Tradition Today: Following the ways of peace

I believe that Judaism's respect for human beings requires us not to mutilate bodies and put them on exhibit.

body worlds exhibit 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
body worlds exhibit 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When the exhibition Body Worlds - a display of dead bodies that have been preserved and posed in various ways - opened in Haifa a few months ago, I took a public position condemning it as a desecration of the dead in opposition to the values that Judaism teaches. I believed then and believe now that Judaism's respect for human beings and its concept that we are created in the image of God requires us to treat the dead with dignity and not to mutilate bodies and put them on exhibit. Ironically a French court agreed that dead bodies belong in the ground and not on public display and ordered the closing of a similar exhibit in Paris, calling it an affront to the dead. Not everyone agreed with my reasoning, however. This paper, in what I consider to have been a grievous lack of judgment, even ran a squib encouraging people to see this as one of the top 10 attractions of the week. Of course there can be legitimate and sincere disagreement on this issue as on so many others. What really bothered me, however, was when some observant people stated that I was wrong because the teachings of Judaism only apply to Jews and since these were obviously gentile bodies, there was nothing wrong with treating them this way. This narrow reading of the Torah and of Jewish concepts is unacceptable to me. My understanding of the Torah and of the basic teachings of rabbinic Judaism is that humanity is one and that ethical treatment mandated by the Torah applies equally to Jews and to all human beings. When the Torah states, for example, "for in His image did God make the human being" (Genesis 9:6) and uses that as the reason for forbidding the shedding of blood, it says "human being" - adam - thus meaning all of humanity descended from Adam. Similarly when the sages taught that only one human being was created by God at the beginning so that one should not be able to say "my father was greater than your father" (Sanhedrin 4:5), they were applying this to all human beings. When Ben Azzai taught that the basic verse in the Torah on which all else depends was "This is the book of the generation of man - adam - when God created man He made him in the likeness of God" (Genesis 5:1) he was teaching and emphasizing the universal nature of Judaism and the equality of all humanity. It is true that parts of the Torah are meant only for those who are members of the covenant - Jews. We have special commandments meant to set us aside, but these are restrictions that others do not have to follow, not special privileges. They are meant to help us attain the status of a holy people and a kingdom of priests. The basic morality of the Torah applies to everyone. It is also unfortunately true that in later developments of Jewish law certain things were said to apply only to Jews, but it is questionable if these were the only ways of interpreting the Torah or if they did not represent opinions at a time when Jews were under persecution, opinions that can longer be justified. Whatever the case there were also rabbis throughout the ages that took a different position. Rabbi David Golinkin, in his teshuva on this matter, pointed out that Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg ruled on the basis of Nahmanides and Havot Yair and the Hatam Sofer that "there is a mitzva 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). The concept of darkei shalom - the ways of peace - developed by the early sages served as a way of teaching that gentiles too should be the beneficiaries of the Torah's teachings, even in those instances where they were not certain that the Torah specifically commanded it. For example the Mishna teaches that the following are done because of the "ways of peace" - allowing non-Jews to glean from the fields (Gittin 5:8); visiting the sick and burying non-Jewish dead (Gittin 61a). The ways of peace does not mean that we do these things simply because we want good relations with non-Jews or are afraid of what they may do otherwise. Rather it is based on the verse, "Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace" (Proverbs 3:17). In other words the ways of the Torah are ways of peace and pleasantness and therefore we are obeying the basic rule of the Torah when we do things that are pleasant and peaceful. Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Melachim, 10:11) went so far as to rule that "the sages commanded that we visit the sick of non-Jews, bury their dead as we bury Jewish dead, support their poor as we support Jewish poor - because of the ways of peace, for behold it is said: 'The Lord is good to all and His mercies are over all his works' (Psalms 145:9) and it is said, 'Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace'" (Proverbs 3:17). It is time that religious Jewry adopted the position that indeed the Torah is the book of humanity, teaching the equality of all, and that its ways of pleasantness and peace, which echo God's quality of mercy and concern for all His creatures, apply to all people. Any teaching that indicates otherwise or that implies that some human beings are less than human must be rejected as contrary to God's Torah. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.