Rabbi irate over body parts exhibit

Jews urged to boycott educational anatomical sculptures.

body worlds exhibit 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
body worlds exhibit 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar-Yashuv Cohen is not quite saying "over my dead body," but he is calling on the public to boycott an upcoming science exhibit that provides an inside look at the human body by using real body parts. The internationally known Body Worlds educational exhibit of anatomical sculptures of bodies, which opens on April 6 at the Madatech National Museum of Science, Technology and Space in Haifa, takes "life-like" to a new level. The 20 sculptures - shown in a range of activities from playing guitar and exercising to sitting around a poker table - contain real human body parts of willing, deceased individuals who have gone through a plastination process developed by the exhibit's creator, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Plastination, a technique patented by Von Hagens in the late 1970s, dehydrates bodies and replaces the fat and water with plastic. The results are durable anatomical sculptures of real bodies, roped with muscle and displaying over 130 internal organs, which, according to Von Hagens, is designed to educate laymen about the human body, leading to better health awareness. But according to Cohen, while those goals may be noble, even if none of the body parts in the exhibit originally came from Jewish donors, there's a prohibition against Jews viewing the finished product. "I don't know the details of the body, but according to Jewish law, a dead person needs to be buried as soon as possible. You can't use a body for a show," he said. "Even if the bodies aren't Jewish, there's kavod adam [human dignity] which we're obliged to follow. We can't discriminate because they're not Jewish - it's against the spirit of Judaism," he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. While not calling for active protests, Cohen advises people to steer clear of the exhibit. "It's inside the museum, where they can do what they want, so I don't think it's fitting to stage protests. But my recommendation is for people to stay away from the exhibit," he said. The Madatech's spokesman, Dr. Tzvi Ben-Yishai, admitted that the museum anticipated some opposition to the exhibit, but it ultimately didn't influence the decision to host it. "About 26 million people around the world have visited this exhibit - and its subsequent Body Worlds 2, 3 and 4 exhibits," said Ben-Yishai, who was deputy director of Haifa's Rambam Medical Center for 25 years. "We actually did consult with some rabbinical figures before making the decision, and I was told about the Halacha of burying a corpse, and the perceived breach of dignity and respect for the dead person, whether he is a Jew or a Gentile. "But, in the end, we think if the rest of the world has had the opportunity to see the exhibit, then Israel should as well. We don't need permission from the religious establishment. They can only protest," Ben-Yishai said. He expects thousands of people, including school groups, to attend the exhibit, which is being co-sponsored by the Haifa Municipality, the Israel Institute of Technology-Technion, Rambam and the Israel Cancer Association. Controversy has dogged Body Works ever since it debuted in Tokyo in 1995 - and it hasn't only been Jewish opposition. In locations around the globe, the exhibit has been met with multi-denominational protests. In 2007, Manchester, England, church leaders launched a campaign to coincide with the opening of Body Worlds there, accusing the exhibitors of being "body snatchers" and "robbing the NHS," arguing that donation of bodies for plastination would deprive the National Health Service of organs for transplant. Ben-Yishai explained that all the human body parts were derived from people who donated their bodies for plastination via a body donation program. "According to the 1965 Uniform Anatomical Gifts law in the US, a person's body - even after his death - is his own property. That supersedes any potential resistance from his family or friends," he said. Von Hagen's Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg claims that, in hopes of achieving some kind of immortality, more than ten thousand people have given signed permission to undergo the process when they die. The British tabloid the Daily Star reported this week that even pop recluse Michael Jackson was planning to have his body "plastinated" by Von Hagens. In his native Germany, the 64-year-old Von Hagens, known for wearing a trademark black fedora, has been tagged with the nickname "Dr. Death" by the media. That image wasn't helped when in 2005, an article in Der Spiegel revealed that his father had been a member of the SS. Von Hagens responded that his father was only 23 at the time and that he got out as soon as he could. According to the Madatech's Ben-Yishai, the Nazi connection had no bearing on whether to host Body Worlds. "Von Hagens was born after the war, in 1945. He's not to blame for the actions of his father," he said. Ben-Yishai added that he hoped the focus of the exhibit would remain on its science, and not deteriorate into brouhaha between the secular and religious. "I hope we're a civilized society, and if someone doesn't want to come to the exhibit, they're free not to come," he said. "I think what makes this exhibit so special and unique is the same reason why it's so controversial. It exposes the viewer to what the body really is like. The more people are aware of and learn about the complexities of the body, the better it will be for all of us."