Controversial bodies

David Brinn went to the Body Worlds exhibit which draws 800 people a day.

body worlds exhibit 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
body worlds exhibit 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Barak Rejwan can't wait in the mornings to don his white smock and take up position at the Body Worlds exhibition at the Madatech in Haifa. Rejwan is one of a dozen medical students at the Technion who have been hired by the museum to guide visitors around the controversial exhibit, now in its second month. "I've seen things here that you just can't approach in an anatomy class," said the engaging 25-year-old second-year student, as he took a break from explaining the difference between tendons and ligaments to a couple standing in front of a body with outstretched legs and arms with the skin cut away to expose the insides of the limbs. The 20 full-body "sculptures" - and 140 individual organs - which are shown in a range of activities from playing guitar and exercising to sitting around a poker table, are real human bodies that underwent a plastination process developed by the exhibit's creator, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Plastination dehydrates bodies and replaces the fat and water with plastic. The result is a little like embalming, but with all the skin removed to expose the bones, muscles, nerves and organs, leaving nothing at all to the imagination. The ligament-and-tendon body is part of one of the six Body Worlds exhibits currently being shown around the world. Each body on display features a different cut-away: the muscular system with red ligaments attached to bone, the nerves, with white strands extending from the brain to the extremities of the body, and the blood vessels and arteries. Likewise, the bodies are altered so the viewer can focus on different organs; one rib cage was pulled apart to expose heart, lungs and stomach, another is sliced into 20 pieces, making possible an MRI-like cross-section. The sections featuring body parts highlight the differences between healthy organs like lungs and those that have been subjected to cigarette smoke, or healthy livers and a liver of a heavy drinker. According to von Hagens, Body Worlds, which first began exhibiting in 1995 and has attracted 26 million visitors worldwide, is designed to educate laymen about the human body, leading to better health awareness. But according to religious leaders, the display degrades the human body and violates the halachic principle of "kavod adam" (human dignity). And it's not just Orthodox and haredi opposition. "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," wrote the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, in an essay on the subject. It's not apparent that Hammer's message is getting through. In its first month, the Body World's exhibit attracted over 40,000 visitors, and the Madatech has extended the original three-month run for an undetermined length. ON A recent weekday visit to the exhibit, which draws around 800 people a day, there was a steady flow of visitors walking gape-mouthed through the display. According to the Madatech spokesman, Dr. Tzvi Ben-Yishai, the weekends are when the lines start forming around the corner, resulting in hour-long waits to get in. "I'm not at all surprised by the popularity of the exhibit," said Ben-Yishai. "This is perfect anatomy - it's like the book has become three-dimensional." "You are just amazed at the creation - I've seen Orthodox visitors who say they've gained a new-found appreciation for the wonder of God's creation," he added. "One haredi man visited soon after the opening, and he was here for six hours. I couldn't resist going up to him and asking him his impressions. And he said that he was amazed by the intricacies of the human body, and that his belief in God and his wonder was magnified by what he saw." "I understand the approach of those that are against the exhibit. They have their views and we are part of a tolerant society that respects other views, even if you don't agree with them. It wouldn't bother me if they had protested the exhibit with signs and a vigil. I would have gone out and talked to them and tried to explain our views to them." Controversy has dogged Body Worlds ever since it debuted in Tokyo in 1995 - and it hasn't only been Jewish opposition. In various locations around the globe, the display has been met with multi-denominational protests. Last month in Paris, a judge ordered the exhibition to be closed, ruling it was an affront to the dignity of the human body. What bothers many viewers - observant and secular alike - is the "Hollywood" aspect of the displays: Many of the bodies are posed, whether as runners flexing their calf muscles; a doctor performing open heart surgery; three bodies playing poker (with a video of the James Bond film Casino Royale, which features Body Worlds, running in the background); or the sole female body in the exhibit posed like an Olympic torch bearer, holding some of her body parts above her head. "I think it needs to be solely scientific and educational. I don't see why they had to put them in these embarrassing poses," said Aliza, a professor at the Technion who was visiting with two colleagues. "But they're focusing on the different muscles and how they're utilized in different poses," answered her friend Tali. "I saw the ads in the paper and I didn't want to come because of the way the bodies were displayed," added Dani. "But when I actually saw it, it didn't really bother me." Another aspect of the exhibit which has put off many people is the origin of the bodies. Countering claims that von Hagen has used the bodies of unconsenting Chinese prisoners, Ben-Yishai explained that all the bodies and body parts were derived from people who donated their bodies for plastination via a body donation program. He added that over 10,000 people are currently signed up (including Michael Jackson) to donate their bodies to von Hagen. "What bothered me going in was that the bodies were supposedly Chinese prisoners," said Tali from the Technion. "But when I read that they were all people who had donated their bodies, I calmed down." "If you believe that, you might be interested in the Brooklyn Bridge," said the Masorti Movement's Hammer in response to the origin of the exhibit's bodies. NO STRANGER to seeing bodies and body parts up close, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the haredi head of the Zaka rescue and identification organization, visited the exhibit on its opening day, after unsuccessfully petitioning via the Haifa courts to have it closed down. "It was like walking through a slaughter house, with all the bodies and body parts. I don't see the connection between bodies posed playing poker and somehow advancing science and medicine," he said. Ben-Yishai responded that if exploiting bodies were the issue, Zaka should not be complaining. "How does Zaka raise money? They film terror attacks and the body parts lying on the ground and they show it to potential financial donors. Their reasons are their reasons and I respect their work, but they shouldn't be criticizing this attempt to educate people," he said. While the overwhelming percentage of visitors to the Body Worlds exhibit on this day appeared to be secular, there was one middle-aged man wearing a kippa strolling through the various rooms. Appearing embarrassed at being singled out, he declined to comment about what he had seen. However, Jerusalem resident Elana, who described herself as traditional, said that the journey from the capital was well worth it. "It was fascinating, and beautifully well-done," she said. "Did you notice that there wasn't one cell phone going off, or one raised voice inside? People are really treating it with the respect and honor it deserves. It's like they don't want to disturb the bodies." "It was much better than I expected," said Sheri, a 25-year-old physical therapy student from Kfar Saba who arrived with her boyfriend, Ofer, from Hod Hasharon. "It was done in such a beautiful manner which honors our bodies. I think that all the noise surrounding it regarding its disrespect of the body is totally unwarranted. You leave with a newfound appreciation for the body and how amazing it is. I think that if people who opposed the exhibit actually come to it, they'd realized it doesn't at all cause disrespect to the dead, and actually it's the opposite." Sheri and Ofer moved over to join Elana at the display of reproductive organs to listen to Barak Rejwan explain how the urinary tracts differ in men and women. A crowd of a dozen rapt visitors surrounded him with questions about the testicles and the size of the uterus. Rejwan answered them all, and continued to linger with the group as it remained at the table, its members fascinated by what they were seeing. "He's going to be a good doctor someday," said Elana.