The Bodies Exhibit & The Jewish Value of Honoring The Body
Wed, 11/30/2011
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Rabbi Yanklowitz is Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, Director of Jewish Life and Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel.
Rabbi Yanklowitz is Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, Director of Jewish Life and Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel.

Could you imagine arriving at a museum and seeing one of your loved ones who passed away on display for others'  amusement?

The Body Worlds exhibitions are the world’s most popular touring attraction, having been visited by more than 32 million people. Another exhibit opened in 2005 and there have been serious allegations that the bodies displayed in this Bodies Exhibit were stolen or otherwise unethically obtained in China. In addition to the very problematic origins of the bodies, the use of human bodies for public entertainment or “education,” which could be achieved through multiple other means such as an animated 3D exhibit, is inappropriate and must be condemned.

Thomas Hibbs, a professor of ethics at Baylor University, compared these immoral and spiritually dangerous exhibits to pornography, as they reduce the human subject to “the manipulation of body parts stripped of any larger human significance.” We must not allow our children to attend these exhibits on field trips, and the exhibits should be banned worldwide.

In 2008, the organization behind the exhibits, acknowledged these concerns when they posted the following disclaimer on their website:

This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier (the organizers of the exhibit) cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.

Then New York Attorney General [now Governor] Andrew Cuomo has said, "The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China.” In addition to this tremendous injustice of the unknown origins of the bodies, staring at human remains is an unacceptable form of public entertainment. Some of the corpses are set up so it appears as if they are playing poker or conducting an orchestra. What does it say about our society that there is a desire to gawk at corpses arranged in such a demeaning way? While there is a valid discussion about when cadavers may be used for medical research and advanced education, using corpses for public entertainment is a step too far.

Judaism teaches that the body was created in God's image and is therefore kadosh (holy) and to be treated with respect at all times; dead bodies are not to be left unattended, and funerals are to follow death as quickly as possible.

According to Jewish law, the return of the body to the earth can neither be slowed down nor sped up and thus both cremation and mummification are forbidden. The body should naturally lie in the earth. The moral paradigm is set forth by no less than the Divine who buries Moses after his passing.

Tending to the needs of the deceased is considered the greatest chesed (kindness) since the favor can never be returned. The value of human life is of the highest importance in Judaism and it supersedes almost all other values. To parade the vehicle of life around like crude art is fundamentally against our values.

While the soul has a higher Jewish value than the body, there is still tremendous value given to the honor of the dead’s body (kavod ha’meit). Even when one is hypothetically hanged as capital punishment, the body is taken down immediately so the public cannot stare at it (Deuteronomy 21: 22-23). This is the source for the biblical mitzvah of halvayat ha’meit, or escorting the deceased to burial (Sanhedrin 46b). The mitzvah of honoring the dead is given such prime importance that our rabbis even that it even supersedes Torah study (Ketuvot 17a).

Directly relevant to our case, the rabbis teach that one who sees a corpse and chooses not to conform it to burial is mocking that person and is like one “who mocks the deprived” (lo’eg la’rash; Proverbs 17:5), blaspheming G-d (Berachot 18a).

There is, no doubt, great existential value in pondering death and recalling the frailty of our humanity; however, we need not stare death literally in the face to reach this spiritual goal. It’s possible to gain insight into our mortality without compromising the body of another human being. The exhibit calls upon others to “Celebrate the human form” through their display of corpses but as Jews we must speak out to ensure that celebrations of life honor the Divine and the bodies that G-d has given us on loan.

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be out in early 2012. 

 

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Thank you for this article. I had the same thoughts. Years ago, we went to this exhibit, not knowing what to expect. My husband and I are medical professionals, and our daughter was attending nursing school, so we assumed it was educational. However, once we actually saw the exhibit, as Jews, we were horrified. We felt that it violated Jewish values, and that any educational benefit was minimal compared to the way these human bodies were displayed. It did not matter whether or not these were Jewish bodies. We are all created in the image of G-d, and body is the house of the soul. As medical professionals, we had all seen plenty of human bodies- alive and deceased, but this was different- sinister, unnatural. It made us cringe.

Rabbi Yanklowitz raises an issue that deserves more attention than it has received to date.

What amazes me is how many people I know -- people who appear to understand Jewish values -- don't understand why this exhibit undermines those values.

When I ask friends why attending the exhibit doesn't trouble them, a common answer is that the prohibition against exploiting the dead applies only to Jewish dead.

But it shouldn't matter whether the bodies on display were once Jewish or otherwise. What matters is that they are dead bodies, and Jews respect the dead too much to tolerate putting bodies on display, principally to profit from morbid curiosity.

Jews sanctify life, and view death as a withdrawal from sanctity. Death is mourned, not glorified. Regardless of the "educational" value of this exhibit, and its popularity, its origins are troubling, and an affront to our most sacred values.

If others wish to visit this exhibit, I am disappointed. When Jews visit, it should warn us that we have failed, as a people, to teach what it means to be a Jew.

As a medical professinal who has visited both this exhibit and the similar one from Germany, I believe there is some legitimate educational value form these exhibits. They show comparative organs in both healthy and diseased states, for example the lungs of a smoker and non smoker juxtaposed. They show cross sections of an obese versus a body of healthy weight. They show embryos and fetuses through the entire stages of preganancy. I have seen many people exhibit a better understanding of chronic, preventable illnesses at these exhiibts. Especially younger people who might be enticed to smoke, or not to attempt to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle with a level of physical activity incorporated. Yes there are some serious ethical issues where these specific bodies may have come from. At this time however they are serving a serious educational service. I fully understand why someone may not want to visit based on the origin of these bodies. They may choose to go to the German exhibit where the origin is from people who freely signed releases and donated their bodies. But this exhibit is here now, and thousands of students, both medical students, pre med and others who have had an interest in becoming involved in the sciences have had their interests fortified and increased by the informative value of these exhibits. To sum up, it is a dificult decision, but do not dismiss lightly the value that such an exhibit can have for education.

Babaganewz, the Jewish educational website, has an article about Body Worlds appropriate for middle school students. The article explores the values conflict between promoting more healthful living and human dignity. There's also an accompanying lesson plan about proper treatment of the human body according to Jewish texts. Check out both the article and lesson plan at http://bit.ly/v2SvLd.

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