Caring for Our Bodies in Life and in Death

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on August 25, 2015
Haftarah Reading

In American ideology, our bodies belong to us. We should take care of ourselves through proper diet, hygiene, sleep, and exercise, and we should avoid smoking, drugs, and too much alcohol, but those imperatives are only so that we can feel good, look good, and live a long life. If we choose to neglect our bodies or engage in activities that will harm them, that may be unwise but ultimately it is our own business.

The Jewish tradition takes a very different view of our bodies. There were three partners in the creation of each one of us -- mother, father, and God. The third partner, God, not only created us but literally owns our bodies throughout our lives and even in death. It is as if we were renting an apartment: we have fair use of the apartment during the time of its lease, but the owner can and usually does demand that we take reasonable care of the apartment and certainly that we not damage it. So, too, God, according to the Jewish tradition, demands that we take care of ourselves. This is not an option in the Jewish way of thinking of things; it is a duty we owe to God so that we can serve God in everything we do. As Maimonides says, whoever takes steps to maintain his or her health

...will be continually serving God, even while engaged in business and even during cohabitation, because his purpose in all that he does will be to satisfy his needs so as to have a sound body with which to serve God. Even when he sleeps and seeks repose to calm his mind and rest his body so as not to fall sick and be incapacitated from serving God, his sleep is service of the Almighty.

(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ethics [HIlkhot De'ot] 3:3)

The way we think and feel about our bodies very much affects how we treat them, and, conversely, the way we treat our bodies influences how we think and feel about ourselves. So taking care of our bodies involves not only doing what we can to preserve our physical bodies, but also doing what we must to promote our mental, psychological, and spiritual health. Many aspects of Judaism help us do that, including the tradition’s mode of encouraging argumentation – the Talmud is one page of arguments after another (honing our intellectual skills) – to the tradition’s provisions for us to be together with family and friends during Shabbat and holidays and to work together toward a better world throughout the week (promoting our psychological wellbeing through meaningful contacts with others), and the tradition’s insistence that we engage with God at least three times daily and, indeed, through the 100 blessings we are supposed to say each day (activating and developing the spiritual aspects of our being) .

This underlying Jewish understanding of our body as the property of God has implications for how we treat our bodies not only in life, but in death as well. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a section of this week's Torah reading, when a person has been condemned to death by hanging, "you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God [literally, "a curse of God"]; you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess." Part of the Torah's concern here is that a body left to hang overnight would defile the Holy Land. The other part, though, is that a body dishonored in that way, even after death, is "an affront to God." It is so, as Rashi points out, because each human being is made in the Divine image. Moreover, leaving the body hanging overnight debases that which belongs to God.

While most of us do not deal with disposing of bodies after capital punishment, we do bury our loved ones and make arrangements for our own burial. According to Jewish tradition, the chief value-concept that governs that process is kevod ha-met, honor due to the dead body. Specifically, we must not cremate Jewish bodies, for that would be to destroy that which is not ours but rather God's. (Indeed, in generations after the Holocaust, it is hard to believe that Jews would do to themselves and their loved ones what the Nazis did to us.) We must rather wash the body, appoint someone to stay with it overnight, and bury it as soon as possible after death in a closed casket so that the disintegration that occurs immediately after death will not diminish our memory of the deceased. This is so important a part of the Jewish tradition that among the very first services offered by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, from the time it was founded in 1854 and continuing to this day, is a reduced-cost or even free Jewish burial for those Jews who cannot afford to bury their Jewish family members, a service offered for those who truly need it in cooperation with the Jewish cemeteries in Los Angeles.

We may permit an autopsy if that is legally required or medically instructive. We should allow our bodies to be used for purposes of organ transplant; indeed, the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has declared it not just permissible, but a positive duty to permit one's body to be used for transplant of organs and tissues, as long as the remains after removal of the organs to be transplanted are buried according to Jewish law and custom. Autopsies and organ transplants help the living, and so they constitute not a desecration of the body, but an honor for it.

Thus both in life and in death, our bodies belong to God. We therefore have a fiduciary responsibility to our Creator to treat them with respect and appreciation, caring for them in life through living life in a way that promotes our physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual health, and caring for them in death through burying them according to Jewish law and tradition.

This is indeed a fitting theme for Shabbat, the crown of God’s creation of the world and of us human beings in it. May this Shabbat remind us that we have a duty to care for the world in general and for our bodies in particular, for they are nothing less than the property of God that we are privileged to inhabit during our lives and must therefore honor both in life and in death.

Shabbat shalom.

For more on health care and issues at the beginning as well as the end of life, see Elliot N. Dorff, Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998).