When a non-Jewish friend told me she carried a donor card a few years ago, I decided to investigate and see what Judaism had to say on the subject. Nowadays most Orthodox rabbis are in favor of organ donation while some have reservations or are totally against it. In this post, I have deliberately chosen to present arguments that support it.
In his excellent book, The Jewish Way in Deat and Mourning, Rabbi Maurice Lamm starts by discussing organ donation. The reason behind this is that his book follows a chronological order and organ donation is an issue that needs to be dealt with as soon as someone dies.
Rabbi Lamm notes that in the past forty years Jewish Law has adapted to the medical realities of our time. Most transplantations nowadays are successful and Jewish Law has had to reconsider organ donation in the light of recent progress. Yet it seems that a lot of Jews still believe that organ donation is forbidden by Jewish law.
This misconcetion derives from three prohibitions concerning corpses:
– Desecrating a cadaver: Issur nivul hamet is a biblical prohibition that forbids the needless mutilation of a cadaver.
– Delaying burial of a cadaver: Issur halanat hamet is a biblical prohibition that forbids delaying the burial of a cadaver.
– Receiving benefit from a cadaver: Issur hana’at hamet5 is a biblical (some say rabbinic) prohibitionthat forbids deriving benefit from a cadaver.
Yet in Jewish Law, pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is of primary importance and overrides all other Halachic considerations except for murder, illicit sexual relations and idolatry.
This obligation is mainly based on the Torah verse “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16). The Talmud reinforces this prohibition by turning it into an obligation: “Every individual, in so far as he is able, is obligated to restore the health of a fellow man no less than he is obligated to restore a property” (Sanhedrin 73a). Maimonides also underlines this obligation in Hilkhot Rotzeah u’Shmirat Nefesh: “Anyone who is able to save a life, but fails to do so, violates ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor'”
Another major debate around organ donation concerns the definition of death. “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or(2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain-stem, is dead.”
The second definition is important since for the purposes of life saving transplantation – oragns need to be recovered before the heart stops beating. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America both accept brain stem death as halakhic death and support organ donation. In addition numerous poskim such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik accept brain-stem death as death and therefore allow and encourage organ donation.
In A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that one who is ready to donate organs should complete and carry a donor card. He believes it is particularly important in the case of those who die a violent death and whose relatives might not be aware of their opinion concerning organ donation and will thus be relieved of having to make the decision in place of the deceased.
–Halachic Organ Donor Society, a website. HODS’s aim is to purpose is to disseminate information regarding Halachic issues and Rabbinic opinions on organ donation.
– Organ Donation and Halacha, an educational pamphlet by the Halachic Organ Donor Society
– Done with Brain Death by Robby Berman, founder and director of the Halakhic Organ Donor Society
– The Jewish Way in Deat and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm
– A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
– The Deceased the Family and Organ Donation
– New Thoughts on the Brain Death Controversy
Special thanks to Larry Lennhoff who provided the last two links.