The dignity of the dead

London is filled these days with ghastly posters urging people to come to an exhibition of dead human bodies in various athletic poses called "BODIES... The Exhibition."

haifa katyusha 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
haifa katyusha 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
London is filled these days with ghastly posters urging people to come to an exhibition of dead human bodies in various athletic poses called BODIES... The Exhibition. The posters boast that this exhibition has already been seen in London by 60,000 people. I was horrified and wondered who would do this and why anyone would attend such a ghoulish exhibition. An article in The New York Times clarified the entire matter. It seems that this is one of several such shows throughout the world, most of which use mummified bodies prepared in China. No one knows exactly where the bodies come from. The process of preparing them and exhibiting them was masterminded and developed by Gunther von Hagens, a 61-year-old German professor with a medical degree. According to the Times, his show, Body Worlds, has attracted 20 million people over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million. In other words this is a major commercial enterprise. Dr. von Hagens thinks this is a wonderful way to allow common people to see the wonders of the human body. Others, including myself, see it differently. What does Judaism have to say about all of this? The answer is clear. On the one hand Judaism forbids doing anything to destroy the body, such as cremation. On the other 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 housed a human being and that the body is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed the Torah considers the body to be the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and there is every likelihood that originally this belief was a literal one. Although eventually this belief was abandoned under the influence of Maimonides‚ teaching that God "has no body," rabbinic stories often took the idea of "the image of God" literally and seriously. For example, Hillel was once asked by his students where he was going. He replied, "To perform a mitzva." They asked exactly what he was intending to do and he replied, "To take a bath in the bath house." He then explained to the astonished students that if statues of the king are washed and scrubbed to keep them clean, surely the body should be kept clean since "we have been created in the image of God" (Leviticus Rabbah 24:3). The Jewish attitude toward the body is demonstrated beautifully in the blessing recited each morning known as asher yatzar: 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. Found in Berakhot 60b, this blessing recognizes the body as a divine creation, not to be despised or disdained. The sages recognized the marvel of the construction of our physical form and used this to demonstrate the miracle of human existence. Nor is it accidental that the very next blessing speaks of the soul and describes it as pure. Both body and soul, the physical and the non-physical parts of human beings, are equally the creation of God and deserving of honor and respect. The dead must be treated with dignity and not used for display or entertainment. The body must be returned to the earth at the earliest possible moment. Deuteronomy 21:23 specifies that a criminal who has been executed must be given a burial that 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. Since the human being - even a criminal - is created in God's image, the dead body must be given a respectful burial. The body of someone who is unknown must be attended to immediately by those who find it, even a cohen, (Baba Kama 81a), and acquires the land where it is found as a burial place. This is listed as one of ten enactments made by Joshua before entering the land. From this springs the Jewish practice of burial on the same day or as soon as possible. (See Shulhan Arukh Y.D.371:1.) Some people find this disturbing, as if keeping the body above ground is a way of honoring the dead. Judaism sees it in the opposite way. The verse teaches: "You are dust and unto dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19)." The rabbis explained that the dead body renders one ritually unclean and that the books of Scripture also render one ritually unclean. In both instances it is not because they are repugnant, but "because of our love for human beings, we declare their bones unclean, so that one does not fashion the bones of his mother or father into spoons!" (Yadayim 4:6). Treating the body of a human being as merely another piece of material to be melded, shaped and put on display is repugnant. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.