Not every Jew is a reliable source of general information about Judaism. Not all of us have had extensive Torah education, for starters. Some Jews will say, “I don’t know, ask a rabbi” and others will tell you what their bubbe [grandma] told them on the subject. For them, that might be more authoritative than any rabbi.
One of the subjects where there are a lot of bubbe-meisers [grandma stories] going around is organ donation. The fable you might hear is, “NO! If you allow someone to harvest organs from a body, it can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery!”
The question of organ donation is complex. If we are talking about a donation from a brain dead body, and it will almost certainly save the life of the recipient, then Reform, Conservative, and many Orthodox sources agree, this is not only a permitted donation, it is a mitzvah. The principle involved is pikuakh nefesh – saving a life.
Since the onset of the modern era of organ transplantation in the 1950s, leading rabbinic authorities from throughout the religious spectrum have seen in this new technology a new and effective means of fulfilling a divine mandate to save life – an obligation first expressed in the Torah itself: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Organ donation is a new means to fulfill an ancient, eternal religious duty: a mitzvah of the highest order. – from Synopsis of Teshuvah on Organ Donation, by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser (Conservative Movement)
However, that’s the big picture. What about the donation of corneas, which give vision to the blind but do not technically save a life? What about donations that will extend medical knowledge, but not immediately save a life? In such cases, I’m going to say this: talk to your rabbi. Not some random rabbi, not some rabbi on the Internet, but YOUR rabbi. Don’t have a rabbi? If you are serious enough about being Jewish to have such questions, then you are serious enough to need your own rabbi. Get one.
Know that the Internet is full of “authorities” who make all sorts of pronouncements. You can likely find someone who says anything you want to hear, whether that’s “anything is OK, don’t worry” to “no organ donations from a dead body ever, under any circumstances.” The Internet is the Wild West: anyone can call themselves “rabbi” but that doesn’t make them one, nor does it necessarily make them the right rabbi for you.
Questions like the ones above require conversations. You may say, “It’s a simple yes or no!” but no, it isn’t. A lot depends on how you understand Jewish law or tradition (and as much as some folks would like you to think there’s one proper way, no there is not – not even among Orthodox communities and rabbis) and a lot depends on the fine details of a situation. So you need to talk to a rabbi.
And now I hear it coming in the Comments: What do you think about the fine points, Rabbi Adar? What’s on your organ donation card? And here, because I so badly want you to get your own real live actual rabbi, I’m going to say, “None of your business.”
Bottom line: Judaism does not have a blanket condemnation of organ donations. In some situations, organ donation is a big mitzvah. For more than that, talk to your rabbi.
7 thoughts on “Organ Donation: A Jewish Take”
Aside from this extremely interesting and helpful post, you have given me a wonderful quote…..
“The Internet is the Wild West: anyone can call themselves “rabbi” but that doesn’t make them one, nor does it necessarily make them the right rabbi for you.”
……love, love, love, love, LOVE that.
Thank you, Rabbi Adar( apologies for calling you Rabbi Ruth before….I think I asked about that, but can’t recall – stroke memory stuff – and suspect that while it was in no way intended to be, it was a bit overfamiliar and such)
Thanks, Alex. As for the name thing, what we say here in the states is “Just don’t call me late for supper.”
I am glad that you liked it.
It is a very personal decision and I totally agree that those with a religious part to their lives may well find advice useful. Generally, donation is accepted by all the larger faiths but the decision to be a donor remains an individual’s. Thanks for that.
It’s also important that those individuals who are willing to be donors talk about their decision and their reasons with their nearest of kin. Too many transplants fail to happen because next of kin are unsure of the wishes of a donor, even when they have signed an organ donor card.
Thank you for reading and commenting!
In the jurisdiction that I oversee, if you are registered, irrespective of whether you have told your family or not, 95% of the time, the family say yes when told of your wish. Conclusion……SIGN UP.
This. So difficult, but important: I knew my husbands wishes. We were very….practical?…. about this, and similar matters. Perhaps partly due to his being older than I am, certainly partly because we really could discuss/tell one another/talk about anything; and when he beamed up, it wasn’t something which arose, for various reasons, but bereavement is a difficult enough thing to go through without adding things which can often be avoided in advance.
And I miss him so much….for me, the grief doesn’t so much lessen as take on a slightly different guise. It’s actually more painful, just in a different way.
(And I could write a book on ” what NOT to say to a bereaved person”, but that’s another matter…)
Thank you, Rabbi Ruth( autocorrect tried to change Ruth to Arbuthnot, for reasons known only to itself. An excellent old Scots name, to be sure, but not what I was aiming for…)
Thank you for sharing this, Alex. Your testimony says more than any essay I could write about the importance of letting loved ones know our wishes.