Surgery Prompts Examination of Jewish Concept of Soul

Surgery is wrong. This was what I convinced myself over a two-year stint of excessive holistic health care. Thanks to an imbalanced reliance on acupuncture, I neglected a herniated disc until it ruptured somewhere between Washington, D.C., and Salvador, Brazil. When I found out I needed surgery, I was forced to evaluate what, exactly, I saw wrong with cutting a human open and realigning her interior.

In my case, I was sliced open near the jugular, a clear 1-inch incision along the front of my neck. The doctor slid my muscles and esophagus to one side, sucked out the ruptured disc with a vacuum, and inserted a dead man’s hip bone, molded to the size of my previous disc. To finish the job, two titanium screws were attached; I was stuck back together and sent on my way.

What was wrong with surgery, I decided, were the negative effects it might have on my Jewish soul. If the body is a temple, what happens when you slice it up and insert foreign particles into its infrastructure? And what about the new disc I was given: Whose bone was it? Most likely, based on statistics, I was convinced I housed a Christian man’s hip bone between my C5 and C6 vertebrae.

I chose my neurosurgeon based on a number of factors — his capability, his reputation, whether his hands looked trustworthy. I also noted how, when I worried out loud about this dead person’s body part taking over my spirit, he did not laugh; rather, he entertained my ideas. The neurosurgeon explained that the energetic body of the bone he would use was negligible, thanks to serious reshaping and a year, at least, sitting in formaldehyde.

This sufficed to keep me on the operating table, but I was not convinced. Images of Whoopi Goldberg in the movie “Ghost” flashed through my head. I imagined myself being overtaken by the spirit of the bone donor, just like a medium channeling the dead. For answers to this conundrum, I contacted rabbis far and near. I wrote the following in an e-mail:

Dear Temple Israel of Hollywood,

I am looking for a rabbi who might be able to help me answer the following questions:

What is the Reform Jewish perspective on using cadaver bones in surgery?

Often when people get spinal surgery they need a cadaver bone placed in their body. What is the rabbinical take on the spiritual entity of skeletal matter? What happens to a Jew when a Christian bone is placed in their body? Is there a piece of someone else’s soul in the new bone? Or is the bone just bone, the body just body, the spirit left intact?

The synagogue was very helpful and sent me on to a professor, who they insisted was an expert on “this topic.” This topic, I am guessing, would be the spiritual entity of bones and their handling. I wrote the suggested professor a letter. It read:

While I am aware of the importance, in lieu of Jewish law, of the preservation of the cadaver and the burial laws therein, I am most curious about the so-called “spiritual entity” of the bones themselves.

What happens when a Jewish woman has a Christian man’s bone surgically placed in her neck to keep her from paralysis? Is there a spiritual shift in the individual? What does a bone hold, energetically, religiously, that may alter the system of the living individual? Is she still a Jew, even with a Christian bone and, in some cases, titanium in her neck?

I received a near immediate response from the professor. The initial answer was glib:

Dear Ms. Gerson:

The subject you raise is of no interest to me and I have never explored it.

But this was followed with the insightful: I believe that when a bone or other organ is transplanted, it becomes part of the host’s body and thus thoroughly and completely part of that

This left me to believe that I was, in fact, channeling the dead Christian man I imagined to have donated my neck bone. Only according to this, he did not visit my body like in “Ghost,” or take it over; he sort of wed my spirit, in the biblical sense. I am no longer alone, or he isn’t; we exist together from my C5-C6 vertebrae on.

What the rabbis I encountered revealed was really the issue not of my soul, but that of the dead person whose hip graft was living in my neck. Reb Nadya Gross of Pardes Levavot, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Boulder, Colo., politely suggested I burn a yahrzeit candle for this person, hoping to unite the soul with the now-dismembered body. This dismemberment of human form was the fundamental issue: Jewish burial law insists a body be buried intact. This means, sans hip-bone chunk, my bone donor was in some sort of Judeo-Christian limbo purgatory.

According to a Central Conference of American Rabbis responsa regarding liver transplants: “The harvesting of organs from deceased persons might well conflict with another central Judaic value, that of kevod hamet, the obligation to respect the dignity of the dead.”

The Halachic Organ Donor Society (” title=””> and