I am studying medicine at the Technion in Haifa. I was wondering: I know that there are a lot of opinions about dissection, but I know that there are people that do everything in lab and try to act with kavod [respect] to the body while they are doing it. I don’t think that it is right just to watch, even if they let me. I think that I may end up doing some sort of surgery later. Are there any issues that I should know about? I am pretty sure that all the bodies are Jewish.
Your question has been hotly debated since the beginning of the 20th century. In a number of instances, medical schools in Poland and other parts of Europe threatened to expel the Jewish students unless they would bring Jewish cadavers for dissection and research. In all of these cases, the groups of rabbis consulted all concurred that it is completely forbidden to dissect a Jewish body for the sake of study.
Even when there is a direct opportunity to save the life of another Jew, there is a serious debate among the rabbinical authorities. In that case, the majority opinion is to allow the dissection and removal of organs. There are other cases of extreme need, such as forensic dissection for the sake of determination of cause of death when murder is suspected, where some rabbinic authorities may allow an autopsy.
Dissection, however, solely for the sake of scientific research or the training of doctors, is strictly forbidden by halachah, Jewish law. The reasons for this are many:
Sanctity of the deceased body. The body of a Jew retains sanctity even after death. The body is not just a container which houses the holy soul, but the body itself has intrinsic holiness. This holiness is unique to the Jewish people, who are called a “holy people” by the Al-mighty, and post-mortem dissection attacks G-d’s holiness.
The soul is not completely severed from the body even after death. The soul is pained if the body is disgraced. Some rabbis consider autopsy to be a denial of the existence of the soul. Others consider autopsy to constitute denial of the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
Desecration of the dead is considered a Biblical prohibition. There are various definitions of desecration among the rabbinical authorities, and nearly all concur that dissection for the sake of study constitutes desecration. Post-mortem biopsies or blood sampling are not considered as such.
This activity is a nullification of the mitzvah to bury our deceased brethren as quickly as possible. This has been Jewish practice from time immemorial. Even if all the body parts will be buried after the dissection, the burial was prolonged. Especially if not all parts will be buried, the mitzvah of burial was never fulfilled for this deceased Jew, and many hold that shiva cannot begin until the entire body is buried (unless, of course, a body part was transplanted to another Jew).
The Torah forbids us to derive any benefit from a dead Jew. Most authorities consider this to be a Biblical injunction, some consider it to be rabbinic in origin, but all agree to the prohibition. There has been much debate if learning from a dead body constitutes “benefit.” Many authorities maintain that simply looking at or observing parts of the body does not constitute benefit, although the one doing the dissection would certainly be benefiting.
Some authorities consider dissection stealing from the dead person.
Based on the above, if there’s no way you could learn by online images and you must observe cadaver dissection, although it is not praiseworthy since the dissector is transgressing and the observers are providing tacit approval, it is not, however, prohibited and you could do so.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.