Dear Rabbi Fried,
You once argued that displaying dead bodies in a public exhibit flies in the face of the sanctity of the human body. I have trouble fathoming what sanctity there is to the human body any more than any other animal body. I assume you would not take such issue with an exhibit of animal bodies showing their anatomy and would like to understand why your perspective is so different for humans.
The holiness of the human body can be understood on a few levels. One area where the Torah reveals this is in the prohibition to maim or inflict any wound upon the body unnecessarily. Even if one wants to do so, we were not given that license as our bodies were not given to us to do as we want, rather entrusted to us as a sacred trust from the Al-mighty to use this body owned by Him. This is much as we do not own our children to do with them as we please but were entrusted with them to help nurture them to grow in their own paths and lives.
The body is said to be a partner with the soul in its struggle to serve G-d in this world. There isn’t a single mitzvah that the soul can perform without its cohort, the body. G-d purposely set up the world in that way, that there are animals that are all body; angels that are all soul; and man, who is the combination of the two. This is the underlying foundation for the Jewish belief in the eventual Revival of the Dead. That period, also known as “Olam Haba” or the Next World, the final world of the ultimate reward, must first be ushered in by the reunification of the bodies with their souls. Why is this so? Why cannot the souls themselves, which are eternal, receive that reward?
My late mentor, R’ Shlomo Wolbe, explained that it is only fair that both partners, the body and the soul, should together share in the final, ultimate bliss which could come about only as the result of their partnership. Since all the mitzvos were performed with the body, the soul could not possibly receive that reward alone. This speaks volumes about the way we look at the human body.
The Kabbalistic writings closely connect every limb, muscle and sinew of the human body to a specific mitzvah of the Torah. There are said to be a count of 248 limbs and 365 main sinews of the body, corresponding to the 248 positive mitzvos (the “dos”) and the 365 negative mitzvos (the “don’ts”). Every time a mitzvah is performed, the part of that body which parallels that mitzvah becomes elevated and sanctified.
Throughout the Torah we find G-d described in human terms: He took us out of Egypt with an “outstretched arm,” His “eyes” are upon us, He “hears” our affliction, etc. This is difficult to understand, as it is a core belief of Judaism that G-d has no physicality.
One answer given by the commentators is that these are anthropomorphisms, meaning just a way for us to have an inkling of what is happening using human experiences we can appreciate and fathom.
The deeper answer given by the Kabbalists is that all that G-d performs in this world is parallel to similar attributes in the human body. There is a type of “spiritual human body” which is the sum-total of all the upper, spiritual worlds. G-d created the physical human body in sync with all that He wishes to relate and express through His divine providence throughout all of human history. This is an entirely new insight on the loftiness and holiness of the human body; its very essence is nothing less than an expression of G-dliness in the world. This is implicit in the verse that man was created “in the image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27).
This explains the tremendous responsibility we hold to be the proper stewards of the gift of the body we have received, and our obligation to treat it with the proper respect and sanctity it deserves.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.