The postmortem predicament

Jews believe man was created in the image of God. Any attempt to deface a Jew's body is seen as an insult to God.

By MATTHEW WAGNER
January 31, 2006 22:35
1 minute read.

The Orthodox Jew's knee-jerk reaction to autopsies is violent opposition. This was apparent Tuesday on the streets of Jerusalem and outside the offices of the L. Greenberg Institute for Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir. Like other Abrahamic religions, Jews believe man was created in the image of God. Any attempt to deface a Jew's body is seen as an insult to God. Also, Halacha prohibits deriving benefit from a corpse. Finally, special care is taken to protect the body after death in order to keep it intact for resurrection. In Gesher Hachaim, a modern authoritative book on the rules of burial, Yechiel Michal Tukatchinsky, brings two contradictory opinions discussing whether it is permissible to perform an autopsy to save a life. The case examined by Tukatchinsky deals with two people suffering from the same disease. One of them dies of the disease. Is it permissible to do an autopsy in the hope that this will save the other one? Rav Moshe Sofer (Schreiber) who lived during the 18th and 19th centuries permitted an autopsy in this situation, while Rabbi Ya'acov Etlinger prohibited the practice. Etlinger argued that just as it is prohibited, according to Jewish law, to save one's life by stealing someone else's property, so too it is prohibited to save one's life by desecrating someone else's body. Tukatchinsky sides with Sofer. In recent times Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, former rabbi of Sha'arei Zedek Hospital, permitted the autopsy of Jewish corpses in cases of suspected foul play. He argued that the autopsy could provide important information to the police that would help them arrest the murderer and thus prevent additional murders. Also, Waldenberg argued that this was a way of seeking vengeance for the murdered party.


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