On Friday, Dr. James Bedford will be celebrating an anniversary no other person has ever achieved in all of human history: the 51st anniversary of being frozen in what amounts to a scientific attempt at resurrecting the dead. While Dr. Bedford waits patiently on ice, scientists search for a method of reviving him and theologians discuss where his soul is.
Dr. Bedford was cryopreserved on January 12, 1967, after being declared legally dead. His remains are being preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Dr. Bedford was science’s first attempt at cryonics, the low-temperature preservation of people who cannot be sustained by contemporary medicine. To date, Alcor has more than 1,618 members, including 354 associate members, with 149 in cryopreservation as whole bodies or brains.
Since the process of thawing the body has yet to be developed and the cure for clinical death does not currently exist, cryonics is performed with the hope that resuscitation and restoration to full health may be possible sometime in the future. Implicit in this process is the belief that will only consider a person properly preserved if they can be revived with all of their memories intact with the understanding that long-term memory is stored in cell structures and molecules within the brain.
Rabbi Doniel Katz, a Torah educator who lectures on consciousness, is skeptical of the attempts at cryonics and the reasoning behind it.
“So far, science has succeeded in freezing a person but has not succeeded in reviving a person,” Rabbi Katz told Breaking Israel News. “ Maybe the body could be revived, but to be tchiyat hametim (resurrection of the dead), their consciousness would need to be fully restored.”
Rabbi Katz emphasized that even though materialist philosophy dictates that consciousness and the ‘self’ are contained solely in the brain, there is no scientific proof of this theory.
“Science is still debating about the nature of consciousness,” Rabbi Katz said. “They believe that consciousness is in the brain, the information and data floating around inside your skull. That is not consciousness, and even scientists have not been able to pinpoint where this elusive concept of self actually exists, or even how it relates to the brain.”
The question of the nature of consciousness and how it relates to what happens after death is at the very core of religion, so the rabbi has a ready answer.
“In Kabbalah, your brain is the interface between the soul and the body,” Rabbi Katz explained. “Self and awareness are outside of the body and the brain brings awareness into the body. It may one day be possible to transfer your memory, all the data from your brain, into a computer, but this is not possible for the neshama (soul). The neshama is what guides the brain.”
“From a Torah perspective, it will never be possible to transfer the ‘self’, the free will, into a computer,” Rabbi Katz said. “The only way that will ever happen is through a true resurrection of the dead.”
Rabbi Moshe Avraham Halperin of the Machon Mada’i Technology Al Pi Halacha (the Institute for Science and Technology According to Jewish Law) sees cryogenics as a misguided attempt to preempt the resurrection of the dead and, as such, it is problematic spiritually and ethically.
“Even if they overcome the technical difficulties, it will in no way be similar to the resurrection of the dead,” Rabbi Halperin told Breaking Israel News. “Man is defined by his purpose in the world, by his reason to exist, which is to do mitzvot (Torah commandments) and to serve God. The resurrection of the dead is an extension of this aspect of life, allowing people to continue to serve God for yet another period. The goal of simply restarting the thought process ignores the basis of what man is.”
In addition to the theological shortcomings, the process goes against moral codes established in Jewish law.
“Jewish law is extremely careful in how we treat the body after death, Rabbi Halperin said, citing sources in the Bible.
By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground— For from it you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
You must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. Deuteronomy 21:23
There are stringent laws pertaining to the handling of dead bodies in Judaism. One reason is that a dead body is the most powerful source of ritual impurity. Even though the soul is no longer connected to the body, the body is still an important aspect of the person.
“A man is composed not just of his thoughts,” Rabbi Halperin said. “What we call a soul is contained within the entirety of the mind and the body, the thoughts and the emotions. It is for this reason that the resurrection of the dead includes the body and is not just a mental or spiritual process.”