What does the Torah say about… Organ Donation?

With Rabbi Ariel Abel.

MAY WE donate organs according to halacha? In antiquity our ancestors were embalmed – the Egyptian custom was followed in the case of Jacob and Joseph. Their organs, including the brain, were disposed of to preserve a corpse for a lengthy period of time. In modern halacha there is no place for funerary aesthetics or make-up.

The body is washed and clad in garb reminiscent of priesthood and must not be desecrated in any way (nivul hamet). In spite of the importance of treating the body with respect, there is an imperative to donate, before or after death, as there are always lives to be saved. This imperative overrides concerns of leaving a whole body for burial or the possible desecra- tion of a body created in the image of God.

In the United States and Israel, the Halachic Organ Donor Society has the support of leading halachists who are card-carrying donors. Some abide by the definition of death as bradycardia (when the heart stops beating) and others consider brain stem death as halachic death.

This follows the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as reported by Rabbi Dr Moshe Tendler, whom I personally interviewed on this point some years ago at a United Synagogue Rabbis’ Conference. On that occasion, Rabbi Tendler insisted any hospital regulated by the Harvard criteria for termination of life – a seven stage process for turning off life support machinery – would run no risk of offending halachic standards regarding the preservation of life.

For some people they may have an odd feeling about one’s organs ending up inside someone else’s body. Is this a case of transferred identity in some way? This feeling is understandable, but when donating we are merely sharing the gift of life among His creations. A further impetus for donation is Kiddush Hashem. We are willing, as Jews in a society with many donating gentiles, to take organs when we need them, but less willing to give. When the reason for unwillingness to assist others to live is given as religious, it risks two outcomes: bringing the Torah into disrepute and causing others to discriminate in some way against us in reprisal.

As Jews, we must not transgress Torah in order to gain a social advantage. However, where there are secure ways to ensure we can make our contribution, and we avoid finding a halachic way through, zealousness for Torah begins to look like a factory of excuses for inaction.

 

• Rabbi Abel is consultant to the For Life Project