There was a fascinating interview in this week’s Science Times (of The New York Times) with Paul Root Wolpe, NASA’s chief bioethicist. (It’s also fascinating that NASA has bioethicists. By the way, you may recognize the name “Wolpe” – a well-known rabbinical family.)
A portion of that interview is of special interest to Jewish readers.
The interviewer, Claudia Dreifus, asked, “What was the most unusual question NASA has posed to you?”
“It wasn’t an ethical question,” he answered, “it was a religious one. My father, the late Gerald Wolpe, was a rabbi, as are two of my brothers. There had been an Israeli on the crew of the Columbia shuttle. After it broke up, NASA wanted to know about Jewish religious standards in regard to gathering and interring remains. NASA teams were recovering pieces of bodies on the ground in Texas and Louisiana, much of it unidentifiable. And NASA wanted to know if the Israeli government would want only Ilan Ramon’s flesh returned to it because, if so, NASA would have to do genotyping of every piece of tissue. That would take months.
“I told them there were countervailing values. In Judaism you bury the body as soon as possible. I didn’t think the Israelis would want to have months and months pass.
“I’ve since heard that a lot of the tissue buried in the various graves of these astronauts was unidentified. There’s something touching that some of what is buried in each of their resting places is tissue from all of them.”
In a way, NASA acted like Zaka, collecting fragments of the dead.
I remember waiting for news about the Columbia, and grieving for Ramon and for all the astronauts.
What a pity.