Do we Owe Respect to Old Bones?

EnglishHuman bone in forestSo there’s this this debate going on in England about a skeleton that was displayed apparantly against the explicit wish of its erstwhile live person (should we call it its “owner”?), Charles Byrne, and people are arguing whether to finally bury it, or whether so much time has passed (some 230 years) that it is no longer relevant. [Hat tip: Rabbi Ze’ev Smason]

Here is a snippet of a blog post citing a renewed call for burrying Charles Byrne:

It seems like a wonderful idea — that society might still care about, and eventually honour, the wishes of a man who died 230 years ago is a credit to human morality. But there’s a thorny, practical side to all this that might get messy for London’s museums. How many other specimens in Hunter’s collection might hold similar claims? What about human remains on show elsewhere? The mummies at the British Museum were not only disinterred from their rightful resting places, but also transported to another country. If we lose Byrne, do we lose them too, and what would that mean for museums’ educational remits (and budgets, come to that)? Honouring the wishes of someone who died a quarter of a millennium ago could open a can of worms, if not a jar of moles.

And here is a choice comment on that post:

It would be a little odd to bury him at sea now: he was apparently motivated not by a love of the ocean but by a desire to keep his corpse out of Hunter’s clutches. That was likely to be linked to contemporary fears that dissection would make satisfactory resurrection impossible. Throwing Byrne’s skeleton into the sea over two centuries after his worst fears were realised seems to be missing the point.

My reply is that the commenter is ignorant about religion, resurrection and about the value of respect for the dead, and seems patronizingly anti-religion, to boot. True, if Byrne is burried, many more skeletons in musea throughout the world might become candidates for burial, but so be it. Who says we gain *as a society* by displaying our ancestors in glass cages? Does respect for the life and the living thereby increase? We should indeed bury them even if that represents a major loss to many musea.

I am willing to respect one exception: skeletons older than, say, 6000 years, i.e., from before Adam. That is because regardless on where one stands on the question of creationism and evilution, I believe that the Account of Creation of Man is a meaningful source of practical consequences. In fact, I wonder whether we’d say that such old skeletons convey טומאה (tumah — ritual impurity imparted by, for example, bones of deceased people)

Advertisements

4 Responses to Do we Owe Respect to Old Bones?

  1. andrewhilkowitz says:

    “I am willing to respect one exception: skeletons older than, say, 6000 years, i.e., from before Adam.” How does this statement correspond with our calendar: 5772 years since creation of the world?

    • Arie Folger says:

      Well, that depends on how you want to generally deal with the seeming contradiction between the literal Account of Creation and scientific findings on fossils, astronomy, geology, etc.

      If you are inclined to see the 5772 as totally literal, with the universe being created in six of our present days, then you will probably claim that the fossils were created old, in which case bones demonstrably older than 6000 years should not have come from actual humans and would not convey tum’a.

      If, on the other hand, you are inclined to read the six days of creations as six aeons, then the fossils did come from actual homo sapiens sapiens, but I posit that even then, the account of creation of man is halakhically meaningful, and bones coming from before adam would not yet be endowed with tzelem E-lohim, which many Rishonim take as relating to man’s creative and, more importantly, moral faculties. Thus, older bones would still not convey tum’a.

      If you subscribe to Gerald Schroeders both-Torah-and-science-are-literally-right-because-time-is-relative interpretation of creation, then I would still point you to the above reasoning, though it becomes difficult, because one suddenly needs to define Adam – a person or a species – but I would tend to still identify Adam as literally the first person endowed with Tzelem.

      For these two latter interpretations, one would likely posit that the creation of man was a second appearance of an existing primate species, but this time around endowed with tzelem E-lohim, though for the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that R’ Walter Würzburger once told me he saw no difficulty in considering pre-Adam honinids (including home sapiens sapiens) every bit as much ‘afar min ha-adama (i.e. they could have been the dust G”d gathered to create Adam).

      Finally, if you subscribe to what I call the programmer’s model of creation, i.e. that the world is a virtual reality in G”d’s “mind” and that the individual creations of the Six Days of Creation are kind of subroutines (works perfectly with Rashi who speaks of everything being created before the first day, but put in place on its day, and it all only coming into function on day six, when Adam was made to come alive), then the first answer above would fit, too.

      So I went through the different models and each and every time found the creation of man 5770 years ago (5770, not 5772, because in the latter figure we count the present year, and consider the six days of creation like year 1) to be a halakhically meaningful and relevant to old human bones, regardless of one’s understanding of the Account of Creation.

      But I’d love to hear who might have written on the topic.

      • Arie Folger says:

        Following a comment made privately to me, I see the need to point out that I took the notion of whether bones convey tum’a (ritual impurity) as shorthand for whether those represent the bones of beings created betzelem E-lohim (in the “image” of G”d), and hence whether such bones require reburial.

      • Arie Folger says:

        This post is being discussed on the Avodah mailing list of the Aishdas Society, and the following were two noteworthy comments.

        First, there is this reply of mine to a very good insight by Akiva Miller:

        RAM wrote:
        > How would you respond to R’ Micha Berger’s question, which was:
        >
        >> What about the bones of … Adnei hasadeh — which it is a
        >> violation of retzhichah to kill?
        >
        > My — probably mistaken — understanding is that Adnei Hasadeh are
        > precisely those homo sapiens who were not endowed with Tzelem
        > Elokim. Is it possible for there to be a being which is assur to murder,
        > yet not be metameh?

        My response? It fits perfectly, as I never suggested that it would
        have been permitted to murder a pre-Adam homo sapiens sapiens. That
        would have been a gaping ethical hole in any theory suggesting Adam
        was not the first homo sapiens sapiens, just the first to be endowed
        with a tzelem.

        However, given that pre-Adam homo sapiens sapiens (and reasonably, any
        homo sapiens, be it a neatherthal or whatever, too) would still be
        protected by the prohibition on murder, and nonetheless, unlike later
        humans, his bones would still not convey tum’a upon direct contact
        (maga’ or massa’, not ohel, which is anyway restricted to Beney
        Yisrael), well that would mean that indeed, such old bones could be
        kept in museum displays, unlike, say, bones unearthed even in a pagan
        dig, from about 5000 years ago.

        Then, there is this tangential note by R’ Micha Berger:

        Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2012 18:41:30 -0500
        From: Micha Berger
        To: Avodah Torah Discussion Group
        Subject: Re: [Avodah] Do we Owe Respect to Old Bones?

        On Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 10:40:34AM +0100, Arie Folger wrote:
        : Finally, if you subscribe to what I call the programmer’s model of
        : creation, i.e. that the world is a virtual reality in G”d’s “mind” and
        : that the individual creations of the Six Days of Creation are kind of
        : subroutines (works perfectly with Rashi who speaks of everything being
        : created before the first day, but put in place on its day, and it all
        : only coming into function on day six, when Adam was made to come
        : alive), then the first answer above would fit, too.

        I think more the Rambam. The Moreh 2:30 says something similar to what
        you quote from Rashi (Bereishis 1:1 d”h “Berieshis bara”, the “kepishuto”
        given 2nd).

        But the Rambam suggests this for a different reason than Rashi. Rashi
        needs a sun in order for “erev” and “boqer” to make sense. The Rambam
        raises the problem that time itself requires motion. (The Greeks believed
        that time was the property of a process, not visualizing it as an axis,
        the way science has since Galileo.)

        Therefore, the particular Rashi you quote might suggest that a creation
        yom is a length of time other than one “trip of the sun around the earth”
        (revolution of the earth) as we have them, since the galgal wasn’t in
        place yet.

        But the Rambam, saying the same thing, would suggest that yom isn’t
        a span of time altogether. And AFAIK, this is the commonly accepted
        understanding of the Rambam. (Although if RZL sees this, he’ll post
        his counterargument.) That the 6 yamim are stages of a process, not
        temporal at all.

        Where Rashi does suggest that maaseh bereishis isn’t within linear time
        is more what you pointed to in November — the combination of 1:1 and
        2:4. But it is far from muchrakh. It could be (as you suggested) that
        Rashi simply explains each narrative al pi peshuto without trying to
        reconcile the two.

        This “subroutine” notion might also explain the Ramban’s pairing of
        creation yamim with historical-era millenia.

        Tir’u baTov!
        -Micha

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: