A person has, God forbid, passed away. Doctors want to perform an autopsy. They have good grounds to do the procedure and believe the knowledge they will gain from the autopsy will help other patients – and, perhaps, avoid more death.
The family of the deceased asks their Orthodox rabbi a question…
…Is this autopsy allowed?
Here are four possible answers the rabbi might give:
- No. The autopsy is forbidden. Why? Because there is no immediate benefit to life, no patient is dying right before us that this autopsy could save. (Following the Nodah B'Yehuda, Rabbi Yechezkiel Landau.)
- No. The autopsy is forbidden. Why? The deceased did not give his permission. Even if a life could be saved right now, the autopsy is not allowed – unless the deceased granted permission while alive and coherent. (Following Rabbi Yaakov Ettinger.)
- No. The autopsy is forbidden. Why? We are forbidden to derive benefit from a corpse. (The Ya'avetz, Rabbi Yaakov Emden.)
- Yes. By all means do the autopsy. Why? There are always patients somewhere who can benefit from what the doctors find. Saving a life across the country or across the world is still saving a life. The patient who benefits does not need to be here before us. Further, preserving life is more important than kavod hameit, honor to the cadaver. But the body must be treated with the utmost respect during the procedure and, after the autopsy, the body parts must be buried according to Jewish law. (Following Rabbi Ben-Zion Uzziel, first Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.)
You'll note that answers 1 and 2 treat the mitzva of kavod hameit expansively while at the same time diminishing the mitzva of pikuakh nefesh, saving life. Number three does, in effect, the same thing to an even greater extreme.
Number 4, however, treats saving life expansively and somewhat diminishes kavod hameit.
We are always commanded to err on the side of life. Therefore, number 4 should be the normative halakha – but, at least for haredim and most right wing Modern Orthodox, it is not.
Because, historically autopsies and cadaver medical research started (as a widespread, normative practice) at the same time the Haskalah, Enlightenment, took hold.
Who asked these types of questions to rabbis in 1770 or 1870 Prague or Germany? Jews who benefited from the Enlightenment and studied in German medical schools.
Haredi rabbis are still fighting the Enlightenment. They often, however, have no idea that the "halakha" they so desperately try to uphold, often with street demonstrations and riots, was made long ago to fight a battle that Orthodoxy has already decisively lost.
Four poskim. Three Ashkenazim. One Moroccan.
Only one posek views the situation in its correct halakhic setting and only one posek rules correctly – the Moroccan, Ben-Zion Uzziel, who learned Torah without the Hatam Sofer's destructive dogma, "Hadash assur min HaTorah," "Everything new is forbidden by the Torah."
Nothing since the destruction of the Second Temple has been more destructive to Judaism than that bit of wisdom from the Hatam Sofer.
You can read a far kinder treatment of the sources here.