Q. Does Judaism approve of autopsies?
A. Generally Judaism opposes anything which would injure, mar or mutilate the human body, after death as well as in life. However, in 1776 Rabbi Yechezkel Landau issued in his Noda Biy’hudah a now famous statement that an autopsy could be performed if could benefit choleh shelefanenu – a sick person who was physically present and suffering from the same disease as the deceased.
In 1964 Rabbi Yitzchak Arieli in a paper to the 6th World Congress on the Oral Law said that hereditary disease is comparable to choleh shelefanenu. Lord Jakobovits has stated that “in these days of rapid traffic and transportation, there are patients lefanenu (actually present) in every place where one awaits the results of anatomic investigation, and what is found here today may serve as a cure tomorrow in New York”.
However, none of this implies that autopsies may be carried out routinely and indiscriminately: that would be an affront to human dignity and compromise the integrity of the body, which is God’s property. Every case must therefore be investigated and decided on its own merits.