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.