; and at sunset, Joshua ordered and they took his corpse down from the tree and they threw it at the entrance to the city gate and they set up a great heap of stones over it which is there until today.
Rabbi David Kimhi (the Radak, ad. loc.) says that Joshua did this because the prohibition of halanat hamet – delay of burial – applies to all who are hung in Eretz Yisrael, including non-Jews. R. Levi Ben Gershom (ad loc.) says that Joshua was adhering to Deut. 21:23 about halanat hamet. Nahmanides also says in his commentary to Deut. 21:23 that Joshua buried the bodies of the Kings of Canaan because of the prohibition of halanat hamet.
Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bachrach (Responsa Havot Yair, end of No. 139) and perhaps Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, end of No. 208) gave the same ruling without mentioning Nahmanides. On the other hand, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg ruled on the basis of Nahmanides andHavot Yair and the Hatam Sofer that “there is a mitzvah from the Torah to bury non-Jews who are killed and also their dead, especially in Israel” (Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 10, No. 25, Chapter 9). Thus, according to these important rabbis, halanat hamet applies to non-Jews, and Jews are required to bury non-Jews.
3) It is true that many of the Talmudic Sages had a negative opinion of non-Jews. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who lived at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, said: “the most kosher among the gentiles – kill” (Yerushalmi Kidushin4:11, fol. 66b). He also said (Yevamot 61b): “Non-Jewish graves do not transmit tumah (impurity) as it is written ‘You are my flock, you are adam(man)’ (Ezekiel 34:31) – you are called ‘man’ and the gentiles are not called ‘man’ “. This negative attitude is not surprising in light of the fact that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, killed or exiled hundreds of thousands of Jews and outlawed many Jewish practices.
But Marc Hirshman, Moshe Greenberg and others have shown that some of the Sages and the later rabbis had a much more universalistic attitude towards gentiles as exhibited in the following passages:
The plain meaning of this text is that all men (adam) were created in the image of God, not just Jews, i.e. the opposite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Later rabbis such as Maimonides, Tosfot Yom Tov and Tiferet Yisrael (to Avotad loc) emphasized and strengthened this approach.
Finally, we have two very broad universalistic passages in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah; cf. Hirshman, Chapter 11):
These passages are not halakhot or laws but aggadot or non-legal material, yet they indicate that all people, including non-Jews, were created in the image of God and are equal in importance to the entire world. A gentile can observe the Torah and can be a tzadik; he can receive the Holy Spirit and receive a reward for observing a mitzvah.
According to these passages, the gentiles on display in Body Worlds were also created in the image of God. Therefore, even if Jewish law does not require us to avoid this exhibit, we should avoid it lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law.
9 Iyar 5769
III. Jewish Respect for the Dead
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.