Under The Skin

In the new “Body Worlds” exhibit at the California Science Center, a plastic man called “Chess Player” sits at a table with his back hunched forward and his hands cupped under his chin. His lips pursed, his eyes stare intensely at the chess board.

Posed in cerebral solemnity, “Chess Player” would look at home at a chess tables in Central Park — were it not for the fact that he is naked, the skin is flayed off his body and his cranium is split open. But what is most distinguishing — and perhaps, in a philosophical sense, disturbing — about “Chess Player” is not that he is plastic and without skin or clothes, but that he is a corpse.

“Chess Player” is one of dozens of artfully posed “plastinated” corpses that make up the showpieces of “Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, the Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.” The exhibition had its U.S. premier in Los Angeles in July, after 15 million people saw it in Asia and Europe. Organizers hope that the U.S. display will attract comparably large crowds.

Billed as educational, the exhibit aims to expose what goes on beneath the skin in order to teach visitors about the intricacies of the human body and to inspire health consciousness. With visitors poised precariously on the edge of ghoulish fascination and corporeal awe, the exhibit is currently drawing summer campers on trip day, families looking for an interesting vacation outing and medical students eager to get a look inside.

The exhibit has a full array of real bodies and body parts on display. There are glass cases that contain lungs, livers, kidneys, hearts, gall bladders, spleens, intestines, brains and other internal organs in various states of health and illness.

A display of embryos and fetuses show how babies develop during the nine months of pregnancy. A glass case that contains a man, woman and child, stripped of everything but their blood vessels, presents the intricate network of the blood’s passage through the body.

A woman, fecund in her eighth month of pregnancy, reclines while her womb is exposed through a cutout that reveals the baby nestling within. An athlete crouching mid-bounce with a basketball in his hand is stripped of his skin to reveal a thick layer of tawny red muscle.

Von Hagen also presents bodies that have been dissected horizontally and vertically at various intervals. Each dissection is preserved in a sheet of plastic and then reassembled to create a body in parts to expose the inner workings of the body.

But “Body Worlds” has also touched a nerve in the Jewish community of Los Angeles. Local rabbis have variously praised and vilified it. Some have announced from the pulpit that seeing the exhibit is a mitzvah, while others advise not to go see it because the exhibit violates everything that Judaism holds sacred about the body.

Von Hagen, a German anatomist, created the science behind “Body Worlds” back in 1978. Tired of seeing anatomy specimens floating in jars of cloudy formaldehyde, von Hagen invented and patented a process he called “plastination,” which uses a vacuum chamber to replace the fluids in the body with a reactive polymer that hardens and preserves the body in a “lifelike state.”

Plastinated bodies do not smell or rot, and, as von Hagen amply demonstrated, they can be sliced, diced and posed at will. Using bodies donated specifically for that purpose, von Hagen, now 59, created plastinated bodies and body parts that he sold to medical schools for educational purposes.

In 1995, he put the bodies on display to the general public for the first time in a “Body Worlds” exhibition in Japan. Other exhibitions in other countries followed and with them controversy.

Ethicists accused von Hagen, renegade anatomist in his trademark fedora, of running a “freak show,” and some media outlets dubbed him “Dr. Frankenstein.” His notoriety increased in 2002, when he held a public autopsy in London open to anyone wanting to pay $19 a ticket — a practice that had been banned 170 years before.

According to England’s Sunday Telegraph, in January of this year, Siberian authorities opened legal proceedings against von Hagen, claiming that he received corpses at his body processing center in Heidelberg, Germany, without the permission of the deceased or their relatives. Von Hagen successfully contested the charges.

However, in an unrelated incident, he did concede that bodies admitted to his China processing plant in Dailan might have been those of executed prisoners, and that he had advised his staff there that they could not accept bodies of those who were executed.

Von Hagen sees his plastinates as continuing the work of great anatomists of the past, like Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius, and many of his plastinates pay homage to the drawings of these men by being posed and sculpted in an identical fashion.

“I see myself in their tradition, and I look up to them,” said von Hagen, who spoke to The Journal by phone from Taiwan. “I studied for weeks at the anatomical museums in Italy, and I looked at pictures from the Renaissance, and I learned [from them] about posing a body in a natural way.”

Aware of the controversy surrounding von Hagen and his traveling corpse exhibit, officials at the California Science Center assembled an ethics advisory committee to investigate and advise on the matter before they signed an agreement with von Hagen. The committee included medical doctors who were also medical ethicists and Jewish and Christian clergymen.

Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue, who sat on the committee, recently delivered a sermon explaining that the committee investigated the body donations and came back satisfied that those who donated their bodies were fully aware that they were going to be part of the exhibit, and that none of the bodies came from dubious sources — such as bodies of victims of the Holocaust, Feinstein said in his sermon.

The committee also decided that it was proper for school-age children to see the exhibit, because they could come to conclusions that would make them healthier, such as deciding, after seeing the cirrhotic livers and blackened lungs that von Hagen has on display, not to drink or smoke.

While all of the committee members supported the exhibit, seven of them issued statements endorsing it.

“‘Body Worlds’ will give [people] access to the many miracles of the human body and help them understand their physical selves,” said Dr. Stanley Korenman of the UCLA Medical Center.

“The human body is essential to our humanity … and any growth in the understanding and knowledge of our human body leads to a greater appreciation of our dignity as human persons,” said the Rev. Richard Benson from St. John’s Seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Morley said the exhibit “helps us understand better the Designer who created and shaped humanity,” and then in the sermon, Morley went even further.

“Learning health matters at ‘Body Worlds’ can be life-saving,” he said. “And viewing the exhibit in that context can be a mitzvah.”

But other rabbis disagree with Morley.

“Jews should be aware that this is a fundamentally un-Jewish way of treating bodies,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the director of Project Next Step and an additional adviser to “Body Worlds,” who offered the committee the Orthodox perspective. “We view the body as an instrument that brought holiness to the world, since the body is the vehicle that enables the soul to do its job. Every part of Jewish funeral practice stresses that there is this element of holiness [in the body]. We view holiness as something that human beings can and do create, and it leaves lasting effects. Therefore, the notion that the body is something that can be disposed of at will as long as you have the consent of the deceased is foreign and repugnant to Judaism.”

“Just as you can’t take sefer Torah [Torah scroll] and use it as wallpaper for a synagogue, you can’t take a body and cut it up and put it on display,” he said.

However, Adlerstein noted that these laws only apply to Jewish corpses. Morley said that after investigation of the donors, the committee surmised that there were no Jewish bodies on display in the exhibit.

“Perhaps people are gaining something in the process when they see the exhibit,” Adlerstein said. “But they should not lose sight of the fact that every time you use the human body for something that is not immediately connected with saving a life, you are paying a price, and human life becomes cheaper and cheaper.”

In Judaism, the body is viewed as a sacred vessel, and human life is viewed as sacrosanct. The Jewish view on health is a holistic, albeit abstemious, one. “Guard your life exceedingly,” is the verse in Deuteronomy that commentators say is the basis for Judaism’s view on health and fitness.

In the Mishneh Torah, the classic text that codifies Jewish law, Maimonides writes, “A healthy, whole body is part of the way of God … one cannot know or comprehend the Creator when ill [therefore] one should distance themselves from things that destroy the body.”

Maimonides, a physician who wrote about 10 books on medicine and healthy living, goes on to list some basic principles in keeping healthy, such as not eating to satiety. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) also advises that it is important to “keep [your] bowels lax” and that preserving physical health is intertwined with preserving emotional health.

According to traditional Judaism, our bodies are on loan, so to speak, from God, and are not our own to do what we want with. That’s why there are prohibitions in the Torah against intentionally harming or wounding our bodies or putting them in danger; also, there is a biblical prohibition against marking our bodies (i.e, tattooing).

“These laws translate into other concepts, like not eating junk food, and not smoking,” said Rabbi Nachum Sauer of the Rabbinical Council of California. “Most halachic authorities hold that it is forbidden to smoke now that the dangers of smoking have been determined.”

Sauer also explained that modern halachic authorities, like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, forbade the use of marijuana and other narcotics, not only because of the harm they could cause to the body, but because their use violates the biblical concept of kedoshim tihiyu (and you shall be holy).

“A Jew has to live a lifestyle of holiness and [taking drugs and their consequences] are antithetical to Torah,” he said.

But regardless of the health of the body, the mitzvah of saving a life takes precedence over all other mitzvahs in the Torah, with the exception of the prohibitions against murder, idolatry and incest. “An elderly man or woman, a mentally retarded person, a deformed baby, a dying cancer patient and similar individuals all have the same right to life as you or I,” Fred Rosner, a doctor who has written extensively on matters of Jewish bioethics, writes in the essay, “Risks Versus Benefits in Treating the Gravely Ill Patient, Ethical and Religious Considerations.”

Yet whether or not one has treated his or her body with respect during one’s lifetime has nothing to do with how much respect must be accorded one’s corpse. There is a biblical commandment to bury bodies and body parts (i.e, if a limb is amputated), and a prohibition against desecrating the dead (i.e., cutting up a body). It is also forbidden to benefit from bodies.

Sauer believes that death and its accompaniments need to be a natural process according to halacha (Jewish law), which is why traditional Judaism forbids cremation and embalming bodies.

But there are some halachic authorities who say that the mitzvah of saving a life takes precedence over the prohibition against desecrating the dead. Therefore, many authorities permit harvesting organs for transplant purposes from a person considered brain dead, even though it would require the harvesters to cut through the dead body to extract the organs.

There is also a famous responsa that was given by Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, an 18th century rabbi in Prague also known as the Noda B’Yehuda, that permitted autopsies if there could be a direct health benefit to a person who was present at the autopsy. In other words, performing autopsies on bodies for the general purpose of “research” would be forbidden, but if Person A had died of a certain disease, and Person B in the same town contracted the same disease, it would be permitted to perform an autopsy on Person A in the hope that the knowledge gained about the disease could help save Person B.

As an exhibit, “Body Worlds” seems to straddle these various opinions. On the one hand, the bodies have been mutilated and embalmed, on the other hand, organizers claim that these mutilations and embalmings can have untold health benefits on the myriad people who come to see the exhibit and leave feeling inspired to lead healthier lives.

So maybe the bodily mutilation could, in a sense, save lives. According to visitor polls carried out at several “Body Worlds” exhibition sites (in Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and England), 56 percent of visitors left the exhibit “with valuable incentives for a healthier lifestyle … and resolved to pay more attention to their physical health in the future.”

Diane Perlov, the senior vice president of exhibits at the California Science Center, told The Journal that in California, after people viewed the exhibit, they resolved to give up smoking and other destructive behaviors.

“I don’t think there was anyone who first heard about the exhibit and didn’t think that it was beyond their ken,” Feinstein said. “But once we learned about it, and understood the care and dignity that goes on and the opportunity to save lives [this exhibit has], these were very high priorities for us. I think that the exhibit does have the potential to help teenagers, especially in regard to smoking and alcohol, and I think it might open up the mind’s imagination to comprehend the miracle that we live with every day. And, if in fact we gain that knowledge, we might be able to appreciate the wondrous Creator of that miracle.”

Others disagree about the educational benefits of putting plastinated corpses on display. Rabbi J. David Bleich, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Yeshiva University in New York and the one of the editors of “Jewish Bioethics” (Hebrew Publishing Co., 1979), told The Journal that plastic facsimiles of the body are just as effective as educational tools.

Sauer also took issue with the educational component of the exhibit. “Even if the halachic issues [of not desecrating the dead] do not apply to non-Jews, [von Hagen] is using this as a commercial endeavor, and thus is not showing the proper respect [to the bodies]. Even though it is billed as educational, I feel there are other motives involved than purely scientific, medical ones. I think people may go and see it because of the notoriety — people are always looking for shocking experiences, and it lowers the sensitivities of people in general to the sanctity of the human being. So when people ask me, I recommend that they don’t go see it for those reasons.”

Feinstein thinks that the positive outweighs the negative.

“My congregation was fascinated and overwhelmed when I told them about “Body Worlds.” They had not considered that his particular area of science learning could have such a great connection with their Jewish spirituality and learning.”

“Body Worlds the Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human
Bodies” will be at the California Science Center until Jan. 23, 2005. For more
information, visit www.bodyworlds.com .