Mitzvah or ‘murder’? – top rabbi reignites organ donor dispute

Mitzvah or ‘murder’? – top rabbi reignites organ donor dispute

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

The current Welsh NHS organ donation cards
The current Welsh NHS organ donation cards

The debate over organ donation in the Jewish community was reignited last night after a senior London rabbi accused the Halachic Organ Donation Society of being involved in activities tantamount to murder, writes Justin Cohen.

Rabbinic authorities around the world differ on the definition of death, with some prominent figures accepting brain death as an acceptable definition while others – including the London Beth Din – ruling that death only occurs when the heart stops beating. New York-based HOD Society – which “accepts brain death as halachic death” and offer a donor card which is backed by hundreds of rabbis around the globe including the UK – this week received an email in response from educational organisation Kesher asking to be unsubscribed from its mailing list.

“I prefer not to support or learn about activities related to retzichah (tantamount to murder),” said the sender. HOD director Robby Berman said: “I called the organisation to find out who sent that email and Rabbi Simon confirmed that he sent it and also that in his view organ donation from a brain dead person is murder.

However for some odd reason he believes its ok for Jews to take organs from other brain dead people. I was shocked to hear a rabbi say I was involved in murder.”

In 2011, then Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks made clear that in basic terms Judaism viewed organ donation as a good thing, stressing the imperative for saving a life. But he faced criticism from some in medical circles after coming out against the holding of any type of donor card “since the national registry system is not set up to accommodate halachic requirements”.

He did however say the community was talking to the medical profession in the hope of increasing the number of organs donated in accordance with halacha.

Jewish News understand discussions are ongoing with  transplant authorities to ensure the concerns of faiths communities including Jews in organ donation process so more community members feel comfortable in signing up to be donors,

Berman claimed that the new chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, said from his former pulpit at Kinloss a few years ago that he believes halacha accepts brain death and that he would support organ donation if asked for a ruling.

The Chief Rabbi has not made any public pronouncements on the issue since coming to office six months ago, although he would be going against the Beth Din – which yesterday confirmed its position remain unchanged – if he were to take a different position to Lord Sacks. Berman claimed that two dozen of US rabbis who have signed up for a HOD card were currently choosing to remain anonymous but “are waiting to see what he says and does from his position to see if he stands up for what he believes in”.

The HOD card enables people to define death either brain death (neurological death) or heart death. “For any person who rejects brain death he or she can still affirm life by donating any life-saving organs possible upon cardiac death,” said Berman.

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