Torah for Today: What does the Torah say about cannibalism?

Torah for Today: What does the Torah say about cannibalism?

By Rabbi Zvi Solomons

There have been several gruesome stories over the years of occasions when people have been forced to eat their fellows in order to survive.

Worse still, we turn in disgust from other stories, when people have decided to eat murder victims, and even, on occasion, willing volunteers.

There is nothing more revolting than cannibalism and, at the same time, because of its incomprehensibility, we tend to find those who commit this most taboo of acts, fascinating. Hence the legendary Hannibal Lecter. In Judaism there are three acts that are utterly prohibited.

These are those for which we should rather die than commit: murder, adultery, and idolatry. Outside of this, there are serious implications for some of the things that we do, some of us regularly. For example, if we break the Sabbath, according to the Torah, we are liable for the death penalty.

If we eat non-kosher food, we are cutting ourselves off from our heritage, damaging ourselves spiritually. It is interesting to note, that in the South Sea Islands, human flesh is referred to as ‘long pig’. The risks of eating one’s own species are serious, because if the food is not cooked properly and, sometimes even if it is, there are diseases that are more likely to be communicated.

Some anthropologists suggest that this is the origin of the taboo, although there may be other reasons. In halacha, there is a strong ethos of bodily integrity for the dead. This is why we do not perform autopsies, and why we do not preserve the body with enbalming fluid prior to burial. We do not cremate.

The only exceptions to this are the cases of organ transplant and, in the most extreme circumstances, survival. The rationale for both of these is the same. It is better that a human being live to be able to perform God’s will on many future occasions, than that they observe one mitzvah for today and in observing it die.

In the case of cannibalism, there have been some very unusual circumstances, where a person dies, and is able through the body to sustain other people alive. Judaism does not see your body as meat, because we human beings are considered to be sufficiently unlike animals not to be in that category.

So when you are stranded on that remote island, with nothing to eat, and the unfortunate debris of the air crash delivers you the unpalatable option of eating human flesh, remember that you will be able and indeed you must consume that, rather than dying. If, subsequently, you discover that there are indeed goats on the island, and you catch and milk one, you can drink that milk immediately. The flesh was parve. How comforting!

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