The Bodies Exhibition Is Coming to Israel, and It's an Ethical Travesty

It is indeed a disturbing commentary on our society if we are really so cavalier about the use and abuse of bodies in a way that denies the very humanity that the body once housed.

The “Bodies” are back. Apparently, the success of the “Body Worlds” show, which has attracted 34 million visitors in over 20 U.S. cities and worldwide, and which toured Haifa in 2010, persuaded promoters that the Israeli public is hungry for another version. So “Bodies: The Exhibition” will open in Tel Aviv on Monday.

From an ethical perspective, it’s a travesty. Here’s why:

In the last decade, “Bodies: The Exhibition” has been displayed at numerous venues around the world. In the name of education, it presents whole and partial human bodies that have been permanently plastinated in a range of poses, many with their skin flayed, their nervous systems dissected, their genitalia exposed, or in other troubling ways.

Among the many concerns raised by the exhibition, perhaps the most critical question is this: are the bodies on display in fact those of executed Chinese prisoners who never consented to have their remains put on show, and whose executions might have been expedited by the desire to profit from the sale of their bodies to the exhibition promoter? The show’s producer, Premier, has never adequately responded to these serious charges.

It is for this reason that in May 2008, the New York Attorney General arrived at a settlement with Premier by which the exhibition could remain open in New York provided that they posted signs warning visitors that Premier could not “independently verify that they [the bodies and body parts] do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.”

In mid-2009, Hawaii became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to shut down “Bodies,” after the state issued a legal ban on exhibitions that sought “commercial profit” from bodies of unknown provenance.

In September 2010, the French courts went even further: they banned the show on the basis of the French Civil Code, which states that “the respect due to the human body does not end with death, and the remains of the deceased must be treated… with respect, dignity, and decency.”

Yet none of these well-documented actions seems to have been the cause for any pause in bringing the show to Israel.

To be sure, the organizers expect that there will be rumblings from the “religious community.” But can it really be that only the religious community has potential objections? The legislators in Hawaii and the jurists in France were not part of any “religious community.”

This is a Jewish state. Surely the insights of Judaism on these matters are not solely significant to those who are “religious?”

From a Jewish perspective, there are at least five objections to this regrettable display:

First, when death occurs, Judaism invokes the principle of kevod ha-met, the honor due to the dead individual. Honoring the dead means handling a body with all the dignity that would be in evidence if the person were alive. Kevod ha-met also implies that the body should be restored to the earth, the dust from whence we came, as expeditiously as possible. Consequently, preserving a body is anathema to Jewish tradition. Embalming was seen as “Egyptian practice,” only to be undertaken in exceptional circumstances. How much the more so would Judaism forcefully reject the permanent plastination of the body.

Second, Judaism is opposed to any viewing of the dead. Once the soul has departed from the body, the body, though precious, represents the husk of what was a living human person. The true essence of what constituted the “divine image” has departed. From the standpoint of Judaism, to view the dead is an unacceptable breach of propriety. When we behold the dead, we see individuals in what is literally a dehumanized state.

Third, the tradition directly instructs that one may not profit from a dead body. Those staging the exhibition are in plain transgression of this precept.

Fourth is the problem of exploitation. If the bodies are those of prisoners who were mistreated or murdered, then these horrors cannot be erased. There are Jewish law experts who maintain that Nazi scientific data can only be ethically utilized if the results yield an undeniable “great value to humanity.” The “Bodies” exhibition certainly does not meet this criterion. Even granted that the show has educational merit, there is nothing to be learned there that cannot be apprehended in various other effective ways that are without ethical taint.

Fifth, is the issue of met mitzva, the unclaimed corpse. The promoters maintain that the bodies on display are not those of prisoners, but are unclaimed corpses. Even if this is true, Jewish tradition holds that we have a duty to bury an abandoned body immediately. If necessary, the High Priest himself was to become ritually impure on behalf of such an individual. For Jews, the fact that a corpse is “unclaimed” provides us with no license to use it for our own purposes.

There will be those who will say that these practices apply to Jews and Jewish bodies, and not to non-Jews and non-Jewish bodies. It should be clear, however, that Jews ought not to be party to the desecration or degradation of any human body.

None of these high ideals of Judaism will be in evidence in Tel Aviv. The “exhibits” will not be treated as “persons,” afforded the full dignity of the humanity that was once a part of them, but as “things” to be sliced, propped, and displayed to serve our entertainment purposes. They will not be allowed to “return to the dust,” or to lie in peace. Pretending to serve some indispensible educational goal, the exhibition will present death preserved indefinitely, stripped of all humanity, and treated as a sensational spectacle.

It is indeed a disturbing commentary on our society if we are really so cavalier about the use and abuse of bodies in a way that denies the very humanity that the body once housed. We can, and should, do better.

Danny Schiff served as the Community Scholar for the Pittsburgh Jewish community for 16 years before moving to Jerusalem in 2009. He is the author of Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge).