RR 130-131

Donating a Body to Science

Rabbi Gerald Raiskin Peninsula Temple Sholom 849 San Mateo Drive San Mateo, California


When you asked me about a husband and wife who were considering the possibility of donating their bodies to a scientific institution upon their death, you quite properly called attention to my responsum on the cornea.

Reform Judaism, in general, decides these matters in a lenient way, but there is a definite limit to the leniency possible. For example, with regard to the cornea, it would be possible for a liberal Orthodox rabbi to answer as we did, that it is permitted, but the majority of them, because of their habit of making strict decisions, would probably say No.

With regard to autopsy, most decisions are permissive only if there is definitely a sick person in the neighborhood who would benefit by the autopsy. (This is based upon the decision of Ezekiel Landau [Yore Deah II, 210] and Moses Sofer [Yore Deah 136].) With regard to this matter, the rabbis in Israel have recently extended the permissiveness somewhat, permitting the autopsy for general information with regard to a disease.

In discussing autopsy, a modern scholar, Elijah Posek (in “Divre Hillel,” Yore Deah 216), says that it would be preferable if the sick man were persuaded to request an autopsy of his body. This, however, is not the same as donating the body entirely for scientific purposes. For Jewish law has a deep respect for the body of the dead, and a strong aversion to the living making use of the dead for their benefit. All permissiveness is therefore reluctant, and understandingly and properly so. For human bodies to be taken and cut up without limit, and perhaps never to be buried at all, their parts scattered heaven knows where, this is surely repugnant to the letter of the law and to the spirit of our tradition.

A man would be justified, at least according to our liberal interpretation, to permit an amputated leg to be used for some benefit to the sick, or the cornea of his eye after death, or to have his body studied in autopsy and then buried. But to permit his body to be turned into fragments, and treated irreverently in all likelihood, and never to find burial, there is no possible way of permitting this. Moses Sofer, in the responsum just referred to, specifically declares it forbidden for a man “to sell himself in his lifetime for doctors to dissect his body after death, for the purpose of studying medicine.”

If, however, the bodies are given to a scientific institution to study, and then are buried after the work on them is done, there can be little objection from the liberal point of view. As for the funeral services in such a case, you would conduct them as always, as we do when a body is to be cremated.