by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
As the Church of England encourages its members to be blood and organ donors, should we consider such acts a mitzvah?
Jewish law permits the living donation of body parts, and on the grounds of pikuach nefesh (preserving life) it also permits post-mortem donation – the only quibble is about when death happens. And yet there is a widespread misconception that organ donation is prohibited. The mitzvah of pikuach nefesh supersedes all but three commandments; only prohibitions against murder, idolatry and forbidden relations take precedence.
So why is there this reluctance to donate? Some feel it dishonours the corpse by needless mutilation, delaying burial or materially benefitting. They are not supported by tradition, which views saving one life as saving an entire world. Those who believe the body must be buried whole to ensure techiyat hametim (resurrection) are ignoring both the ancient Jewish practise of burying only the bones, and biblical text, as God asks Sarah: “Is anything too hard for God?”
Maybe it is time to see that donating blood and organs is not only acceptable, but it is also a Jewish imperative. It may help to see such donations in terms of being a mechayeh, the colloquial Yiddish term which dramatises the sense of restoration after having been feeling stressed and fading away. We often talk about mechayeh n’fashot, the revival of our soul, in trivial circumstances.
But the real meaning of the word – to bring back from near-death – is certainly one to describe offering others life through the gift of our body parts. It may help to see donation as techiyat hametim – regularly translated as resurrection and codified by Maimonides as his final principle of faith. This means “causing the dead to live”; it is only a short stretch to adapt this principle to include organ donation. For how do we best help the dying to live if not to give them the tissue and blood that they need? There is another principle – that of “zeh neheneh v’zeh lo chaser” – “this one benefits and the other does not lose”.
When we offer our body parts after death in order to help others live, or when we offer blood or kidney or bone marrow, or even part of our liver to a person who needs it, we do not lose, but the benefit to the other is immense. But maybe the best is to see donation like the freewill offerings in the Temple, the nedavah, which were given from altruistic impulse, rather than obligation. These were the most valued offerings and Leviticus devotes its first three chapters to them. When we offer from the best part of ourselves, we come closer to God. And if we want to call such an altruistic act a mitzvah when there are other names we could use – well, who would argue with one who saves a whole world?